John McDonald was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania, and grew up in Los Angeles. He received his BA in geology from UCLA, and his law degree from Western States University of Law. In 1967, he joined Mullikin Medical Centers, served as CEO of Mullikin Medical Enterprises (MME) during its expansion from Southern California to Northern California, Washington and Oregon, and in 1995, negotiated the sale of MME to Caremark RX. 

John met his husband, Rob Wright, in 1982 through mutual friends. Together, Rob and John became very active in supporting the Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center of Los Angeles (today the LA LGBT Center), providing the lead gift for the building that currently houses the Center. In 1996, they moved to Beaver Creek, Colorado, where they thrived on skiing, hiking, and biking. Today, John and Rob divide their time between Beaver Creek and Palm Springs, California.

John and Rob’s primary thrust in philanthropy is seeking full and equal rights for all minorities including the LGBTQ+ community. At present, they are particularly involved in and supportive of the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, which conducts leading research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. In addition, John and Rob recently purchased a three-story building to house the LGBT Center of the Desert in Palm Springs.

John and Rob’s Palm Springs home, where OUTWORDS interviewed them in June 2016, is comfortable and calm, with stunning views of the San Jacinto Mountains rising from the desert to the sky. Of the two men, Rob is more open and expressive, more likely to crack up at his or someone else’s funny story. John listens, listens, and then suddenly offers an insightful comment or a question that cuts to the heart of the matter. In giving, as in life, John and Rob make a wonderful couple, and OUTWORDS is honored to convey their story to the world.
Goro Toshima: We got a top coat on that running?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Goro Toshima: Cool.
Mason Funk: Top coat's running.
Goro Toshima: All right.
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] So John, could you start by just telling us your first and last names and spelling them please?
John McDonald: My name is John McDonald. J-O-H-N, McDonald, M-C-D-O-N-A-L-D.
Mason Funk: Okay, and where are we conducting this interview?
John McDonald: At our second home in Palm Springs, California.
Mason Funk: Okay. One favor I'd ask you is if you can find a way to incorporate my question into your answer ...
John McDonald: Sure.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] ... so that they're stand-alone statements, that would be awesome. John, could you just start by telling me just give me an overview of where you were born and who your family consisted of?
John McDonald: [00:01:30] My family immigrated to the United States from Scotland, both of them. We're born in Scotland. They didn't meet until they had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My sister was born, and then three years later I was born, and a year after I was born we moved to California, which was a great move as far as I'm concerned. I was raised in southern California. After I met Rob we moved to Colorado full-time.
Mason Funk: What year were you born?
John McDonald: I was born in 1932.
Mason Funk: [00:02:00] Okay. How would you describe in just general terms your parents being Scots, I imagine, I don't know if they lived up to the Scottish stereotype of being thrifty Scots, but what were your parents like?
John McDonald: Well, they are a good couple.
Mason Funk: If you could start with, my parents.
John McDonald: [00:02:30] My parents became Americanized. My mother more so than my father. My father retained his Scottish brogue throughout his life. It's kind of a charming accent. I picked up a few words here and there in Scottish that I can understand other Scottish-speaking people when they're conversing with me. A lot of people can't, they speak in a strange sort of dialect of English.
Mason Funk: Your parents, what kind of people were they?
John McDonald: [00:03:00] My father was the dominant person, of course. My mother was the person who really ran things though. She was a very nice lady, and my father was not real strict, but he definitely was the boss. He made the tough decisions. After they moved to California my father got a job with the Motion Picture Studios. I was living in Cheviot Hills, California at that time, raised in that area, and actually remained within a five mile radius of that home until I graduated from college.
It was an interesting place to live, and my father being able to be in the studios I was able to ride my bicycle on to the lots and watch various films being made. It was really kind of fun. He was with RKO Pathé which he was in charge of set construction, so he was a vital part of all the films. It was fun because they made the Tarzan movies and I spent a lot of time watching Tarzan movies being made. That should have been an indication of where I was headed, I suppose.
Mason Funk: [00:04:30] What kinds of things were you into, so to speak, as a child? What were your interests like?
John McDonald: [00:05:00] We didn't have ... My childhood was different than today's children who have their whole lives planned for them. The only organized thing that I became involved in was the Boy Scouts for a short period of time. I didn't really care for that very much. It wasn't an organized life, we did what we had to do to just stay busy. During summer vacations we'd actually get bored. Our friends would drive bicycles to try to keep out of trouble, but have an adventurous time riding here and there. We just went out to play and that was the end of it.
There was no organized things like baseball, and football practice, and dancing and all that. This was during the Depression so money was always a little tight, but my parents built their own home in Cheviot Hills, and I think we moved in just at the beginning of World War II. About 1940 is when we moved in to the new home. During World War II we were very much involved in that war in that we'd have paper drives and tin can drives and save things like cooking fat and so forth. Whatever they use that for I have no idea, but it was just part of our growing up, a very interesting time.
Mason Funk: [00:06:30] Just out of curiosity, so you were saying like you were eight when you moved in to that house and we got involved in the war about a year later. What do you remember about the war as a global issue? How did it seem to you?
John McDonald: [00:07:00] I remember Pearl Harbor day from the basis that, well I was playing checkers with Forest Gibson who lived next door and a broadcast came on to the radio which was on and announced that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I didn't even know what Pearl Harbor was, or where it was, or anything. Of course, they became very excited and that was the beginning of the war for me. The end of the war we were all honking horns and that was also an exciting time.
We went through different types of training at our elementary school as to what to do if a bombing attack occurred. There was apparently a great fear at that time that there might be bombing raids into California. There was actually one scare one night. I remember being awakened and they were saying that there was going to be an air raid, but it was I think some submarines the coast of California and that really shook everybody up, but nothing ever happened. It was just a tranquil period of time.
