In this exclusive interview, West Hollywood Mayor John Duran sits with WEHO TIMES to discuss the backstory behind an article published in the LA TIMES, where three current and former members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles allege that Duran touched them inappropriately and made sexual comments. The Times reported that Duran is stepping down from his post at the end of the season amid allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.
The recent allegations prompted Duran’s colleagues at West Hollywood City Hall, Mayor Pro-Tempore John D’Amico, council members Lindsey Horvath and Lauren Meister, to ask him to step down as mayor and to resign as a city official. They simultaneously released statements via their Facebook timelines.
“I’m not resigning,” Duran said in a text message sent to WEHO TIMES. “They will have to remove me as Mayor. Sadly they may have broken the law by all releasing statements at the same time. It’s a violation of the Brown Act. It means they coordinated silently to issue statements simultaneously. That means a secret meeting out of public view by a majority. Or a serial meeting one at a time. Either way-it’s for the district attorney now.”
Duran defiantly denies the allegations made against him. He says he was singled out by the LA TIMES. He talks about why he’s stepping down from GMCLA at the end of this season, and shares about the “Deputygate” scandal involving a sexual harassment suit filed against him by his former deputy Ian Owens, in 2015, and he addresses those who are calling him a sexual predator.
What did the LA TIMES article miss? What is it that you would like West Hollywood residents to know?
In October, 2018, Steve Holzer, the vice chair of the Chorus and he says, ‘There’s been a case filed against you. Jason Tong says that you slipped two fingers into his waistband of his underwear in the dressing room on Thursday night.’
I was like, ‘who the hell is Jason Tong?’ I’d never heard of this guy. He said he’d only been in the chorus for four months. He’s brand new. I told Steve, ‘I would confess if it was true. I’d never met this guy. I’d never spoken to him. I looked him up on Facebook and of course, he’s a skinny Korean kid with pimples on his cheek and I was like, ‘Steve, come on. Look at this guy. It’s just not happening. It’s not credible. I’d never even talked to him. I have no idea who this is.’ Steve told me they had to do an investigation, I said fine. Well, it turns out Joe Nadeau had hired him about two weeks before the concert. He’s a part time employee. I didn’t know that. Joe hires this guy out of nowhere to come out and do this thing.
I asked, ‘What time did he say it happened?’ He said it happened at 6:45 on Thursday night. That is 15 minutes until curtain call, dress rehearsal night. There are 150 guys down in the common area dressing room. Everybody is putting on tuxedos. It’s not like we’re alone. So there were five guys I remember talking to. I gave their names to the investigator. They remembered talking to me. A couple didn’t know who Jason Tong was. Others said he wasn’t there. The investigator asked him if they remembered me doing anything inappropriate, our touching Jason Tong and they said no. The investigator went back to Jason Tong and said, ‘John Duran said he didn’t do it and these five guys all say they were with John and they say they didn’t see anything happen. Do you have any witnesses to back up what you’re saying.’ And he said, ‘Oh well, nobody saw it.’ There were 150 guys down there and nobody saw it. So he came back down to me and I said, ‘I want to meet this guy Jason Tong and I want him to look me in the eye and accuse me of what he’s saying, because it’s really awful what he’s saying. I want to meet with him, if for nothing else, so he could see it’s me. Maybe he got me confused with someone else.’ And he didn’t want to meet with me. I kept pushing to meet him and he wouldn’t meet me. Finally the investigator came back and said, ‘unsubstantiated allegations,’ ‘multiple witnesses,’ ‘no one can confirm.’ He closed the file. No action was taken. He told Jason that. He was upset. He said he was withdrawing his claim, so he withdrew his claim and then he resigned from the chorus.
So now the story is making its rounds. These guys who got interview started saying, ‘Oh I got interviewed. John Duran touched Jason Tong inappropriately.’ They came up with this narrative that the leadership, John Duran and Jonathan Weedman are guilty of sexual misconduct and the board is hiding it and covering it up for them. Steve Holzer gets up in front of the whole chorus and says both of these things were investigated. They’re H.R. matters, independent investigators were brought in and it was thoroughly investigated. That’s the end of it. We’re closing the file.
The guys started accusing Holzer of orchestrating the whole thing and being the mastermind behind the whole cover up. It’s horrible. They keep talking. They’re getting angry. They start sending flyers out to donors and foundations about the Board covering up sexual misconduct. They are out of control. It’s crazy time. Then the LA TIMES calls and asks, ‘What’s the story?’ I gave them the name of the head of H.R., Diane Abbitt. I told them, ‘You can interview her if you need to confirm that. Here’s Jonathan Weedman’s number. He’s the Executive Director. He will confirm only one allegation against each of us. Here’s Brian Tillis, the membership president. I gave him all these names so they know we’re not covering anything up. There’s no story here.’
