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Advocate Without Pier

Jeff Ofstedahl is sipping a tall glass of beer at Wink's, and for the third time in as many minutes, someone comes up to ask him the same question.

"What are you still doing here?"
Each time, it's asked with the same tone: a mixture of surprise and admiration.

Everyone at the bar seems to know about Ofstedahl's plans, that by now, the well-liked former general manager of Echo Magazine is supposed to be out to sea, navigating his sailboat up the California coast.

So what is he still doing in Phoenix?
Ofstedahl, 34, smiles and talks about unspecified obligations, about part-time work that's keeping him in town and about visiting his boat in San Diego on weekends.

His questioners respond by giving him pats on the back and bear hugs. If the clean getaway Ofstedahl had planned has been derailed, it only gives him an opportunity for even more of the adulation he's received since announcing his departure as the Valley's most prominent gay activist and journalist.

There was no fanfare in the straight press as Ofstedahl stepped down. But in the gay community, news of his hiatus spread fast: Ofstedahl was quitting to pursue a lifelong dream to sail from San Diego to Vancouver and back.

Three weeks ago, Ofstedahl wrote his final column after six remarkable years running Echo, a magazine that, under his stewardship, had gone from a seamy, thin volume of sex ads to a well-read journal of gay and lesbian politics and news. Along the way, Ofstedahl had helped to organize some of the gay community's most important struggles and uncovered some of its most important stories.

Including his own. Ofstedahl had shared with readers his personal struggles with the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, and his evolving relationship with his family over his gay orientation and activism.

But a grueling schedule had begun to wear him down. He was ready for a break after his stint writing much of Echo's copy, managing its business affairs, arranging for its production and even distributing it.

So for several months, Ofstedahl conspired with the magazine's publisher, Bill Orovan, to make himself obsolete, waiting and planning as Orovan hired two people to do much of the work Ofstedahl had done single-handedly.

On Friday, May 15, Ofstedahl went to the magazine's offices for his final day of work.

While at the office, Ofstedahl received a phone call from his doctor with news that would ruin his carefully laid plans.

He had cancer.
Ofstedahl undergoes surgery later this month to remove a squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant tumor, and he faces a summer of radiation treatments and chemotherapy instead of a sea voyage. Ofstedahl says his doctor has told him his survival chances are excellent. (Despite nine years living with HIV, Ofstedahl says he shows no symptoms of AIDS, and the cancer is apparently unrelated to the virus.)

He has told few people about his illness.
At Wink's, friends unaware of his situation rib him about his early retirement. "Please get a job, Jeff," says one.

Then another man approaches him.
"You don't know me," the man says. "I just wanted to tell you how much you've meant to me and to everyone in the community. I read about your leaving. I just wanted you to know how much you've meant to us."

Ofstedahl thanks him and reaches out a hand, but the man has his arms around him before he can react.

Jeff Ofstedahl looks like a cop.
The street people who saw him after midnight every night for seven nights were sure he was a cop, and wouldn't give up what Ofstedahl wanted to know.

It was 1993, and the reporter was searching streetwalker haunts, asking everyone he saw about a male prostitute who had disappeared.

Ofstedahl didn't know the man's name or what he looked like or where he was from. He only knew the man probably had distinctive marks on his body.

Machete wounds.
On January 30, several men had picked up the prostitute, taken him to Encanto Park and jumped him. They had beaten him, hacked him with a machete, broken full bottles of beer across his forehead and stomped on him. They were pretty sure their victim was dead when they left him.

Miguel Estevan Munoz was sure the guy was dead, anyway. And when he called the cops the next day, he wanted them to know that he'd just been along for the ride and he didn't want to get blamed for the murder he'd seen his friends commit.

When Phoenix police went to the park looking for the body, however, they didn't find one.

A detective in the department's Hate Crimes Unit telephoned Ofstedahl and asked for his help: They had a confession and the names of suspects, but no victim.  

For the next week, Ofstedahl walked central Phoenix streets passing out his business card, asking hookers if they'd heard about the attack and knew what had happened to the victim.

Finally, on the seventh night, someone decided to trust Ofstedahl even if he did look like a cop, and led him to 25-year-old Michael Anthony Senecal, the very much alive victim.

Ofstedahl got Senecal medical help, cleaned him up and took him to police detectives. Three arrests followed. Ofstedahl made sure Senecal appeared to testify at numerous hearings over the next year, and Senecal's three attackers were eventually handed five- and 10-year terms for the crime.