The Douglas Aircraft Company was just a couple of miles away and their airplanes, which they manufacture for the war effort used to fly over the house. I remember we could see the people sitting in the various seats, they flew very low into Santa Monica airport and landed. You could see the pilots and the gunners in their positions in the plane. It was the most interesting.
Mason Funk: [00:08:30] Wow, that's a vivid memory. As you grew up and the war ended, and you headed off to high school, probably pretty soon. When did you first start becoming aware that you were attracted to men or guys as opposed to women?
John McDonald: [00:09:00] I don't know when I really became involved in being more interested in men than women. We didn't come out as early in those days as people do today. Of course we've made it much easier for people to become who they really are. Through some of various efforts of people to form gay organizations which make it much much easier for people to adapt today. I suppose it was when I became a teenager, and I had certain heroes in movies that I really really thought were very handsome. I remember admiring them very much. Alan Ladd was one of those people who did a lot of war movies.
There was a realization somewhere along the line, probably by the time I got into high school, but I don't really recall that very well. It just happened. It was natural.
Mason Funk: Do you remember being aware that this was not acceptable, or a feeling that this was dangerous? Had you heard comments about so-called queers or homos? How did it seem to you when you began to realize that this was where your attractions lay?
John McDonald: [00:10:30] You know, as you go through this process of realizing that you're a gay man you know it's not correct, and you know there's a certain amount of guilt that goes along with it, although my family was not the least bit religious, so I didn't have that burden to bother me. I never went to church. I'm a great believer that an extra hour's sleep on Sunday does more for you than listening to somebody pontificate, so I've never had that burden to overcome.
You just know that it's not accepted, and you sort of naturally just hide it. There's a certain amount of fear that somebody will know that you're interested in them, which will become a compromising situation, so you just are careful not to get caught in those situations.
Mason Funk: [00:11:30] Sure. When did you have your first sexual experiences?
John McDonald: [00:12:00] It was in high school, with a very good friend of mine at the time. His mother was away, and he asked if I wanted to stay overnight, and we had twin beds in the room, and you get to messing around and the next thing you know you're in bed together. I know I enjoyed it and I know he did too, but it didn't become a regular situation. It was just one of those things that happened and then went away.
I didn't really come out until I was an adult, around 21 years old, and I really wasn't out at that time either. It was always just kind of hidden. I was in the army, and I had some of my buddies come into town and stay at my parents' home with me, and we went up to Hollywood just to see what was going on. Of course they were interested in girls, and I was with them. They were going along Hollywood Boulevard, and we were sort of in a line, and the first friend walked into this bar. Then the next one, and the next one, and the next one. I think I was probably the fifth one.
By the time I was walking in they were pushing me back out. They said that's a gay bar, a queer bar I think is what they called it. I marked down exactly where I was so I knew where it was, and it was in the back of my mind. It wasn't until I was back in Los Angeles on a weekend that I made my way to that bar, and it was quite exciting. I remember an older person coming up to me and asking me who I was and so forth. He said, "You really don't belong in this bar." It was really a seedy bar. He said, "You should go to this other bar," and he told me where it was, and so I did.
There was a pipe organ there, and people were singing and having a great time. A totally different situation. I was there several times, and ultimately took my friend, the one that I'd first had sex with when I was in high school, and invited him to go along to the bar. We sort of came out together, each being independent, and that was the beginning.
Mason Funk: Wow, that's interesting. This would have been like in the say 1950s, mid 1950s?
Mason Funk: When you say you didn't come out until, that would have been around the age of 21, what did coming out mean to you at that time?
John McDonald: [00:15:00] Really nothing. It was just that you realized that you liked men more than women. There wasn't such a thing as coming out. My parents, and I was of an age and an era where you didn't come out to your parents or to anyone else. It was a secret, and you kept it to yourself. It was quite different. Today it's totally different. I think that's what's advanced the acceptance of gay people in society, is the fact that they are coming out, because there are gay people everywhere, all around you.
Businesses discriminated against gays in those days. The police raided bars in those days. I remember much later, a number of years later, being in a bar when it was raided, and the police came in. The lights would go on, and they'd just go from person to person and check their ID, and then they'd say, you, or you, or you, or the next one, just randomly picking people and sending them back outside, and arresting them for nothing. It was all rigged and very very corrupt.
Probably down around election time, I really don't recall any of that, but whatever they were trying to prove they did so. You would lose your job if they called to notify your employer that you were gay. I worked for an insurance company, it was one of my first jobs, and I was an advancing young executive, this is some years later, when the chairman of the board was visiting for a Christmas party, and we were walking up the backstairs of the office building in downtown Los Angeles on the stairway, and he say, "John, when are you gonna get married?" I said, "Tom, I have no idea. I don't know that I ever will."
He said, "Well I want you to know, John, that you've gone as far as you can go in this company without getting married," and they were sending me to UCLA for my master's, and as soon as they reimbursed me for the tuitions I quit, and went with the consulting company, and ultimately ended up with one of my clients that hired me away from the consulting work, and that's the business that I finally was sold some 30 years later, that affords us the opportunity to do some of the things for the gay community which we're very happily doing.
Mason Funk: Wow, so back with that, not only could you not be gay if you weren't married you were already under suspicion.
John McDonald: [00:18:30] Yes, for my age group it's very unusual that I did not get married and perhaps have children. Many many gay people married in those days, and had children, and raised families, and then many years later come out into the gay community. We see that here in Palm Springs frequently. People were married until their children were raised, and then they get divorced and go on their way to a new life.
Mason Funk: Did you consider getting married?
John McDonald: No, well I did date.
Mason Funk: Oh, start that again?
Goro Toshima: Sorry.
Mason Funk: [00:19:00] That's all right. No worries. The question being, did you consider getting married?
