Karen Ocamb

Remembering Scott Hitt

Filed By Karen Ocamb | November 13, 2007 7:15 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Democratic Party, HIV/AIDS, LGBT politics, President Bill Clinton, R. Scott Hitt

scott hitt (l) and alex.jpg

My first memory of R. Scott Hitt - the prominent AIDS doctor who passed away from colon cancer on Nov. 8 - was watching him work the room during a fundraiser for San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith. He was gracious and comfortable - but also slightly nervous as the host of the gathering in the Hollywood Hills home that he shared with his partner Alex Koleszar.

It was 1990 and the new group ANGLE - Access Now for Lesbian and Gay Equality - had just hosted a fundraiser for Harvey Gantt - the African American challenger to hysterically antigay North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. Some ANGLE members had attended fundraisers for Gantt at straight homes and reported back that he included gays and lesbians in his regular campaign remarks.

That was a turning point in LGBT politics in Los Angeles.

Diane Abbitt - the first woman co-chair of MECLA (the nation's first LGBT political action committee) - stood up on a makeshift stage overlooking Hitt's pool and the city of Los Angeles - and declared that she would no longer give money to any candidate who did not include gays and lesbians by name in their campaign. Poor Arlo was shocked - he was a good friend to the gay community.

But this wasn't about him - it was about Dianne Feinstein and any other candidate who asked for gay money and support behind closed doors but thought actually talking about gays in public was political suicide. At the time Feinstein was running for California governor against moderate Republican Peter Wilson who - unlike Feinstein - promised to sign the gay rights bill. Of course, he also did that behind closed doors - but many gays were so sick and tired of being taken for granted by the Democrats that they either sat out the election or voted for Wilson.

That night was the first time in my nascent career as an LGBT journalist that I witnessed checkbook activists in action. They were just as angry as the ACT UPers and Queer Nationals - but their strategy was to use the mother's milk of politics - money - as a means of protest and pushing a progressive gay agenda for equality.

In 1991, when Gov. Wilson vetoed AB 101 - the gay rights bill - Scott was among the thousands who showed up night after night to protest through the streets of L.A.. And that's how he responded - as one of many - listening intently to the various leaders who'd emerged during the protests.

By then I knew Scott as one of the co-founders (with Dr. Joel Weisman, co-author with Dr. Michael Gottlieb of the famous 1981 CDC report on the six gays with AIDS in Los Angeles) of the important Pacific Oaks Medical Group. I was constantly amazed how these AIDS docs kept it together while the rest of us fell apart in our own ways dealing with so many loved ones slipping through our fingers and so much grief and death and the utter cruelty of an uncaring government and society.

I asked Robbie Jenkins about this at Paul Monette's memorial - he was Paul's AIDS doctor, as well as Michael Callen's, for whom I was a care-provider. We commiserated - reporters and doctors are not supposed to get emotionally involved - but as part of the community, we often do. Robbie subsequently left L.A. for Hawaii where he lived well, but couldn't shake his private grief and committed suicide.

Scott Hitt's house became ANGLE's meeting place where the politicos from numerous backgrounds strategized about how to push the envelope. In 1991, in the middle of the push for the gay rights bill, ANGLE started interviewing Democratic presidential candidates. David Mixner writes extensively about this time in his book Stranger Among Friends. One of those candidates was the Arkansas governor and Mixner friend from the anti-Vietnam War days, Bill Clinton. After the ANGLE meeting Clinton told the Los Angeles Times that if he had been governor of California, he would have signed AB 101.

Scott began to hone his penchant for aggressive fundraising. After ANGLE decided to endorse Clinton, there was a meeting of fundraisers with Clinton senior advisors about how to raise money for a major dinner right after the New Hampshire primary - one month away. Scott told Mixner that ANGLE should commit to raising $50,000 in exchange for being a dinner co-chair, having Clinton attend a reception with the gay community and having ANGLE's name spelled out on the invitations. Mixner worried that might be too risky - what if they failed? They'd be written off. Scott insisted. ANGLE raised $75,000. The reception was very powerful - and personal - and gays accounted for about 100 of the more than 600 people that attended that dinner, hosted by Warren Christopher, which I attended.

Scott also helped put together and spoke at the famous event at the Palace Theater in Hollywood where Clinton became the first presidential candidate to speak publicly to a gay crowd.

"We had a last minute discussion before he came out to make his speech. We told him that probably half of the audience was HIV-positive and would probably die of AIDS in the next couple of years. His eyes got very wide, it clearly moved him that so many healthy-appearing people were infected and helping out his campaign," Scott told me for a special AIDS at 25 feature for IN Los Angeles magazine.

