On Monday night, residents of West Hollywood called for John Duran to leave his position on the West Hollywood City Council after weeks of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
It was a deeply sobering moment. The native Angeleno boasts decades of advocacy work for the city’s gay and HIV-positive communities. Duran ceded his position as mayor of West Hollywood on Monday morning, citing health concerns, but this was less momentous than it would appear. The post of mayor is largely ceremonial, rotating each year among members of the council, and Duran has remarked that West Hollywood perceives him to be mayor no matter who holds the seat. He remains on the council, and he has no plans to resign from that post.
Taking a position against Duran would seem to be a simple enough thing. Yet many LGBTQ organizations—some of them tied to Duran’s rise in the elite of West Hollywood—have been silent on the fallout. Just two major organizations—the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Stonewall Democrats—have weighed in. The controversy raises questions about Gay Inc.’s willingness to confront the #MeToo movement—one that spurred national conversations about consent—when that movement lands on its own doorstep.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that three men had accused Duran of sexual misconduct while another settled a $500,000 claim against the city for sexual harassment. At the past two city council meetings, a number of men accused Duran of inappropriate advances.
One accuser, Cole Ettman, told the council that Duran had propositioned him.
“I told him I want to get involved the city. He said that’s great, but I want a blank blank blank,” Ettman said, redacting the conversation as he spoke.
Duran denies any wrongdoing. He has positioned himself as collateral damage of a sexphobic #MeToo era. A product of the 1970s, he recalls a lifetime fighting anti-gay stigma,and says he has championed equality with some of the leading local and national LGBTQ organizations.
It is not just the allegations, but Duran’s response to them, that have residents riled. In an interview with Splinter before Monday’s meeting, Duran reiterated controversial remarks he made during a recent radio interview, in which he claimed he was the only sexually active member of the council.
Duran directly named two colleagues who he said hadn’t had sex in 20 years, another he didn’t think dated much, and a fourth whom he characterized as sexually inactive due to being married.
“And by the way, there’s a complete distinction here between gay men and lesbians,” Duran added. “I think that you’ll find more levels of promiscuity and sexual activity on the male side of the gender divide. And on the female side, and I know this because I’ve talked to many lesbians and straight women over the decades, that women just interact sexually more from their mind.”
Councilmember John Heilman, an out gay man, declined to comment to Splinter on Duran’s latest remarks about the council, while Councilmember Lauren Meister characterized them as an unfortunate distraction for a city facing homelessness and traffic issues.
“I do not want to have to discuss my personal life as a result of my mayor talking about it in the press,” another councilmember, Lindsey Horvath, said during Monday’s public meeting.
The timing of the scandal is especially painful for West Hollywood, which is still reeling from the second death of a gay black man in the home of prominent Democratic donor Ed Buck in January. Investigations are ongoing and Buck has not been charged with a crime.
Residents have accused Duran of cozying up to Buck, which he denies. As an attorney, Duran previously worked for Buck and later accepted campaign money from him. Residents say the harassment allegations, coupled with Duran’s past dealings with Buck display a lack of empathy for sexual abuse victims.
Such a combination of factors would seem to make Duran an obvious candidate for the kind of full-throated denunciations and severing of ties that have greeted other men who have faced #MeToo accusations. But that is not what has happened. Instead, most prominent LGBTQ or LGBTQ-allied groups have stayed silent, and refused to explain why they won’t fully break with Duran.
In January, 50 LGBTQ organizations co-signed a letter urging investigations into Buck and asking councilmembers to return his campaign money. Among them were the Human Rights Campaign, the LGBTQ Task Force, the ACLU and Equality California.
Such groups have long advocated against sexual violence. The HRC opposed the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, as did the ACLU, an extraordinarily rare step for an organization that does not take stances on presidential nominees. Both cited sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh in their opposition.
None, however, would comment on the #MeToo allegations against Duran.