John McDonald: I never really seriously considered getting married. It just isn't something that I thought I would ever do. I think I enjoyed my independence too much. I'm not sure I would've made a great husband anyway. Except I think I make a good one now, but I don't know about in those days.
Mason Funk: [00:19:30] Sure. Let's kind of fast forward a little bit into the '60s. By now in the '60s there's a little bit of like a political movement starting to happen around homosexual rights. Were you aware? Were you involved? How did you relate to the so-called beginnings of gay activism, or did you not?
John McDonald: [00:20:00] Well I didn't participate in gay activism in the '60s, until probably the late '60s. It's hard to remember exactly how it all happens, but I remember that at one point I was invited to a dinner party put on by a person who was involved with the gay community center in Los Angeles, which was on Highland Boulevard in a small shopping center. It was an outgrowth of a gay bar called The New York Company. We met the executive director of the center at the dinner party that this friend had threw in his beautiful home in Los Feliz. I became very sold on the concept of the gay community center, and particularly the gay and lesbian center, the Los Angeles gay and lesbian center, because one of their projects was to keep kids off the street.
People were getting thrown out of their homes when their parents found out they were gay, and moving to Hollywood to become parking lot attendants, or waiters, or hoping of course to become actors, and all the other dreams that people have when they come to California. I became very supportive of the center at that time and became a regular donor of the center, because I thought what they were doing was just brilliant, keeping kids off the street. These are just young teenagers that were in some cases having to prostitute themselves in order to survive.
The center didn't have that service at that time, but they were working with these young people to try to help them. How to apply for a job, how to be able to write a check, how to open a checking account, and if they get a job, teaching them how to dress so that they can apply, so forth. Life was a little more formalthen. It was not as casual as it is today. People actually worked for the same company for many many years rather than just doing job to job as they seem to do today. To get gigs here and there to make their living. It's a completely different environment today.
Mason Funk: The idea being that getting a job had a larger significance, because if you got a job the chances were you'd have a stable place for years to come.
John McDonald: [00:23:00] Yes, that's true. If you applied for a job and you were given a job, as long as you did it you would stay there for a long period of time. If the chairman of the board hadn't asked me when I was going to get married I would've probably gone on to stay with that company. But the fact that, as many gay people found, that they couldn't make a career in regular businesses, so they went into other fields. That's why in those days there were so many hairdressers, and people doing things that florists, and so forth, that you could do independently, and start a company, and use your artistic ability to provide a very good living.
That's the type of thing that caused people ... And it probably even to this day is why so many ideas come out of people who are working in the computer industry, because they're thinking of being independent, and not having to report to somebody else, or be afraid of losing their jobs.
Mason Funk: What's your take on the possibility that there's a kind of inherent or innate streak, or sense of independence within gay and lesbian individuals that just makes us a little less likely to want to sit in a desk, or sit in an office for weeks, and years, and decades on end? What's your take on that?
John McDonald: [00:24:30] Well, I think that's a very good question. What is the reason that there are so many talented people that start businesses in the gay community? I think number one there's a lot of very artistic people, there's innovative people with great ideas, they're very intelligent people by and large, and not afraid to be independent. The fact that they're going to have a different sexual orientation in a hostile environment is enough to make them not afraid of making decisions. That's my take on it. I'm not sure I'm correct, but that's what it seems like to me, and thinking back amongst all of my friends.
Mason Funk: [00:25:30] Right, great. The story of that gay lesbian center on Highland, either you or Rob wrote in an email the anecdote about applying for non-profit status and being declined. Can you tell us that story and how it all kind of turned around in the end?
John McDonald: There's a certain-
Mason Funk: I'm sorry. Just hold one second for the phone. Okay.
John McDonald: [00:26:00] The center that now exists on Schrader Boulevard, just south of Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, is an interesting story. That was the headquarters building. 30,000 square foot building, it was the headquarters building for the IRS in Los Angeles. When the gay community center applied for a 501c3 status, tax-free status, they were turned down by the person in charge of that headquarters. They had sue to be granted the 501c3 status, which of course they won, because it's a charitable organization. It meets all the criteria.
It was definitely a discriminatory reason that they gave for we don't believe in your type of organizations. Well, it has nothing to do with their belief. It's the law, and that's quite different. The center was raising funds for a new building, and they wanted to buy that building, the IRS building, where they had been turned down. That was how we became involved. This is much later. This would be about 1995 that we stepped forward and gave the lead gift for that purchase, and it's now a major supplier of healthcare, all types of things that are necessary for the gay community.
We're skipping through the whole period of time that the AIDS epidemic happened in the early '80s and throughout the '80s. It's moved from being a sure death sentence to more or less a chronic disease now, and I still hope that I'll be able to see the day that there's a vaccine that will prevent it entirely, which should happen, and will. I'm sure.
Mason Funk: [00:28:30] Yes, I definitely didn't want to skip those decades. I just wanted to get that story of the building itself, but I agree with you there's a lot of other things that happened in the meantime, and that building of course is extraordinary today. I'm really interested in how passionate you became for this gay and lesbian center. When I was in college in the '70s there was a gay people's union on campus, but I didn't dare go in there. How radical was it for their to be a building essentially in public. I remember I think I read that there was a debate over whether to put the name gay on the building. Can you tell us about that?
John McDonald: [00:29:00] There were differences in opinions as to whether we should state the fact that it was a gay organization. Fortunately the people that were in favor of stating what kind of an organization it was won out, but there's always those that are a little afraid to step forward, and want to call it something else. It sort of is whether you should go for the word marriage or domestic partner, it's a similar situation. The younger people generally want to move ahead, and take that step forward, and call it what it was, and fortunately they won, and it is the Los Angeles gay and lesbian center, and I think that's right.
Mason Funk: [00:30:00] Were you aware, now we're in like the '60s and the '70s here, and within the gay rights movement there were some folks who tended to be a bit more so-called assimilationist, who wanted to maybe guarantee they weren't going to get fired, but not necessarily rock the boat I guess you could say too radically. Then other people tended to be more activists. Were you aware of these ... That was good timing. Okay, and this can just keep rolling right?
