Esteemed doctor had true ax to grind
By Pat Sherman| GSD Editor
Nov. 29, 1988
On the Radio: The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”; Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine”
New York Times Best Seller List: Anne Rice’s “The Queen of the Damned”; Steven Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”
In the Oval Office: Ronald Reagan and President-elect George H. W. Bush
Campaign clunker: Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau wrote of Huey Lewis and the News’
“Small World” CD (which George H.W. Bush played at campaign rallies that year): “Miffed when the
Dems rejected the title tune as a campaign song—‘It just doesn’t rock hard enough,’ an unidentified Harvard pol
complained—Huey offered it to George Bush.” The album was voted by Rolling Stone readers as the worst of 1988.
Each year on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) the County of San Diego’s Public Health Services Department hosts a ceremony to honor the memory of Dr. Allan “Brad” Truax, in whose name awards are given to leaders in the local fight against HIV and AIDS. The predominantly gay and lesbian San Diego Democratic Club also gives an award named for Truax, who served an unprecedented four years as the club’s president.
Though many hear Truax’s name invoked this time of year, few are probably aware of his enduring contributions to San Diego’s fight for LGBT equality.
Longtime San Diego attorney and activist Bridget Wilson, who once worked as a nurse in Truax’s Hillcrest medical practice, believes it is a historical injustice that should be corrected.
Despite his at times abrasive personality, Wilson said, Truax set himself apart from the grassroots activists of the 1970s and ’80s, using his eminence as a doctor to put San Diego’s gay community on the political map.
“He was a cantankerous and difficult personality at times,’” Wilson recalled. “Yet, at the same time, he had the ability to do what you needed to do to get things done, so the political legitimacy of the gay community grew extensively under him. He was a pivotal figure in transitioning San Diego’s LGBT community from kind of the land of bars into the boardroom.”
Truax graduated from Duke University in 1968, earning his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in 1972. He arrived in San Diego during the 1970s, where he served as a Navy flight surgeon stationed at Naval Air Station Miramar. He enjoyed skydiving and specialized in diving and aviation medicine.
Truax’s military career was cut short in 1977, when a fellow officer ordered a Naval Investigative Service inquiry into rumors that he was gay. During the inquiry, Truax neither admitted nor denied his sexual orientation, and received an honorable discharge.
He went on to open a private practice in Point Loma, and later in Hillcrest, on Third Ave. In an Oct. 11, 1987 interview with the San Diego Union, Truax said that while he enjoyed his time in the Navy, his discharge became a “motivating factor” in his life.
“Being thrown out of the Navy changed him; that’s what made him an activist,” she said. “The best thing the United States Navy ever did for us was throw Brad Truax out. It motivated this man to become a catalyst for change.”
Bill Beck, who was honored this year in the state capital for his philanthropy and fundraising work within the LGBT community, credits Truax (once his doctor) for getting him politically engaged.
“I hadn’t done any fundraising,” Beck said. “Brad asked me to join a couple of things and kind of started me on the road.”
Through Truax, Beck got involved in USDEC, a nonpartisan political action committee Truax formed within the LGBT community, which helped fund the defeat of several antigay state propositions. Beck recalled attending fundraisers on yachts organized by Truax.
Wilson characterized Truax as a “dogged fundraiser.”
“He would talk to people in no uncertain terms about paying their ‘gay taxes,’” she said. “He would go to men who normally wouldn’t have written checks. A lot of his cachet was his access to gay men with money. He was able to bring those checks to the mainstream politicians. He had the style, and the background, I think, to communicate and negotiate with those types of politicians.”
In 1983, Truax endorsed Republican Roger Hedgecock for mayor—a move many in the community regarded with an equal measure of disdain and suspicion.
Truax often clashed with traditional LGBT activists, such as the time he sided with the County Board of Supervisors to enact health regulations that would essentially close the bathhouses.
Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, following a county hearing on the bathhouse issue, activist Albert Bell, founder of San Diego’s Act-Up chapter, directly eluded to Truax: “For six years of this epidemic, those leaders have been negotiating, talking in the back room and making deals—working behind the scenes—and they have produced nothing.”