Echo readers followed the case as it happened, but New Times noted that Ofstedahl never revealed his own role: "He did not pat himself on the back with his column. . . . Instead, he urged his gay and lesbian readers to cooperate with the authorities."

Wrote Ofstedahl: "By developing these relations, working within the court system and protecting ourselves from dangerous situations, we finally may be able to put gay bashers where they belong. . . . It is up to us to foster that relationship."

Today, the case is the first that comes to mind when Ofstedahl's asked about his favorite columns.

"We put those fuckers in prison," he says, sounding like the police detective or prosecutor he could be mistaken for. But that brawny appearance is ironic: Ofstedahl's campaign to force police to react to hate crimes has been one of his most passionate causes.

He's as much activist as reporter, and he doesn't apologize for combining the two. After all, it was his activism that landed him the magazine job to begin with.

In 1992, Ofstedahl wrote several articles for Echo about an effort to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in the city of Phoenix; afterward, Bill Orovan offered Ofstedahl a job as the magazine's office manager.

In the highly publicized battle over the nondiscrimination ordinance, Ofstedahl had made an impression on the gay community, the press and local politicians. And in this case, his flinty looks had come in handy.

"I brought a boy-next-door image, a conservative perspective. People started identifying with that. Until that time, I'd never heard my voice in the debates. I spoke for myself. And the response was phenomenal," he says. Ofstedahl discovered that the mainstream media felt less nervous interviewing someone whose look and manner defied gay stereotypes; he's used that advantage ever since.

"He was an outspoken spokesperson for their cause, but he did it in a way that didn't alienate people but brought them in," says gubernatorial candidate Paul Johnson, who was Phoenix mayor at the time the city council considered the ordinance in 1992.

The ordinance would have extended nondiscrimination protections in city hiring practices to include sexual orientation; proposed by an outgoing councilmember, it put the council at the center of a white-hot debate.

Five thousand people showed up for the council's vote that June, only to see Vice Mayor Thelda Williams side with councilmembers opposed to the ordinance who wanted to avoid a vote altogether. The council moved to put the ordinance before a vote of the people, which would likely have led to its defeat. Later, the council passed a less comprehensive version of the ordinance. Ofstedahl still grumbles about the watered-down version, but Johnson defends it, saying that it was important for the council to make a positive statement about nondiscrimination and sexual orientation. And that step might not have happened without Ofstedahl's ability to bring adversaries together, Johnson says.

"I don't think it would have passed if Jeff hadn't been one of the players in the process. There's almost a military presence to him. A high degree of honor. He doesn't mislead you. There's a sense of him being very straightforward. Compassionate without giving up what he believed in. I probably took my beating from him once or twice. But I probably deserved it when I got it. And it was always done with a sense of fairness," he says.

Ofstedahl has tried to keep that kind of pressure on local officials, campaigning for prosecution of violence against gays and lesbians as well as promoting AIDS research and treatment and helping found the Valley of the Sun Gay and Lesbian Community Center.

"Jeff's been the heartbeat of the gay community in terms of the problems we've faced, and I've always respected that he's always out front and involved in the issues," says Roger Rea, an attorney who's practiced for 24 years in the Valley and represents mostly gay clients. "I believe Jeff has extraordinary standing in the gay and lesbian community. He has given his heart and soul to it. He's been a major player.  

"And," Rea adds, "he's had the backing of his family."

Readers of Ofstedahl's columns know that the backing of his family has been a complicated thing.

In one article, he shared with readers a particularly poignant breakthrough: the first time he found himself talking with his mother about one of his dates.

He'd been taken to the demolition derby.
"Here I am, all Polo'd out--looking fabulous, I might add--and I'm sitting in these bleachers surrounded by guys in 'Skoal Bandits' caps," he says.

It wasn't Ofstedahl's scene. But he was glad he and his mother could laugh about it afterward. If most gay men find greater understanding in their mothers, Ofstedahl says he's experienced the opposite. His mother has had a difficult time with his sexual orientation. His father, on the other hand, has taken it in stride. His father's reaction when Ofstedahl first announced that he was gay: "Hm. Okay. Hey, let's go fishing."

His mother's reaction was to ask her son to keep his orientation a family secret. There was no need to tell anyone about it, was there?

Ofstedahl then had to tell her that he'd conducted his first television interviews as a gay activist earlier that day.

Ofstedahl grew up in Phoenix and attended Greenway High School. He says he was a loner in high school, spending most of his time tending to the various animals that he raised. They included rats, which Ofstedahl bred to sell to pet stores as snake food.

