Larry Forester didn’t seem at all to mind a little controversy on a recent Friday afternoon. Clad in a pink shirt with a matching handkerchief that popped out of the pocket of his navy-blue blazer, the Signal Hill Councilmember was on a mission. He faced leaders of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD) that afternoon at their Lakewood office.
That day, he didn’t shy away from telling the agency that manages the groundwater for more than 40 cities that he objected to their recommendation to increase water rates. He didn’t shy away from reminding them about a lawsuit that Signal Hill and other cities had pursued against the agency.
Later that afternoon, Forester, who eventually shed his blazer, sat down at a local coffee shop for an interview with the Signal Tribune. He sipped at his Hawaiian sea-salted caramel iced coffee as he reflected on how a diagnosis of HIV and eventually AIDS and hepatitis C had changed him over the last three decades. Forester doesn’t shy away from talking about his health, either.
He says he would never wish it on anybody, but the diagnosis of HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C made him rethink his life. Forester, now 66, was in his 30s when he was first diagnosed in 1985 with HIV and learned how the virus would compromise his immune system. Nearly a decade later, in 1994, he developed AIDS. Then another blow in 1999– doctors told Forester he also had hepatitis C. Forester says the drugs to treat hepatitis C counteract with the drugs to treat AIDS, and he acknowledges that the combined infections will likely kill him someday.
Forester will appear in the Long Beach Gay & Lesbian Pride celebration alongside other leaders this weekend. A councilmember who has served the City of Signal Hill for more than a decade, Forester says he’s participated in the parade since 1998. The organization responsible for the festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
His presence at the festival means something to a number of his friends. John Thomas, who is a historic-preservation consultant in Long Beach, has known Forester since 1991.
Thomas described how Forester and others who were living with HIV and AIDS made the health crisis real. He praised his friend’s ability to speak with candor about his health.
“He would say, ‘I’m sick, but I’m going live. I’m going to continue. I’m going to enjoy. I’m going to contribute to my community,’ Thomas said. “That level of tenacity, that’s Larry.”
Another friend, Michael Barber, owner of Paradise Restaurant and Bar in Long Beach, has known Forester for about 20 years. He acknowledged that a diagnosis of HIV and AIDS felt like a death sentence at the time.
“He was able to live through that and was always optimistic,” Barber said. “And he just always had this spirit and drive to go on. He never complains about being ill. He always talks about what he can do.”
Besides his role on city council and other volunteering work with HIV/AIDS patients, Forester has dedicated a great deal of his time with the Conservation Corps of Long Beach. The organization is focused on education for at-risk young adults around 18 to 24 years of age. It helps young adults in the program develop life skills and even offers them the chance to get a high-school degree.
Mike Bassett, the Corps’ executive director and CEO, has known Forester for about 15 years. Bassett says that Forester is a regular speaker to the young adults in the Corps. He says that Forester is very frank about how he contracted AIDS. Bassett adds that Forester’s health never held him back from his dedication to the Corps.
“I don’t know where he gets his energy when he’s fighting something [as] serious as AIDS,” Bassett said, “but he is one person that I know that will never let you down. Ever.”
Forester on a Friday afternoon was a little tired after his long day at the WRD’s headquarters in Lakewood. He spoke rapidly and in a matter-of-fact tone when he remembered the day he told his father he contracted HIV. He remembered how he needed his dad to help him think through his disease logically, step by step.
Forester says that he has stayed away from relationships, stayed away from sex. He acknowledged that others did not make the same choice he’s made and are in relationships where both partners have been open about their status and practice safe sex.
While being interviewed, he often anticipates a question and answers it before it’s asked.
“Any regrets in life? Absolutely. No partner. But I’ve chosen that route…Many people living with HIV and AIDS have partners,” Forester said. “I just, for whatever reason, my mind just says, ‘Larry, you’ve had a good life. You’ve had fun. You’ve played in San Francisco in the ‘70s…there’s other things to do.’”
Former Signal Hill Councilmember Ellen Ward says that Forester’s decision to serve on the Council was a good move.
“Being elected to the City Council gave Larry something to focus on, away from his disease,” Ward said. She noted that he took care of himself physically, adding that his time working for the Council allowed him to concentrate on other priorities. “It gave him a positive direction where he could focus his energies, which I feel helped save his life.”
Ward has known Forester since the 1980s. She worked with him when he served on the advisory board for the AIDS Walk and even served with him on the Council up until March of this year.
Forester acknowledged in an interview that his passion for local city politics changed him.
“One of my salvations was getting on the Signal Hill City Council because I felt a sense of accomplishment,” Forester said. “You know, you can live with a lot of things if you feel you are doing something good. If you’re just sitting around thinking about your own sickness, it could be a death knell.”