After resigning as mayor in 1985 (pleading guilty to one count of felony conspiracy on allegations of money laundering), Hedgeock would move on to a career as a right-wing, anti-gay radio host.
However, back when Truax urged the LGBT community to support Hedgecock’s mayoral campaign, the candidate couldn’t have been sweeter—or more duplicitous, Wilson recalled.
“Hedgecock stood in rooms and went on and on about how he was our friend and how much he supported us,” she said. “He was happy to take the money and happy to take the votes.”
In 1983, Hedgecock appointed Truax to coordinate the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS, though the group would ultimately disband after receiving little funding or support.
Hedgecock’s last show of support for the LGBT community was conveyed at a roast of Truax during the San Diego Democratic Club’s 1985 Freedom Awards banquet—an event Hedgecock had previously said he was too busy to attend.
Outside the Hyatt Islandia Hotel, Santee Pastor Dorman Owens had amassed a group of protestors clutching signs with the image of a skeleton climbing out of a coffin, and the words: “AIDS—out of the closet.”
In a Sept. 12, 1985 article in the San Diego Gayzette, Hedgecock is quoted at the banquet stating, “I guess sometimes, even in this crazy world of politics, you’ve got to stand up and say that hate is a greater sin than anything else.”
Wilson, one of those “roasting” Truax that night, said her friend took Hedgecock’s eventual betrayal—including a failed promise to appoint him to the Port Commission—hard.
“He was immensely distressed by Hedgecock’s duplicity,” Wilson said. “Roger started backing off of everything he had promised the minute he became mayor.”
Truax was eventually tapped to lead the county’s regional Task Force on AIDS, created by the County Board of Supervisors in 1986. Democratic Supervisor Leon Williams also appointed Truax to the county’s Human Relations Commission.
As a doctor, Truax knew instinctively he had contracted HIV sometime in the early ’80s. As part of a local biotech firm’s trial to discover a vaccine for hepatitis B, he had frozen a sample of his blood in 1981. Years later, after he began to develop symptoms like those he was seeing in his AIDS patients, he tested the sample, discovering that his blood was positive for antibodies to the AIDS virus.
Wilson said Truax concealed his self-diagnosis for as long as possible.
“He was never going to show it to anyone in the office,” Wilson said. “I think Brad liked to think of himself as a manly man, so that would have been totally outside (his character).”
Reached by phone in the small town of Berwick, Pa., where Truax was raised, one of his older brothers, Doug Truax, said Brad never discussed his sexual orientation with the family, only informing them of his disease during a quick visit in 1987.
“It was very short notice,” he said.
Doug Truax remembered his brother, whom he still refers to by his first name, Allan, as being the peacemaker and tie-breaker when he and his other brother, Martin, would have disputes.
“Probably the most prominent thing about him was his quick wit,” he said. “He was very sharp on answers to a situation, whether it was humorous or serious. He could come up with a cynical type answer to it very quickly. He was extremely good at that.”
Doug Truax recalled visiting his brother at his Mission home, on the night of the 1988 presidential election—and how distraught his brother had been by Michael Dukakis’s defeat. Brad Truax was the lone Democrat in his Republican family.
“It was our parents’ custom to host a large sit-down dinner party at our family home,” Doug Truax recalled. “Allan continued the tradition after our parents died and he was settled in a home of his own. On the morning of the 1988 election, I decided to surprise Allan and fly out to his party. I arrived in time and had a great time meeting 30 or so of his friends. Even though he was very weak by this time, it was a great occasion.
“The next morning, Allan came into my bedroom and asked me to take him to the hospital. I was able to spend several days with him, even though they were not planned. It was one of the most intimate opportunities I had with my youngest brother. Allan never returned home from the hospital.”
Truax’s memorial service was held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest. Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos delivered the eulogy. His death, on Nov. 29, 1988, came just two days before the first World AIDS Day observance.