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AIDS @ 30: Activist Bob Hattoy

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Robert Keith Hattoy was born on Nov. 1, 1950 in Providence, R.I., and was open about his homosexuality for as long as he could remember. He was the son of a mechanical engineer and a school registrar. Hattoy became politically active protesting the Vietnam War; he said he considered politics a form of lifesaving.

Hattoy bounced around different colleges in seven years but never earned a degree. After working at Disneyland he landed his first political job in the mid 1970s with the California Democratic Party, spending three years as an aide to Zev Yaroslavsky, a Los Angeles City Council member.

In 1981 Mr. Hattoy found a calling at the Sierra Club where he worked for a decade on environmental justice and as a regional director for the club for the states of California and Nevada. When President Ronald Reagan proposed opening the California shoreline to oil drilling, Hattoy worked on forming a coalition of people and organizations across the social and political spectrum to oppose the plan.

After working for the Sierra Club for a decade, he joined Bill Clinton's campaign for president and became his leading environmental advisor in 1992. He came to Washington with the Clinton team as a 41-year-old openly gay man with AIDS. His very presence connected the new President to a population that had never been represented in the White House before.

Clinton asked Hattoy to deliver an AIDS speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. The speech was nationally televised and made him a forceful advocate for gays and lesbians in the Clinton White House. The speech at the convention came 11 years into the epidemic, though the White House under the Reagan and first Bush administrations had waited years to publicly acknowledge AIDS and mount a public health response.

At the Democratic National Convention of 1992 Hattoy said, "We are part of the American family ( addressing then President George H.W. Bush ) and Mr. President, your family has AIDS and we are dying and you are doing nothing about it." He went on to say, "I don't want to die, but I don't want to live in an America where the President sees me as the enemy. I can face dying because of a disease, but not because of politics."

According to a New York Times article from March 6, 2007 by Tim Weiner, Hattoy's words riveted a nationwide audience. In the article Michael Petrelis, a writer and activist, said "Bob Hattoy gave people with AIDS and gays in America hope with that speech."

In a San Francisco Chronicle article about Hattoy from March 6, 2007 by Wyatt Buchanan, a founding member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power ( ACT UP ) , Eric Sawyer, called the speech "revolutionary" and said it reflected the independent streak that guided his work. Sawyer said, "Bob was one of the few insiders who was consistently vocal on behalf of people with AIDS, on the true situation of people with AIDS, what the real needs were and he wasn't afraid to criticize." In the New York Times article by Weiner, Richard Socarides, who was special assistant to Clinton in charge of gay and lesbian policies, said "He was an agitator in the best sense of the word. Bob often meant trouble because Bob was never satisfied.

In a New York Times article from June 6, 1993 by Richard Berke, Hattoy said, "Yuppies, young kids, come up to me at the White House and say: 'It's so great what's happened to you, Bob. All that fame from your AIDS speech.' And I'll say, 'Well, thank you, but there's a down side.' And they'll say, 'What's that?' And I'll say, 'I have AIDS'. And believe me, I would trade with them. I would rather work in a bakery and not have AIDS than work in the White House with it."

In an article from The Los Angeles Times from Sept. 11, 1995, Faye Fiore said that Hattoy, as Associate Director of White House personnel, had the Administration's ear. He was in the loop and AIDS was his cause. From 1994 to 1999 Hattoy was White House liaison to the Interior Department. Clinton also named him to the Presidential Commission on HIV/AIDS. In 2002, he was appointed to the California Fish and Game Commission and in April 2007 he was appointed president.

According to his longtime friend and former partner Bob Pelham, Hattoy died March 4, 2007 from cardiac arrest brought on by a bone marrow infection while he was recovering from an AIDS-related illness. "We have lost a pioneer, a leader, and a friend," said former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York in a joint statement released to the press.

The Clintons went on to say, "Bob Hattoy devoted his life to the fight for civil rights and social justice for the gay community and people living with AIDS. We will always be grateful for his courageous and moving speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and afterward for his years of dedicated service in the administration. He gave hope to a community that feared their voice would never be heard at the highest levels of government."

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.

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