During the speech, Clinton said, "I have a vision and you're a part of it." He called for a "real war on AIDS" and a "Manhattan Project" where one person who has the president's ear would be in charge and cut across all departments and agencies and implement the recommendations of two commissions gathering dust in Washington D.C. He also pledged to have an HIV positive speaker at the Democratic Convention. (There were two: Bob Hattoy and Elizabeth Glaser).

At the end of his speech, Clinton departed from his prepared remarks and, to the shock of many, "thanked the gay and lesbian community for their courage in the face of terror" and sharing the hard knowledge gained about HIV/AIDS with other communities and "the whole nation benefited." With an emotional gesture, Clinton said, "If I could wave my arm and take away your pain, I would give up my race. I would do that." However, he cautioned, there are things that can and cannot be done.

"AIDS made things very time sensitive," Scott said. "It could take 20 years for equality in the military. But with AIDS, there was a sense that we didn't have time."

Scott viewed the constant ACT UP disruptions during Clinton's campaign as "very necessary and very helpful in putting pressure on the Bush Administration and on Clinton to keep his promises."

"A lot happened between 1992 and 1995," Scott said, "when Clinton established the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA)," which Scott lobbied for and Vice President Al Gore asked Scott to chair. "I was convinced the president wanted the honest advice of good groups of people to tell him what needed to be done" as the epidemic changed.

"We kept a critical stance. We were not cheerleaders for the president. We told him when he'd done something good and we also held his feet to the fire. Even in the most tense of times over the years, he reminded me that was what our job was."

pacha2.jpgScott worked quickly as PACHA chair, making sure that people with AIDS were consulted and on the board, as well as people of color and from various regional areas. He also worked to build consensus around an eight-point plan, which Clinton accepted. One point was to hold a nationally televised White House Conference on AIDS, which Scott helped organize and produce in December 1995.

It's important to remember the times: twelve days before the conference, the Centers for Disease Control announced that a half million Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS, more than 300,000 had died and it was predicted that every day 120 more would die, another 160 would be diagnosed and nearly 140 would become HIV infected. Meanwhile the Food and Drug Administration had just approved he first protease inhibitor in the fastest time ever for the agency - 90 days.

"Our common goal must ultimately be a cure, a cure for all those who are living with HIV, and a vaccine to protect all the rest of us from the virus. A cure and a vaccine, that must be our first and top priority," Clinton said, speaking to several hundred of us in the Old Executive Office building and on C-Span. "We have to reduce the number of new infections each and every year until there are no more new infections. And we all have to do that."

We all got goosebumps hearing that. Scott told me that the administration staff took that as not mere rhetoric, but as instructions. When I asked him whatever happened to the idea of a "Manhattan Project" for AIDS, Scott said that was the Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health, which also housed an Office of Alternative Medicine.

Scott ran through a number of AIDS Czars - starting with Kristine Gebbie, who was nice enough, but ineffectual and mired in buro-think. I remember Scott taking her on a tour of AIDS Project Los Angeles - he was on the board of directors - and specifically telling her that HIV/AIDS was moving into the people of color communities and while gay men had funded AIDS service agencies thus far, the government needed to understand the shift because the funding might not continue to be there. Enter Patsy Fleming, who seemed to understand the language of the activists - but became belligerent when questioned about follow up actions - or at least that was my experience.

Finally Clinton appointed Sandy Thurman - a gregarious blond who did get it, having come from an ASO herself. But she ran smack up against Clinton's Drug Czar - Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who tried to scare the shit out of everyone. That set up a major confrontation over needle exchange.

This was a very big deal. Despite several scientific studies proving its effectiveness, neither Clinton nor Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala would move. In 1993, for instance, Dr. Peter Lurie published a Government-funded survey that estimated that 33 people were infected daily as a result of intravenous drug use, according to the New York Times. By April 1998, Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher said that 40% new AIDS infections were directly or indirectly attributed to dirty needles; a 75% rate of infection among women and children. Lurie estimated that 17,000 lives could have been saved had Clinton lifted the ban in 1992.

Furious that Clinton lacked the political will to "follow the science" as he promised, in March 1998, PACHA called a press conference to issue a vote of "no confidence" in the president. On April 21, 1998, convinced that lifting the ban "would send the wrong message" about drug use to the nation's children, Clinton refused to budge.

'At best this is hypocrisy,'' Scott told reporters. ''At worst, it's a lie. And no matter what, it's immoral.''