A few days go by and then the LA TIMES calls Friday to let me know they’re going to run a story on Monday about these sexual misconduct allegations. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I can’t stop you. It’s going to harm the organization. These were not found to be true. You’re going to harm Weedman. You’re going to harm me,’ but they were going to do it.
So Monday morning comes. I open the paper and it’s ‘Gay Men’s Chorus in Crisis: Chairman of the Board Duran to resign around multiple sexual misconduct claims.’ I was like, ‘Multiple? What?’ –and no, I’m not resigning. I told them six months ago that I was planning on leaving, which I am doing in August. Because I’m just tired of all the drama with 300 gay men. It’s been 20 years. 20 Years is long enough.
Now the two new allegations, this guy Joey Firoben, who says I made a sexually offensive comment to him. LA TIMES asked me about that. I told them, ‘Yeah, I told him to lighten up. He needed to get laid because he’s so uptight.’ So the Beverly Press called me to tell me that Joey Firoben says that in June of 2015—and I went, ‘What, wait—June of 2015? You’re asking me about something I said four years ago?’ And he kind of laughed and said, ‘Yeah, that’s what Joey is saying.’ Man, I don’t even remember what I said four weeks ago. He said that Joey said I said something obnoxious and obscene, that I apologized, but he didn’t find it to be sincere. I don’t remember what I said. If I apologized, good for me for making the apology. But seriously, you can’t ask me to recall something that I said four years ago and it’s something that never got reported to the organization.
And then the last guy Brian Nichoalds is somebody in the chorus, who tried to get me to go to bed with him a couple of years ago. I told him I wasn’t interested. He lived in Long Beach. He had a boyfriend at the time. He’d come up and rub my back and rub my shoulders and he’d invite me over for a back rub, ‘Let’s play. Let’s hang out,’ he’d say. He and I flirted for a little while, but finally I said, no. He got really angry and hostile and really cold. He was upset.
Brian is the one in the story who says I did the same thing to him that I did to Jason Tong. I put two fingers in his waistband of his underwear. I don’t know, because it’s not in the LA TIMES story, when this happened, where it happened, who was there, what exactly happened? The first time I read about this is when I was reading the morning paper of the LA TIMES. I’m having to respond now to a story in the LA TIMES that I knew nothing about. The claims and people are piling on in this whole Me Too environment. There has to be an investigation. There has to be due process of law. You can’t just jump on an accusation as being true without having an investigation.
What do you tell the people who are connecting these latest allegations to the larger narrative that this is behavior tied to the sexual harassment regarding your former Deputy Ian Owens?
First of all, he and I testified at the Michelle Rex trial. We both testified under oath and his testimony was I never touched him. I never grabbed him. I never groped him. There was never a sexual assault. What he was offended by was that I was showing him dick pics from people I had slept with. And I testified that, yeah, that’s true, and Ian was showing me pictures of dick pics of guys he had been sleeping with, because we were friends. He also never filed a complaint or a claim about any sexual harassment until the day he got walked out and suspended because he was eavesdropping on his colleagues at city hall. Ten days later, he says there was an election hearing going on at City Hall about corruption going on and he said ‘By the way, John Duran has been sexually harassing me.’ All of a sudden the story wasn’t about Ian doing wrong, by recording and eavesdropping on his colleagues. The whole story became about Ian and I meeting on Grindr, our sexual discussions, and the insurance company completely freaked out. They didn’t want to explain to a jury what Grindr was, that gay men have sex once and then end up becoming friends, that gay men sit around showing pictures of body parts to one another. That whole part of our subculture is not something they wanted to explain to a jury. That money did not come out of the City coffers, or the City’s bank, that’s not true. The City did not pay $500,000, the insurance company did, because they worried that if they went to a jury trial that they would end up paying more. They settled.
You mentioned something prior to this interview about the culture between gay men, how we interact and how that gets misconstrued, can you elaborate on that?
Those of us who are over a certain age, over 50, let’s say. I came out in 1978. In 1975 it was illegal to be homosexual in the State of California. It was against the law to say that you were a homosexual in California. I came out in a period of time when we were newly liberated. It was part of the sexual revolution. It was Donna Summer. It was about women finding their sexuality and being empowered by their sexuality. A whole lot of the 70s and even the early 80s were all about people celebrating their sexuality, whether it was LGBT or women. The sexual revolution was the center at that period of time. It was interrupted by AIDS. HIV/AIDS hit, but even though we had plague in our midst, that didn’t stop us from creating narratives and messages around safer sex. About being sex positive. About continuing to celebrate our sexuality, even in the midst of all the death. We weren’t going to go back into the closet or stifle our sexuality, in fact we kept it out in the open. We doubled down on it. We talked about making sex-not only safe, but at the same time, fun. And that’s part of the whole culture of LGBT people in the 70s and 80s.