Goro Toshima: Yeah, okay. This is camera roll take two.
Mason Funk: Okay, so just my question being were you aware that there were these different tensions, or these different philosophies almost, and did you have a particular feeling one way or another about those?
John McDonald: [00:30:30] The question of whether I was aware of the disparity between those that wanted a revolution and those that wanted an evolution, I was very much aware of that, and tended at that time to be more of an evolutionist myself. Why rock the boat? Why bring more attention to yourself was what I was thinking at the time, but I was wrong, completely wrong. We should've come out even more rapidly. I freely admit that, but it's part of I guess being a little older, and not necessarily wiser. For the center, and its naming, as well as for ultimately the difference between domestic partner and marriage there's a huge difference.
When you figure that, I think there was over 1,100 things in laws in the country that mention marriage, and don't say anything about domestic partners. All of those laws would have to be redone and include treating domestic partners as the definition equivalent to marriage, and that just would not have happened. By going for the term marriage was extremely important. It relates back to the same thing of calling the center a gay organization or just a homeless youth organization, or something of that nature.
Mason Funk: [00:32:30] I've never heard the distinction expressed that way. The difference between a revolutionist, or a revolutionary, and an evolutionist. Going for revolution or evolution, but that's really interesting. That's a great way of kind of framing the tension. I don't know if you have anything more to say about that. I find it really interesting.
John McDonald: [00:33:00] I think that pretty much describes what everyone was going through at the time. There were debates, not so much on the naming of the center, because that was up to the board of directors of the center, but I'm sure they had discussions. I was never on the board of the center. My husband Rob served on the board for quite some time, and we were very active at that time, and hosting fundraisers, and sponsoring different things.
As time went by I became more and more active in the gay community, but the naming of the center building in our honor was because we gave the lead gift, the gift that they were able to point to saying let's go, we can do it. We can raise the funds to buy this building. They now are an organization, they've got multiple buildings, and great donors who have helped build the center into really an outstanding organization. It leads to where we are with our second home in Palm Springs, which had a center, but it is in a very poor location and needs to be in a better place for visibility and for fundraising reasons, so it can provide the types of services that are needed in the community here, in the desert. That's why we're in the process now of giving a building to the center here in the desert.
Mason Funk: [00:34:30] Yeah, that's extraordinary. I've seen the schematic images. It's gorgeous, it's beautiful. I'm looking forward to seeing it. When will it be finished?
John McDonald: [00:35:00] They should be moving in in July, and it probably won't have totally settled down, and this is the summer, so a lot of people leave here in the summer, as we're going to do just next weekend. I think that it'll really be operating in late October and November, and that's when they'll have the opening.
Mason Funk: Great. Tell me about Rob, and how you guys met, and when that was.
John McDonald: [00:35:30] Well it was in probably 1980. I stopped by to visit a very close friend of mine after work, and just to say hi. He said, "Well we're just off to," he and his husband were just going to the neighbors for a little cocktail party. They said, "Why don't you come on along?" I said, "Well I don't even know these people, uh." He said, "No, you'll really really like them. They're our neighbors, and they're really fun, so come on along." I acquiesced, and we went to the party, and it was Rob... his partner at that time was named Bud, and they were together, and I sort of felt ... Robbie, there's noise.
Mason Funk: Yeah. I think he's done. Maybe just back up to where you acquiesced.
John McDonald: [00:36:30] Okay, so I went along with Bill to the friend's house, and met Bud who's extremely funny. Very funny guy and fun to be around, and Rob who was sort of in the background, very handsome, and I was just taken by Rob. However, he was already taken, so nothing really happened at that point, but about a year and a half or two later it was April 14th of 1982. I stopped by The New York Company for a drink and to just chat with friends, and Rob was there. I said, "Hi Rob. How are you? Where's Bud?" He said, "Well we're not together anymore." I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. Would you like to go to dinner?" He said, "Well I can't tonight. How about tomorrow night?" I said, "That's fine," and we made a date for the next night.
As I was working around the house, because the next night was a Saturday, the 15th of October. We were working around the house, and I got a call from Bud and I said, "Oh hi Bud, uh, what's going on?" He says, "Well I hear you're having, taking Rob out to dinner tonight." I said, "Yes I am. Is that a problem?" He said, "No, not at all." He said, "I just think you should know it's his birthday." That was April 15th, 1982, and we haven't been apart since.
The restaurant that we went to was called The Rose Tattoo in West Hollywood. Maybe you've heard of it. I don't know, but it was just a change in our lives at that point. We've been together ever since, and we were married in October of '08 when we were quite sure that the proposition against gay marriage would win, and that we would lose, so we wanted to for political reasons get our vote in that we were married, and they'd have to deal with us as a separate entity now.
That was interesting in and of itself, because when we had made this political decision to make our statement by getting married we called a friend of ours who is a retired superior court judge, who married us with a couple of friends who were witnesses here in Palm Springs. It was far more emotional than I had ever imagined. I thought it would just be well we're making a marriage contract that's valid in the law, but it was far more emotional than that.
I've talked to many other people that have gotten married and realized the same thing. It's extremely important. Marriage is a great honor, and it's very important to take that step, because you're binding yourselves to a contract to take care of each other, and one that's recognized in the law. Nothing really happens unless the law changes. You can do what you want. Try to live independently and be a gay person, but until the laws change nothing really happens in America. We are a lawful country, and we believe in laws, and regulations. Is that sound bothering?
Goro Toshima: [00:40:30] I can hear it. It's a ...
John McDonald: A truck or something.
Mason Funk: I think, well it just stopped again, so carry on about the law. This is so important, or I can ask you another question. Whatever you prefer.
