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March 9, 2007

Activist and long-term survivor Bob Hattoy is gone

Sacramento, Calif--A political insider, gay equal rights activist, long term AIDS survivor and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton died March 3 of cardiac arrest at age 56.

Bob Hattoy became an instant celebrity in 1992 when he spoke to the Democratic National Convention at the request of then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton--the first openly gay person and the first person openly living with AIDS to address a national political convention, and in prime time.

Hattoy began his speech: “Thank you. I love you. Thank you, California. Thank you, gay and lesbian community. Thank you, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. Thank you, Aretha Franklin, God.”

Hattoy learned he had AIDS during the first months of the Clinton presidential campaign, where he was working on environmental policy.

Ten years after its discovery, AIDS was a national news item every day, and the contempt for people with AIDS and inaction by the first Bush administration was drawing protests in the street by ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which Hattoy was also part of.

Clinton wanted to make AIDS a campaign issue. Hattoy became the gay face of it.

Hattoy liked to describe himself as a “gay hippie anti-war radical” and joked that his move to the inside of the White House made him an “odd kid.”

Drawn to politics when he was young, Hattoy gave up a job as a waiter to work for Los Angeles councilor Zev Yaroslavsky, where he mediated rent control controversies and kept poor senior citizens from eviction. He also assisted in an investigation of the city’s police department’s spying practices.

Hattoy then moved to San Francisco to work on gay-related issues.

He was hired by the Sierra Club in 1983. There, he learned the political inside game. He became a top lobbyist who did a lot of public speaking, and his wit began commanding headlines.

It was during those years that Hattoy also met a young lawyer named Hillary Clinton, a relationship which led to Bill’s presidential campaign, the transition team and eventually to a position in the West Wing of the White House before becoming Clinton’s liaison to the Department of the Interior, where he remained for more than six years.

For much of his Clinton administration tenure, Hattoy also acted as a de facto AIDS and gay community liaison--a role that often got him in trouble with what he called “the straight white guys that ran the place.”

Hattoy mastered strategic leaking of information and despite his position, never lost the edginess or the fight he learned on the streets with ACT UP.

In 1993 when Navy man Allan Schindler was murdered for being gay by fellow sailors, Hattoy went to the microphones and spoke as a Clinton administration official against the act and the plight of gay service members.

He was fond of recalling the time he was summoned to the Oval Office for a presidential scolding. It was 1993 and the effort to drop the military gay ban was not going well.

Hattoy ran into a New York Times reporter and filled his ear with displeasure, including a remark about gay people being treated like hairdressers and decorators by the administration he worked for.

That comment made the Times’ front page the next day and earned the wrath of the president who, though he had given a major policy speech, was pushed inside the paper.

Hattoy later said that Clinton was most upset that he got upstaged without permission.

Hattoy also ended up a target of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation during Clinton’s second term, because Starr thought Hattoy was working too hard to recruit gays and lesbians to work in the administration.

Hompohobic North Carolina senator Jesse Helms once called him “Homo Hattoy” on the floor of the Senate.

Hattoy visited Ohio in October, 1995 to help boost this reporter’s congressional campaign and give the keynote speech at the Stonewall Cleveland annual dinner.

He appeared at a Canton Urban League fundraiser for the candidate, then at a reception with gay students and the Knox County Democratic Party at Kenyon College.

At the Cleveland dinner, which was held at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, Hattoy, true to form, jokingly chided the group for putting up someone with AIDS in the Terminal Tower. He then regaled all with personal stories from inside the White House, including his theory that he was given the Interior post because they thought he would die soon.

He also told of a time he explained glory holes to Bill Clinton while riding in the presidential limousine.

Hattoy visited Cleveland again in 2002 for a National Stonewall Democrats convention. He was a periodic guest on Buck Harris’ WERE radio show The Gay ’90s.

Gay conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan, whom Hattoy often sparred with, wrote: “He was a fantastically funny, pathologically indiscreet, wildly irresponsible, AIDSy queen with great hair. And he had more integrity in his little finger than all the other gays in the Clinton administration put together.”

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean said, “Aside from being a fierce advocate on causes ranging from LGBT rights and HIV issues, to civil liberties and the environment, Bob Hattoy was a wonderfully charming man with a tremendous sense of humor. Most of all, Bob was a friend and mentor to so many.”

“Bob wasn’t afraid to champion the Democratic Party, and to do so loudly,” said Stonewall Democrats executive director Jo Wyrick. “But, just as he unequivocally championed Democrats, he also unapologetically challenged them. Bob needled our politicians, pressed his friends in positions of power, and picked up the Democratic Party in order to kick it forward whenever it fell down on its promise to fully support LGBT Americans.”

Per Hattoy’s wishes, he was cremated and there is no memorial service. He left instructions with his best friend Bob Pelham that celebrations of his life be held in the four cities he considered home: Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Personal tributes are being collected by Poz magazine for a future obituary.




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