How does that play a part in today’s ME TOO climate?
The Me Too Movement is very different and a different time. It’s primarily about women who have been sexually harassed by men and their complaints not taken seriously. And I think we have to figure out a way to find a mid-ground between these two things: I think any accusation about sexual harassment has to be taken seriously, but it has to be investigated too. It can’t just be, there’s an accusation, you’re guilty. Especially in gay culture with gay men, more than lesbians, where sexuality and discussion of sex, and sex acts and Grindr and SCRUFF and backrooms and bathhouses, it’s all part of our language.
What would you like to see happen with GMCLA?
It has to survive. It’s a 40-year institution. It’s one of our oldest LGBT organizations. I really want it to continue for another 40 years. I want to have a golden anniversary in 10 years. I want it to continue to be a service to the community, like the LA LGBT Center and the MCC Churches. I want it to continue but this war is ripping it to shreds.
Why have you stuck around this organization for 20 years?
I first joined the chorus because I wanted to go to Russia. In 1999, I was Paul Lekakis’s boyfriend. He was in the chorus and he said, ‘Hey we’re going to see Russia. You can sing, I’ve heard you sing in the shower, you should join and we can go see Russia together.’ That’s why I joined. I got in and Paul and I ended up going to Russia together. I ended up finding a brotherhood that I was not expecting. I ended up sticking it out and I became chairman of the board 10 years ago. For 10 years, I’ve been creating the Board’s infrastructure and the budgets. The organization had a $500,000 budget and a staff of two. Now they have $1.8 million or almost a $2 million budget and a staff of nine. There’s been an incredible growth since I’ve been chairman of the board, but this war that’s been going on for two years between these two guys at the top. It’s created factionalism in the organization. People are Team Jonathan or Team Joe. They’ve been at each other, trying to harm each other and all of this drama, I think to a large degree is part of this bigger picture with the struggle going on between them.
What kind reactions are you getting from some of the members? Are they angry at you?
There is a very vocal group of about 30 who are really mad at Johnathan and I. There is another much larger group of guys who are hoping I don’t leave, because they know the amount of effort that I’ve put into building this organization to where it’s at. But they also understand that I’m tired. I told them, ‘Look, I’m willing to help, I’m willing to pass the baton. I can’t do this forever,’ and they understand that. I don’t want the Chorus to collapse.
So you’re saying, you’re not leaving due to sexual misconduct?
I had already planned to leave. If I was stepping down for sexual misconduct, I would’ve stepped down immediately. I wouldn’t be hanging around for six months.
What do you say to the people who are calling you a sexual predator?
Look, let me confess the obvious. I’m hyper sexual. I am promiscuous. I don’t hide that part of my personality. Anybody who knows me, knows that if I’m not a flirt, I’m at least hitting on you. One of the two. What I am not is a sexual predator, or somebody that would ever try to force myself onto anybody. It’s just not in my DNA. It is not possible for me to do that to anybody. Hit on you, yeah. Make suggestions? Invite myself over? Yeah. All of those things, but I would never ever try to force myself on anybody, ever.
Here’s an example, there’s a gorgeous guy in the Chorus named Chris. I was talking to him on SCRUFF, trying to come over asking him, ‘Hey let’s hang out,’ and he finally said, ‘John, I love you. You’re like a sister to me. That’s never going to happen. We’re never going to have sex.’ Once he said that, I was like, ‘Oh. Ok. Got it.’ And we maintained the friendship. People in this Me Too era have got to have the courage to say that if we still want gay men to be open about their sexuality and able to express themselves, you cannot say that we’re not sexualized. That would be denying the obvious. Hopefully as we navigate through the Me Too Movement, we learn to have the courage to tell somebody, ‘Not interested. No. Boundary. No thanks.’ And the other person needs be able to say OK and move on to the next 50 who are available.
Do you think there’s a fine line between hitting on someone and sexually harassing someone?
I think for some millennials, any form of sexual expression is sexual harassment. ‘I think you’re hot. I want to sleep with you,’ is not sexual harassment, depending on the circumstances. These young millennials, I think to navigate their own culture, they’ve got to learn to say, ‘That’s great, you’re into me. I’m not into you. We’re just going to be friends.’ That happens all the time too.
Being the Mayor of West Hollywood, a prominent member of the community and your history in the LGBT movement, do you think these young guys have a harder time saying no to you?
I hope that’s not the case. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I think most millennials don’t have a clue what I did in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I don’t think they think much about anybody over the age of 50. That’s been my experience.
How do you think people react to your hyper sexuality?
I think there is a lot of slut shaming. I’ve also witnessed some of the loudest voices on slut shaming are just covering up for their indiscretions. They have their own issues with their own sexuality.
How do you think people will react to this interview?
I don’t know. There are the Duran haters and the Duran lovers. It’s all part of being in politics. I get it.