John McDonald: [00:41:00] Along my career at the medical center I decided that it was during the malpractice crisis in California some years ago, and physicians were the subjects of lawsuits frequently, and insurance rates were going sky high to insure doctors in their practice. I didn't understand what it was all about, so I decided that I would go to law school. While I was CEO of the company that I was running I decided to apply for law school, was accepted, and completed the course in law, and took the California bar, and I passed in 1980.
That gave me a great respect for what law is, and why it's so important. It's very true that nothing really happens till the laws change. We saw that with the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. It changes everything, and the country has to adhere to that, because we're a lawful organization of people that live together under the law, and it allows us to be a civilized people, so it's extremely important.
Mason Funk: [00:42:30] That's great. Let's take a little break, just for a couple minutes, go over the batter- Okay, so one question, we're going to spend more time talking about the law, but I wanted to ask you when you met Rob, according to my math, for the very first time you were 48ish, and by the time you guys actually connected you were about 50.
John McDonald: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mason Funk: What had your relationship life been like up to that point? Had you had long-term relationships? What was it like?
John McDonald: [00:43:00] I've had one long-term relationship besides Rob. His name was Richard Demerse. He was one of the AIDS victims, but we weren't together at that time. We had broken up. The difference, we were very young at the time, and I don't think I realized at that time that relationships are really a series of compromises that you make, and recognizing that you both have different ideas, and that you try to come to agreement on everything, but sometimes you just drop it and move on to other things until you come back later and find out that it wasn't important that you might have been having a little difficulty with.
Richard and I broke up, and sadly so at that time, and I was single at the time that I met Rob. Of course I had been doing some interviews with various friends along the way, but nothing serious. I actually fell in love with Rob almost the moment that I saw him two years earlier, but I'm a great believer that relationships are difficult enough to maintain without any interference from the outside. My attitude was I wouldn't possibly make an advancement to Rob, who I was very interested in, until I found out that he was no longer in any kind of a relationship himself. That's how that worked out.
Mason Funk: What was it about Rob that you would say captivated you so?
John McDonald: He was extremely-
Mason Funk: [00:45:00] Okay, but start by just saying his name.
John McDonald: Rob was a captivating person. He had a very quiet personality, very enthusiastic about things that he's interested in, and is a gentle person. He just really is a great guy, and was extremely handsome, and still is, and always will be in my eyes.
Mason Funk: [00:45:30] Once you went out for dinner on April 15th that was his birthday in 1982, you say pretty much the deal was sealed at that point, is that correct?
John McDonald: [00:46:00] Well we didn't discuss getting together on a permanent basis, but from then on we just spent all our time together. It wasn't like a marriage proposal. That came later when I actually did ask him to marry me.
Mason Funk: Tell me that story.
John McDonald: [00:46:30] Well, we didn't have marriage in those days. We had the fact that we were going to be in a permanent relationship. I remember saying to him, "Why don't you come, and we'll live together and uh ... You know, we'll take care of each other." I said, "Don't worry I'll, we will share everything going forward." I actually owned a house at that time and Rob did not, and so I put him on title to the house, and from then on everything we did was shared 50-50. Became community property even before we were legally married.
Mason Funk: [00:47:00] You or Rob mentioned in an article I read that the discrepancy and the costs you had to endure, just the financial costs in not being able to get married. For example, putting Rob on title, that cost you money, but you couldn't get married so it was just the choice you made, but that this was a primary motivation for you to become more involved in, for example funding the chair at UCLA.
John McDonald: [00:47:30] Yes, all of these issues go back to the fact that money is the bottom line of it, and the tax situation is such that by the time I was doing very well, and if something were to happen to me, and Rob was, I had already put him in my will, but if my wealth would've been taxed at that time under the California laws that existed that would've eaten up a large amount of my estate, and so Rob would actually get ... Then when he would die again it would happen so that you have no money left.
By getting married there is no tax for the person that survives on the first death, and the tax is taken out after the death of the second person. That's a huge incentive for us, and I think most people, although they've increased the amount of money that goes without a tax on it now. I think it’s ... I don't know the amount, I won't guess, but I think it's around four or five million dollars that you can have and it will not be taxed initially.
Mason Funk: [00:49:00] Right. How did your relationship with your family carry on through these years? By now you were with Rob and you were about 50 years old. Did you, in terms of your parents and talking to them about your sexual orientation, did that ever happen?
John McDonald: [00:49:30] Well, my parents and I never discussed my sexual orientation until my father passed away. Of course I was with my mother, and she lived in Laguna Niguel, so I was down there with her, and they have a beautiful hotel down there. I took her out to dinner, just the two of us. Of course they knew Rob very well, because we were always together. So I asked my mother, no my mother asked me, "Are you and Rob, uh, uh, uh, uh," and she wouldn't come out with the word, and her voice kept dropping. I said, "What? What are you saying mom?" She said, "Are you and Rob, uh, um, together?" I said, "Are you asking me if Rob and I are gay?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Well, of course we are. I thought you always knew."
She said, "Well, your father and I used to pray that you wouldn't be," which I knew wasn't true because my father wasn't the least bit religious, and don't think he ever prayed about anything, but I thought it was pretty funny. From then on of course we included her in the different parties we would have in Los Feliz, and she met all of our friends, which amounted to hundreds of people, at different parties that we would have. She had such a good time.
One time I had picked her up down in Orange County, and was driving back up for her to stay with us over the weekend, and I'll remind you that she's Scottish. We're coming back up the five freeway, and conversation has just sort of died. Then all of the sudden she said, "You know I am so happy now that you've come out of the cupboard," and I just cracked up. I couldn't believe that. In Scotland they don't have closets, they have cupboards, so I just thought that was very very funny. I've told that story a few times. She was fine with it after she realized that I would be okay, and that everything was good.
