Advocate founderAristide 'AJ' Laurent dies

  • by Cynthia Laird
  • Wednesday November 2, 2011
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Aristide J. ("AJ") Laurent, a pioneer in the gay rights movement and a founder of the Advocate newspaper, died at his home in Los Angeles on October 26 after a long illness, friends announced. He was 70.

Mr. Laurent helped start the Los Angeles Advocate in 1967, working alongside Richard Mitch (Dick Michaels), Bill Rau, and Sam Allen, who had taken over the Pride newsletter and renamed it. Mr. Laurent, then working at ABC Television with Rau and Allen, helped produce early issues of the Advocate in the studio's basement print shop and wrote a nightlife column ("Mariposas de la Noche") under the pseudonym "P. Nutz."

At the time, everyone on the paper used pseudonyms, he once noted.

"It was dangerous to be a 'pervert' prior to the liberation movement. You didn't use your real name for fear of reprisals, not only harassment by the LAPD, but the ever-present possibility of losing your day job, family and friends," he wrote in a 2007 blog marking the publication's 40th anniversary.

When the Advocate was sold and relocated to the Bay Area in 1975, he moved with it, but Mr. Laurent didn't stay long. He returned home shortly afterward and helped start NewsWest, a Los Angeles-based newspaper intended to fill the void left by the Advocate's departure. NewsWest folded in 1977.

Mr. Laurent was at the forefront of many marches and several causes, including the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967 he participated in pre-Stonewall "Black Cat" protests against police harassment of gays. In the 1980s, he was part of the ACT UP movement that fought indifference to the AIDS crisis. In 1993, he attended the historic gay march on Washington. But it was an act of charity that got him in trouble with the Los Angeles Police Department.

In 1975 Mr. Laurent was one of 40 arrested during a charity "slave auction" benefiting the Gay Community Services Center held at the Mark IV Bathhouse in Hollywood. The raid, which deployed more than 100 officers and cost a reputed $150,000, became a public relations disaster for the police and a rallying point for the gay community. Felony slavery charges against those arrested were later dismissed.

Son of the soil

Mr. Laurent was born in Magnolia Springs, Alabama in 1941, the son of Duval "Buck" Laurent, a farm hand, and Elizabeth "Betty" Weeks, who tended the family's livestock and garden. He was an altar boy and choir leader at his local parish, St. John's Catholic Church, and taught catechism to younger children. He spent summer months picking and shipping gladiolas at the farm where his father worked.

After graduating from Weeks High School in 1960, Laurent joined the United States Air Force, where he served four years. He was a signals intelligence operator in Karamursel, Turkey, and later taught new recruits at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi.

Mr. Laurent's sexual orientation was an issue during and after his service. He was investigated by Air Force officials during his service in Turkey and questioned by federal agents after his discharge, he recounted. Despite threats, he refused to inform on other gay service members and remained proud of his military service. He held a sign at the 1993 March on Washington that featured a copy of his honorable discharge under the words, "I Served My Country! Did Rush Limbaugh?"

In the 1980s, Mr. Laurent purchased a printing firm serving the entertainment industry. In 1996 he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and given two years to live. "Thanks to the prayers and support of friends and family – and some highly qualified medical professionals – I have lived many years past the doctors' predictions," he wrote in a letter released after his death.

Despite his illness, Mr. Laurent remained active. He indulged his love of gardening and wrote emails to a wide circle of friends and online acquaintances, providing passionate commentary on the news of the day and humorous updates on his life and treatment. He developed an interest in genealogy and embraced his Creole (mixed race) heritage. Many relatives who identified as white were shocked when they saw their family trees in his meticulously researched histories.

Friends said that Mr. Laurent spent his final months in hospice care with several caretakers and "my loyal band of crazy friends." In his final letter, he wrote, "If you are reading this I'm dead. Deader, as the saying goes, than vaudeville. But don't feel sorry for me, I've had a truly blessed life."

Mr. Laurent is survived by his nieces, Tina Weeks and Natalie Dykes of Magnolia Springs, a nephew, Kevin Weeks of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and hundreds of friends and "cousins" around the country.

Services will be held at St. John's Catholic Church in Magnolia Springs on November 5. Memorial contributions may be sent to Best Friends Animal Society,