The failure to act to save human lives based on politics, Scott told me, "was no different than the government's failure to act in Rwanda or Darfur today. The failure to act when you know better is immoral. And to this day, they still haven't done it."

Half of PACHA resigned in protest, but Scott stayed on because, he told me, there were so many other issues to work on, including housing for PWAs.

While Scott was a prominent AIDS doctor and political activist - he was no choirboy. His organizational skills also included a more than occasional bout of control freak-ism. Some didn't like his and ANGLE's bundling of fundraising dollars and mailing out a political scorecard. Scott told me he thought bundling and the scorecard were significant signs of political maturation for the community. He could be gentle and sweet and understanding with a patient one minute and brusk with an employee the next. Some patients thought he saved their lives; others thought he shortened them. His friends wrote off his foibles and peccadilloes as, "Oh, that's just Scott." His not-friends called him egotistical and narcissistic.

I was never a patient of Scott's - but I was always taken by his refreshing honesty in what the profession did not know. The virus kept mutating and the science kept changing - suddenly medication "vacations' were a good thing. The next day continual adherence was the only way to fight the disease. This not-knowing was one of the reasons he founded the American Academy of HIV Medicine and pushed legislation that Gov. Gray Davis signed into law in 2002 requiring that anyone who wanted to call themselves an AIDS specialist needed to pass the AAHM credentialing process. Before that, anyone could hang out a shingle and call themselves an AIDS doctor.

One incident with entertainment mogul Barry Diller really shook the AIDS establishment. In 1994, California was considering a single-payer initiative to create a healthcare system similar to Canada. Scott advised APLA to oppose the measure - noting that it called for an ELECTED Health Commissioner with immense authority to negotiate provider fees and drug prices, and put cost-containment limits on elective care and increase co-payments. Both Pete Wilson and his Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown (and the state Democratic Party) opposed the initiative. They were particularly mindful of the right-wing Republican machine sweeping both the country and the California Legislature and balked at spending tons of money for an off-year election with a built-in GOP voter base. But progressives and a number of AIDS activists wanted it.

This is more complicated than I'm reporting it at the moment - but suffice it to say that when Stuart Timmons heard about Scott's presentation to APLA, he wrote a 7,000-word story in a free alternative weekly (that subsequently disappeared) presumably delineating a conspiracy between Scott and David Mixner to get APLA to defeat the measure. I received numerous complaints from people who claimed they were taken out of context or had their quotes "cut to fit" Stuart's pre-conceived bias so I wound up writing a piece for balance.

However, Stuart's story was widely circulated and - as I understood it at the time - Diller showed up at his one and only APLA board meeting and read Scott the riot act. Scott resigned from the board shortly thereafter. I'm sure more will be revealed about this as time goes on.

1999 turned out to be hell-year. Scott was diagnosed with colon cancer and told he didn't have long to live. He resigned from PACHA - though he continued to push for needle exchange - pressing me to confront Rep. Richard Gephardt, a prospective Democratic presidential candidate, about raising the issue in Congress - he said he would. I don't know if he actually did.

"My life fell apart," Scott told the L.A. Times in 2002 after he was accused of molesting two male patients in 2000. He said he did "things I regret" because of the cancer, which required three surgeries in 45 days plus chemo and his judgment was impaired. He stopped seeing patients, left Pac Oaks, and sought treatment in a recovery program for what he later admitted to me was sexual addiction.

In 2004 the California Medical Board suspended his license for 60 days and gave him seven years of probation with required ethics courses. He surrendered his license in May after being arrested on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance. I don't think Scott was ever formally charged with anything.

By then I had known Scott long enough and through my work he had come to trust me. So I asked him what the hell happened. "I...have learned a lot more about myself," he told me. "I sorted out a lot of my issues, including my childhood molestation and rape by [a family member] and the death of my mother from cancer at the same age that I was diagnosed."

He agreed that his own personal sexual abuse was no excuse for being sexually inappropriate with two patients. "I cannot say, 'Because of A, B, and C, I did D.' I can only say that I have done a lot of searching," Scott said, including the fact that he still hid pockets of internalized homophobia.

"It would be a terrible shame if this is what he is remembered for," Martin Delaney, the founder of Project Inform in San Francisco, told The Times. "Whatever misdeeds he committed have to be weighed against the good that he has done and continues to do. He's an important member of our community."