My biggest regret, however, for those who might be reading this or listening to it at some point is that I never did disclose to my father. I wish that I had. I can't do it now of course, but it's one of my great regrets that I didn't get a chance to let him know who his son was. That's one of my sad regrets of having been raised in a time when it just didn't happen.
Mason Funk: Were you familiar by coincidence, or just by the way, were you familiar with a book called Coming Out: An Act of Love?
John McDonald: I've heard of it, but no I've never read it.
Mason Funk: [00:52:30] Okay. I just wondered. It was written by a guy named Rob Eichberg, and we interviewed his mom last week who's 95 years old. He's passed away unfortunately, but we were able to interview his mom. What you said about coming out, and your regrets about not coming out to your father resonated, because he talked about coming out as in fact an act of love towards the parent or the sibling.
John McDonald: [00:53:00] Well I would agree with that concept. I think I cheated my father out of the ... He may have suspected it, but by not expressing it directly I think I cheated him out of the opportunity to know who his son was, which is sad I think.
Mason Funk: Now, when did you begin to realize that you had made ... Well first of all give us an overview of how you made a decent amount of money in business. How did that happen?
John McDonald: [00:53:30] Well I started, after I left the insurance company I went to work as a consultant, and I was interested, and we did a lot of work for different doctors, practices, medical groups, and so forth. And I developed quite a reputation in the area that I was working in for solving problems for physicians of improving their incomes by some changes that I could make that would improve their flow through of patients and their collections, and provide them with a better living. The insurance billing and so forth.
One of my clients ultimately hired me at a hospital and a medical group, a very small medical group. I think there were five physicians there when we started with him. 30 years later we were one of the largest medical group practices in the West in Washington, Oregon, and California. We contacted with HMOs to provide the medical services, the Blue Cross, and PacifiCare, and so forth, all these HMOs were just getting started.
Goro Toshima: My roll's about to run out.
Mason Funk: I'm sorry?
Goro Toshima: My roll is getting quite [crosstalk 00:54:41].
Mason Funk: Oh okay, sorry. Just pause for one second we're going to just switch.
Goro Toshima: Okay.
Mason Funk: [00:55:00] Okay, so you expanded obviously dramatically, and this is what enabled you needless to say to have a very profitable company when all was said and done.
John McDonald: [00:55:30] That's correct, and things were really changing in the medical world at that time. We were going to take the company public, but we had a whole host of owners, of physician owners, who were of different ages, and so it was difficult to find a solution that would solve everyone's problem, so we elected to either take it public and turn their ownership into stock or to ... This is an interesting side remark. There is nothing that's really confidential on Wall Street, as soon as you talk to Wall Street about, and select a broker to represent you, and whether you're going to sell or go public, they say there's a Chinese wall that protects your privacy. It's absolutely not true. The only friend you really could have on Wall Street would be your dog.
We sold to an existing publicly traded physician group, and then they spun-off one of our subsidiaries, Caremark, and so actually my ownership in the company is now as part of CVS Caremark, so it's been an interesting evolution, but I received a good portion of a very nice package, which allowed me to make some contributions to organizations that ...
Mason Funk: Oops. Okay, sorry. Just back up. You received a great package that enabled you to, carry on, start there again.
John McDonald: Yeah, it allowed me to carry on and give gifts to different gay organizations. One of the first gifts we thought of was to the gay and lesbian center of Los Angeles, and it was the gift that we gave, the lead gift for their new building, which I had mentioned earlier. Shortly after that we became involved with the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, and so we started off by giving them a grant to train the judiciary ... Oh great.
Mason Funk: Okay, he jumped on. Just back off to say we started off ...
John McDonald: [00:58:00] We started off on the program that they had to educate the judiciary and lawyers, and continue education of the law to deal with the language of gay life. They didn't understand it, they didn't have the words that you need to handle the compromises, which needed to be made. That was very successful, and then we followed that with a donation of the first chair in same-sex law through the Williams Institute and the School of Law at UCLA. We continue to support them and the center in Los Angeles, and the center here in Palm Springs.
The bulk of our estate will ultimately, both our combined estate, will ultimately at our deaths go to the gay community totally. Why do we do that? Even though we do give other gifts to our home, which is in Colorado, and the music center, and different organizations up there, but the bulk of our estate will go to gay issues. We feel that's appropriate, because we do not get the type of support at this time from the straight community with many exceptions, but we don't get the same level of support that they give to their own organizations that they're involved with. That's an important part of our belief that we're not leaving our estate to any meaningful amount to families or anybody else. It's to our real family, which is the gay community.
Mason Funk: [01:00:00] When did you begin to realize that, like the notion of being able to be philanthropic with regard to the gay community? At some point you, maybe over a period of days, weeks, months, or whatever, you realized oh I'm going to be able to use my money to help this, your family in a sense, your extended family. It sounds so obvious, but was there kind of a moment or a gradual realization when that kind of took root in you?
John McDonald: [01:01:00] Well, the fact that we could become philanthropic really took root when I realized that we had a sizeable fortune to deal with, and that we wanted to do something with it that was really meaningful. It went from the center and evolved into the Williams Institute, and into the center here in the desert, as well as the support that we've given to the center in Denver, since our primary residence is in Colorado. We've supported gay organizations for a long long time, in smaller amounts. Not in larger grants, but I think everyone ... I mean, we supported the center right along.
We attended their annual meetings, and we made annual contributions to the center. Significant contributions but not ones that they were going to recognize as separate and different from the others. The naming opportunity for the center, the McDonald/Wright building for the Los Angeles Center, and soon to be the McDonald/Wright building for the center here in Palm Springs. We don't want a lot of recognition, but we do want people to remember that we were here. It just evolves, and then all of the sudden it becomes part of the way you live.
Mason Funk: [01:02:30] I want to sidetrack for a minute here. During say the probably late '70s, '80s in Los Angeles, there was an organization called MECLA, which was one of the first I think gay sort of political organizations. I wonder if you remembered that, if you were involved?