"Snakes have to be fed. Even Symington," he says.
After graduation he spent three years at Northern Arizona University, got bored, and in 1984 decided to join the Navy. When the armed services found out that he'd studied some Russian in college, they sent him to the advanced language school in Monterey, California.

Ofstedahl became a Russian cryptologic intelligence collection officer.
Which is military for eavesdropper.
Flying out of Japan and from aircraft carriers, Ofstedahl and an aviator would patrol a perimeter 100 kilometers outside the Soviet Union, listening carefully for radio transmissions. Ofstedahl says his mission had two important elements. First, make sure the Soviets weren't talking about blowing his plane out of the sky, and second, try to figure out where Soviet submarines were located.

"I was really damn good at what I did," he says, claiming for example that when India was supposed to be taking delivery of a fast-attack submarine from the Soviets, Ofstedahl figured out that the Indian Navy had actually procured a sub capable of firing cruise missiles. "It was a big deal," he says.

In 1987, with two years left in his Navy commitment, Ofstedahl says he finally accepted that he was gay.

"Here I was, questioning my sexuality, and all around me there are a lot of hot guys in uniform. Yeah, the Navy, they'll straighten me out, I thought," he says, laughing.

"You think to yourself, if I become so dedicated, so professional, and a rumor surfaces, maybe they'll ignore it. But that's not the case. . . . A friend of mine killed himself over accusations. That had a big impact. I still think about that all the time."

While in the service, he had completed bachelor's degrees in biology and Russian. When the Navy tried to recruit him for an additional four- to six-year commitment on a treaty team that would make inspections in the Soviet Union, Ofstedahl knew he had to turn it down. He couldn't let an accusation destroy his military career.

"I thought I could get out, go into private life, pursue corporate success and live happily ever after," he says.

But he soon found that many corporate opportunities were closed off to him, not because of his sexual orientation, which he still kept secret, but because of the secret nature of his previous work. The government put travel restrictions on him, limiting his choices. He looked for another government job instead, and in 1989 began the long winnowing process for jobs in the DEA and State Department. In the meantime, he worked part-time as a technical writer for the CIA.

Well into the interview and background-investigation process, he was called into a meeting. An investigator sat down with him, opened up a notebook and asked him, "Is your name Jeff Ofstedahl? Do you reside at . . ."

Ofstedahl responded that he was the person in question. The investigator then looked at him and asked, "Are you a homosexual?"

"My whole life flashed before my eyes. Obviously, he knows, I thought. So if I answer no, he'd know I'm lying. But if I say yes, he'll know that I'm telling the truth and that I'm honest," he says. "Yes, I am," he answered.  

The investigator closed his notebook and left. About two weeks later, he got letters from the State Department and DEA rejecting his applications.

"That's when I got pissed," he says.
Things didn't get easier. In the same year, 1989, on April Fool's Day, Ofstedahl received a letter from the Navy commanding him to report for "mandatory counseling regarding a potentially lethal medical condition."

"Fuck, I got AIDS," he says he thought to himself.
He'd tested positive for HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. In 1989, testing positive for HIV seemed a certain death sentence and not the manageable condition it is increasingly becoming.

Ofstedahl can't forget the words of the military doctor: "This thing is like a ticking time bomb in your body. You never know when it's going to go off."

"All my life's goals were moot," Ofstedahl says. "I had to start living for the now. I went into a superathletic mode, competing in triathlons. I'd run to the top of Squaw Peak and say to myself, 'Not bad for a faggot with AIDS.'"

Ofstedahl also felt compelled to fight the disease through activism. "I started getting involved in AIDS activism, which was safer [for a closeted man still not identifying himself gay publicly] than being involved in gay activism, if you can call organizing ACT-UP in Phoenix being safe," he says with a chuckle.

One memorable ACT-UP protest in 1990 found Ofstedahl and others taping condoms to copies of the Arizona Republic in vending machines (they were angry about a Benson cartoon's portrayal of gay men), then calling radio stations as if they were outraged customers.

"By 8 a.m., every TV station was on it. By 5 p.m., we held a big protest outside the Republic offices." He says that within weeks, it seemed that the paper's coverage of AIDS had improved.

Meanwhile, Ofstedahl worked as an administrative assistant for the county Health Department, helping with an HIV program. He also helped found the McDowell Wellness Center, the county's HIV clinic.

After coming out to his parents, Ofstedahl says the friction in his family became unbearable. He moved to Miami for a year, then returned in 1991. Later that year, he would dedicate his time, unpaid, to the passing of the city nondiscrimination ordinance.

The following June, with the city council split over the ordinance, Orovan offered Ofstedahl the office-manager job at Echo Magazine.