Something Alex told the L.A. Times in 1994 haunts me. "A lot of people see Scott as an enigma, as some sort of machine that goes nonstop, that doesn't know how to turn itself off," Alex said. "It's like he's almost afraid to stop. Because if he did, and acknowledged the emotionally volatile issues around him, seeing his friends die on a daily basis, it would be too much for him."

As a recovering alcoholic and drug addict myself, I know something about the power of addiction - and the power of recovery, redemption, and forgiveness. Scott spent the remainder of his days still fighting - for marriage equality on the board of Equality California, for special political candidates, for medical students who want to be AIDS specialists, and for youth who want to be LGBT leaders.

Scott Hitt died a painful, agonizing death, surrounded by Alex, family and friends who never lost sight of the greater man. May he now, finally, rest in peace.

Scott's memorial will be held Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, at 3:00pm at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church Hollywood.

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Thank you for this post, Karen. As a community we so rarely record our own histories. While I didn't know Scott personally, I was an AIDS activist during the Clinton years and it's always nice to see the other pieces of the puzzle.

Thanks for this, Karen. I read a small obituary on Friday that didn't do justice.

Karen - thanks for reminding us so eloquently that one person's life is never something you can summarize in a headline, or in a paragraph.

Karen ---

While living in Los Angeles during the '80's and '90's, I had the pleasure to meet Scott and sit in his audiences on several occasions, most often at the medical AIDS Update seminars that he conducted in conjunction with Dr. Mark Katz, Dr. Neil Schramm, and Kaiser Permanente --- about the time when Rotonavir and the other initial protease inhibitor drugs began to appear. I have friends who attended the fundraising events that he and Alex hosted at their home, although I myself never accepted invitations I had received from ANGLE to attend.

Your profile of Scott is far more eloquent, comprehensive and piercing than mine could be. I can say that I had a great admiration for Scott, as well as a from-a-distance element of affection. His energy seemed bottomless. When introducing him to the podium one evening, Dr. Katz said that Scott is "everything an outstanding AIDS doctor ought to be," and, despite the learning we now have of his weaknesses, that was so close to true. Since you have already revealed his sex addiction and recovery activities, I also feel free to say that I attended several such meetings with him and heard some of his stories that reflected the pain and soul-searching he was going through. At one meeting he gave me his home phone number and said I could call him for a support talk, even if I needed to at 6 AM on a weekday --- a remarkably generous offer considering the work schedule he had to maintain.

I was shocked and deeply saddened to read of his death recently, and I didn't know about the colon cancer until reading it here. Not unlike our respective homes, I was only a modest foot soldier ambling through the work-a-day valley mud, while Scott was a General orchestrating battalions from The Hill. Among our many fallen soldiers in the War on AIDS and in the GLBT fight for equality, Scott is undoubtedly one of our most talented, dedicated, courageous, and memorable. I will miss him greatly.

Thank you all for commenting. I haven't spoken with Alex yet - though I sent him the story and the link. But I suspect he's still grieving - as you know, even when you know the end is coming, it's still a shock when it finally happens.

And final arrangements are being made for Scott's memorial at St. Thomas Episcopal Church Hollywood - which, BTW, was one of the first mainline churches to reach out to PWAs. In fact, there were so many people with AIDS, that the church voted to change the huge crucified Jesus at the front of the church to the risen Christ so they could contemplate the world awaiting them instead of the agony they were going through.

This was also the church were Paul Monette finally reconciled his own fait before his death....

Anyway - I appreciate all the comments and I'm sure Alex will too.

Thanks -
Karen O.

Michael Poss | December 2, 2007 4:47 AM

Karen, many blessings to you:

Your profile page on Dr. Scott Hitt is commendable. Dr. Hitt was my primary physician for many, many years at Pacific Oaks Medical Group. I recall a time when I was concerned of HIV discrimination and possible termination in the profession I was working in and how Dr. Scott Hitt- as busy as he was - patiently listened to my worries - held my hand and gave words of hope and wise advise. I'm one of many of his patients who give praise and thanks to Dr. Scott Hitt because Scott kept me alive with various promising new meds just in the nick-of-time for the very first Protease Inhibitor which became available via pre-market. As far as the sex scandal thing... Dr. Hitt never made any advances on me - though I had many fantasies about him - his gorgeous smile and sense of humor always made me realize - above all else - there's hope. Life is ironically and unpredictably strange when one realizes one's mortality - here was a man, Dr. Hitt, my doctor, who had compassion and concern for his patients such as myself - who died before those he fought for - such as myself.

With Love and Many Blessings with Prayers to Scott, Alex, and The Hitt Family,
- Michael Poss