Duran helped found Equality California, and the organization backed his candidacy in 2017, praising him as “outstanding.” He served on the organization’s board for eight years. The group did not respond to three requests for comment on the allegations or its past support for Duran.
Duran also served on the boards of the ACLU, the LGBTQ Task Force and Lambda Legal. The ACLU and LGBTQ Task Force declined to comment. Lambda Legal did not respond specifically to the Duran allegations but said the organization has filed numerous court briefs against same-sex sexual harassment.
“We must never stop fighting for our community members here and for LGBT people across the nation,” he said.
The HRC did not respond to a request for comment about the current allegations.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center, which also called for an investigation into the deaths at Buck’s home, also declined to comment.
Not all LGBTQ groups have stayed silent. LGBTQ political organization the Victory Fund—which endorsed Duran’s bids for office at least four times—said current investigations would determine its future endorsement of Duran. Elliot Imse, the group’s senior director of communications, said all allegations of sexual harassment must be taken seriously and investigated.
“Continued unwelcome sexual advances are unacceptable and we would expect anyone – especially a public official – to be held to a higher standard than what was described in media reports,” Imse said.
The group Stonewall Democrats took an even harsher tone, accusing Duran of using gay culture to justify harassment. In a statement, the group urged him to resign.
“Mr. Duran’s rationalization trivializes the struggle of which he himself was an important part and ignores the pain and suffering and the sense of betrayal of people who have been subjected to offensive behavior from people in positions of power whom they admired” the organization said.
Duran concedes that he is bawdy. People signed up for that, he says.
“I get that there’s complaints to be taken seriously about sexual harassment, but not all sexual expression is sexual harassment,” he told Splinter. He noted that one of the allegations at council meeting came from a man who complained that Duran pursued his boyfriend on Grindr.
“It’s like, what’s your boyfriend doing or Grindr, and why are we talking about something I said to somebody two years ago?” Duran asked. “It’s become this pile-on at this point.”
Yolo Akili Robinson, the executive director of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, called the conversation in West Hollywood an opportunity to address sexual violence in gay male spaces.
“Gay male culture has yet to fully deal with how sexual assault and harassment is considered acceptable in our community spaces,” said Robinson, whose organization is funded in part by the #MeTooFund of the New York Women’s Foundation. “We often forget that gay men are men— and we are socialized with the same sexist entitled behaviors to other’s bodies that shows up in the unwanted comments, touch and assault with each other. But because we are men, we are just ‘expected’ to like it or excuse the harm.”
On Monday, councilmembers—which include out gay men Heilman and John D’Amico—voted to strip Duran’s city expense privileges and monitor his emails and meetings.
Residents pleaded with the divided council to officially censure Duran, reminding them that they voted last year to remove President Trump’s star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame due to his “disturbing treatment of women.” That vote was symbolic, given that the star is not even in West Hollywood.
Resident Estevan Montemayor said Duran had been a friend and mentor to him, but that that wasn’t enough.
“At the end of the day, we have to consider the actions that we have all witnessed, that some of us have been recipients of, including myself,” said Montemayor. “It’s unfathomable to me that we would not move forward with a censure of some kind… I think we need that to heal.”
Moments later, another resident jumped from his seat and ran toward the podium.
“When you have a colleague who has done something wrong, you censure him!” he said. “Do it now!”
In a symbol of the relative silence of LGBTQ groups on the issue, it was Horvath—a straight woman—who made the strongest comments about Duran on Monday.
She reminded West Hollywood residents that sexual harassment is not limited to male perpetrators and female victims. “It applies in all aspects of our culture, especially and including LGBT culture,” she said, adding, “When we see this behavior happen with people more distant from us, more different from us and perhaps with different political views than us, it’s been very easy to call things out. When it’s closer to home with people we know, it’s much more challenging, and I think that’s what we’re all struggling with.”
In the end, the council voted unanimously to sanction Duran. The group does not have the power to remove him.
Kate Sosin is an award-winning, LGBTQ news and investigative reporter.