"This is something I've never told anyone," Ofstedahl says. "I took the job because I didn't think I had anything to lose. I thought going to work for a gay magazine could hurt me professionally, but I'd been diagnosed HIV positive for three years, and I didn't know how long I had."

Ofstedahl would eventually become the magazine's general manager and lead columnist.

Echo was edited by Dave Shave, the pseudonym of Mesa Tribune reporter Bruce Christian--Christian couldn't afford his main employer knowing that since Echo's birth in 1989 he'd moonlighted at the magazine.

"Jeff had so much passion. He came in and he forced us to do things that Echo had never done before," Christian says. After 18 years with the Tribune, Christian left the paper and in January became Echo's managing editor under his real name.

"When Jeff came to us, he had contacts, he had passion, and he knew what he wanted. He also always had a certain amount of charisma. And he understood the media, and he learned how to speak to 'somebodies.' He took Echo to a new level," Christian says.

In 1992, when Ofstedahl began his job, Echo was about 30 pages long and filled with personal ads, reports on the bar scene and ads for 900 telephone lines.

"You're trying to educate the gay community to feel better about itself, and about how to affect the political process and educate the straight community about what was happening in the gay community," Ofstedahl says. "As we became more vocal and using the media for educational process, we had to clean up our act." Ofstedahl pulled all of the adult-oriented material.

"You'll find more sex in the Arizona Republic or the Mesa Tribune than in Echo," he says.

Ofstedahl replaced the phone-sex ads and personals with news culled from other gay magazines around the country, as well as local stories and his real interest--his own investigative reporting. For a contest, Ofstedahl totaled up all of the stories, long and short, that he'd written for the magazine in a single year and found that it totaled more than 500.  

In recent years, his focus on political reporting and commentary has won the magazine numerous awards, culminating in what he says was the greatest moment of his life: being named the 1995 Community Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Press Club. The award was announced in May 1996 for Ofstedahl's work the previous year, and his entire family witnessed the presentation. A few days later, a story about him ran on the front page of the Arizona Republic.

"My passion was the writing. That's the toughest thing to leave. But about a year ago, I was feeling tired. And in the back of my mind, I wondered how much time I had," Ofstedahl says. Since 1989, he'd owned a sailboat, and he'd always wanted to sail it along the Pacific Coast.

He hoped to spend four months on the trip and, during that time, to finish a novel he's been working on for several years. The protagonist is a military translator who races up Squaw Peak every evening hoping in vain to get to the top before the sun sets as the days of autumn grow shorter, an allusion to the shortness of his own days, Ofstedahl says.

He gave Orovan notice that he wanted to leave. The Echo publisher convinced Bruce Christian to take on editing full-time. To cover Ofstedahl's business responsibilities, he lured Steen Lawson away from the Tribune's entertainment supplement Get Out ("The non-gay entertainment weekly with a gay name," Lawson wrote in last week's Echo).

Ofstedahl had his opportunity. He announced in a column that he was leaving, and letters and e-mails poured in telling how much he would be missed.

Then, his summer plans turned from seafaring to recovering from surgery.

The traffic at Wink's has picked up as the sun goes down, but if he's sitting in a gay bar, Ofstedahl suddenly sounds more like he's speaking at a high school graduation.

"I believe in living in harmony with the world. You never know when you're going to die, so you have to live every day to the fullest. And you can't put off your dreams. Every day is borrowed time.

"And as much as that may sound like a tacky valedictorian speech, well, I'm right," he says.

"I've been looking down the AIDS barrel for 10 years, and I've been living my life in as meaningful a way as I can."

In his columns, he's written about the wrenching psychological traumas of living with HIV. "When you come out with your HIV status, when you make it known, you think, 'Who's going to want me now?' You know, everyone wants contact, everyone wants to be touched."

The one love of his life, he says, "couldn't deal with the HIV issue." He doesn't say anything more about it.

"It takes years to come to grips with living with HIV," he says. He had hoped the voyage would have been a spiritual journey to help him cope, four months alone with several projects planned besides the difficult task of navigating solo against a strong north-to-south current.

But Ofstedahl isn't one to fall into self-pity. After another sip of beer, he dives into a discourse on what makes the Phoenix gay community different from those of other major cities. It's geography, mainly, he says, which has prevented Phoenix from developing a "gay ghetto."

"We're everywhere, in every part of the Valley," he says. "We're in bars in north Phoenix, South Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale. Gay people wherever you look," and it sounds half declamatory statement and half threat.

The agitator in Ofstedahl lives on.

Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: tortega@newtimes.com


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