John McDonald: [01:03:00] No, I was never involved with MECLA, although I was aware of it. I didn't see politics as something to be involved with. It was very important, because that's where laws are made, but no, mine was more of just philanthropic, providing services for the gay community.
Mason Funk: During that era the idea of electing gay officials, for example, this just wasn't kind of where you felt drawn, towards the more political side of things.
John McDonald: [01:03:30] Well I've made political contributions to individuals that I happen to know and that were running for office. We did that with people running for office in West Hollywood, and other elections, very definitely were involved in that, but not involved with an organization that supports them. I leave that up to other people.
Mason Funk: [01:04:00] Okay, now I do understand that the gift you gave to the gay and lesbian center was possibly the largest donation of its kind at the time, the first large donation of its kind, and a lot of others took their cues from you. Is that true, and how does that make you feel?
John McDonald: [01:04:30] Well I've been told that that's what happened, and I believe it did. Somebody has to start, and ours was significant enough that I think it did open the floodgates to people. I'm sure many people have given larger gifts. I know one for sure has given a lot of time, is David Bennett and his foundation have done a lot of things for various centers across the country. We're close friends of his.
Mason Funk: [01:05:00] Tell me again, let's go back to the law, and why it was so important to you and Rob to first give an initial grant to the Williams Institute, and then eventually to endow a chair. Why was that so close to your heart?
John McDonald: [01:05:30] Well, I was very proud that I had managed to go through law school while running a large organization, so that was number one, I guess. It definitely changed me and changed my outlook about a lot of things. I think that it just made me a more learned person to understand the motives that people have, and what they're doing, and how you can manage these types of gifts. I guess I don't know. I don't know how to answer that question.
Mason Funk: Okay. Tell me about this, it's a chair in sexual orientation law.
Mason Funk: What is the purpose of having funded this chair?
John McDonald: [01:06:30] Oh, well it was Chuck Williams who founded the Williams Institute with his own fortune that first brought to my attention, since I had just graduated from law school, passed the bar, that nothing really changes in America until the law is changed. We're watching that right now with regard to restrooms for transsexual people in the Carolinas. The law has changed. People are fighting it, it will not die down for a while. Once a law is made people are expected to adhere to it.
The Supreme Court has ruled that gays and lesbians, and transsexual people should be treated like every other person, that we have equal rights. They are not gay rights, by the way. I don't like that expression, gay rights. They're human rights, and that's extremely important to understand. We don't call them straight rights when you speak of your parents' rights, or other people who are bisexual people who are married, and so I don't like it when it's called gay rights. It has nothing to do with gay rights. It has to do with human rights, we were taxed differently, we were discriminated against, and people shouldn't be discriminated against based on any issues. That's I guess all I have to say on that one.
Mason Funk: [01:08:00] Great. Let's talk briefly about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Actually, let's backtrack a little bit further. How were you and Rob affected by, and I know it's a huge question, but by the advent of the AIDS epidemic, and then how that played out?
John McDonald: [01:09:30] Well, the AIDS epidemic was well along the way before I met Rob in 1982, or 1980. We both were fortunate in that we were never diagnosed with it, with having been exposed to it, which we were very lucky about. Because prior to that, in the early '80s we attended memorial service, after memorial service, after memorial service for friends of ours who were dying of AIDS. It was a tragic time, and in those days we kept people's names on a Rolodex card, and it was so sad to pull that Rolodex card out of your little file and set it aside, because he was no longer here.
It was a fascinating time, because it brought the male homosexual community into a closer working relationship with the female homosexual community, the lesbians. The lesbians, many of whom were nurses stepped in when other people were isolating gay people, or victims of AIDS, and it brought us much closer together. I think that was a really interesting outcome of the AIDS epidemic was that lesbians and homosexuals started to work more closely together, and the center in Los Angeles, which is probably the best one in the country is run by an incredibly talented lady who is a lesbian, and is staffed, and the board is staffed with almost all, 50%, equally. That makes a much much stronger community. We're aligned now to speak up.
We're certainly supportive of women’s rights to control their own body, and not have a bunch of tired old politicians deciding whether they should be allowed to have an abortion, or what they want. I think, in fact, my personal opinion is that I don't think they should allow men to vote on women's rights. I think only women should be able to vote on women's rights.
Mason Funk: [01:11:30] Prior to that would you say, like in the era before the AIDS epidemic, because this is something that I've never really experienced. Was there really just not a lot of contact and solidarity between gay men and lesbians? Was it almost like you guys just lived in separate worlds?
John McDonald: I think so. I could be wrong on that, but from my standpoint that was certainly the case.
Mason Funk: Tell me what you're talking about.
John McDonald: [01:12:00] We're talking about the separation between gays and lesbians that existed prior to the AIDS epidemic. It was, the fact that most nursing, and physicians treating AIDS victims were mostly women, and they stepped forward when other people didn't step forward. They treated people with AIDS like it was some horrible communicable disease that if you walked into a room you used to have to robe to go into, dress in isolation gowns to go into AIDS person's room. It was really a terrible time.
Mason Funk: [01:13:00] Let's talk briefly about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Did you have friends, well you yourself were in the military way before Don't Ask, Don't tell, and I'm sure you knew other people as well. Clinton came into office and people thought that he was going to abolish the ban on gays and lesbians serving, and instead they came up with Don't Ask, Don't Tell. What was your experience? What was the existence for gays and lesbians in the military like before Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Do you know people who had long careers, bad experiences, or otherwise?
John McDonald: [01:14:00] Well I knew a lot of gay men that had served in World War II and the Korean War that served along with everybody else. You never let people know, it was just not done. You just served silently, the issue just didn't exist then. If you were caught, then they would kick you out of the service and give you a dishonorable discharge. It just wasn't something that you expected to ever be accepted. I think that President Clinton wanted to do the right thing and allow gays to be in the military openly the way they are today, and it totally changes all kinds of things. It's the right way to do it, but the Congress was just not ready for that at that time.
Gays were so discriminated against that there was no way that was going to pass. So that a more strict law wouldn't be passed I think he compromised to Don't Ask, Don't Tell as a way of getting himself out of a political conundrum, so he came up with that idea. It seemed to calm things down. When President Obama changed the military to accept gays, maybe he did it in a better way or something.
He convinced the military, and the military is an interesting organization. It doesn't think it's supposed to do what it's told, so there's not a big thinking process that goes on there. You expect people to follow their orders, and if you order them to accept gay people, they're going to do it. They're a wonderful part of our country, and I certainly enjoyed actually being in the service. I was only in it for 21 months, but I went back to college after that.
It's just a very very important part of keeping this country free, and protecting us. I'm a great supporter of the military. In fact I really think probably everyone would benefit by serving a year, or 18 months in some form of national service the way they do in Switzerland and other countries.
Mason Funk: [01:16:30] Do you remember there being a lot of, when Clinton came up with, and military joint chiefs, etc, came up with Don't Ask, Don't Tell I know a lot of people were really angry. Do you remember hearing a lot of a sense of betrayal, and frustration that this was the solution that was being presented?
John McDonald: [01:17:00] I don't really remember that being a terrible problem, because I was too busy running a business at that time. I just didn't have time to deal with that.
Mason Funk: [01:17:30] Okay. Now a few more questions. We're kind of hitting on the home stretch here. I want to ask you about a couple big changes that you've seen in the last decade or so, which is the emergence of the transgender community. When did you first, you yourself, become aware of transsexuals as a group that the gay and lesbian community might form a kind of common cause with, or just as individuals?
John McDonald: [01:18:00] Well, I first became aware of the difficulty of comprehending a transsexual problem, or whatever because it came very close to me on the basis that my grand nephew is now my grand niece, a fully transitioned transsexual. We are not close, because the family ties just weren't there originally, but we're supportive of transsexual people, and think that again they deserve, and should have equality. It isn't transsexual rights, it's human rights. People have got to understand that our founding fathers created human rights, and they apply to everyone, because we're all humans.
Mason Funk: [01:19:00] Great. Another question along those lines, the LGBTQ acronym is used frequently. In my experience the B, for bisexual, the lives of bisexual individuals and that community oftentimes feels like it doesn't get a lot of the prominence. A lot of misunderstanding there.
John McDonald: Are you talking about bisexual or transsexual?
Mason Funk: Bisexual. I switched over to the bisexual.
John McDonald: Oh.
Mason Funk: [01:19:30] I wondered if you in your experience have known and been close to people who really were kind of wanting to claim a space to be bisexual and to be understood as bisexual? Has that entered your experience?
John McDonald: [01:20:00] No, it really hasn't. I've never really dealt with that. I certainly didn't have that problem in my life. I witnessed it, because as I mentioned earlier many, many people in my generation married, because it was expected to be married, and it created a lot of very unhappy divorces, and difficulties with the children, and so forth. To think that you could go back and forth, and back and forth, I suppose it could happen. I don't know. I can't see it, but that's just my personal opinion.
Mason Funk: [01:20:30] Okay, great. What would you say for you as you look back over your life, which has been incredibly long and fruitful, what would you say have been some of the most difficult things you've dealt with, or maybe a most difficult moment or challenge?
John McDonald: [01:21:00] Nothing comes to mind right now that was extremely difficult. I think I've been very fortunate. I've created environments around me that were welcoming, and have not really ever had a difficult time. I don't know, maybe I just adapt to things, and change the things I can change, and accept the things I can't change.
Mason Funk: [01:21:30] I know for myself speaking personally, even after I came out I felt like I carried within me for a long time sort of the burden of all the years that I'd spent being terrified of being gay. I don't know if you can relate to that at all.
John McDonald: [01:22:00] I really can't. I can't relate to being terrified. Well yes, I can on a momentary basis when the police raided a bar that I was in I was terrified momentarily, but when I was passed over I just forgot about it and went on living my life.
Mason Funk: [01:22:30] Okay, wonderful. Now the whole purpose of this archive is to try to capture, through many, many people's perspectives the story of this incredible change we've witnessed, and how LGBTQ people are perceived, and embraced, and integrated into society. I know this is a huge question, but how has this change occurred? It's still so stunning in many ways.
John McDonald: [01:23:00] I don't think it's finished changing. It's still ongoing. There are many many people who are gay that haven't yet come out of the closet, so there's still a lot of that that goes on. I think the Williams institute analyzed it and said there's something like 3% or 4% gay people in the country. From the old Kinsey Report there were a lot of people that thought 10% of the people in the world were gay. Apparently that's not correct.
The fact that the census bureau is now going to ask questions to determine factually how many people are homosexual, and playing around with your boyfriend's genitals doesn't make you gay, because many of those people go on and have nice married lives too. That just happens. I think I was born gay, I think it's genetic, and I've just accepted it in myself, and done the best I can to survive in this world, and to try to make it a better place for other people.
Mason Funk: What would you say if any are the biggest lessons you've learned, or the biggest insights you've gained over the course of your life? Any specific ones?
John McDonald: [01:24:30] I think one of the most important things to learn is don't gossip and don't spread rumors unless you're absolutely sure that they're true, and that you have permission to violate confidences that you should get from your friends.
Mason Funk: Please for one second. Take five. Not violating confidences. That's a good one to start with.
John McDonald: [01:25:00] I can't think of others. I'm sure there are many, but I think I'm getting a little tired of this now.
Mason Funk: Sure, I can understand, well let me have you just for the, just so I have a record, could you first just say my name is and as a complete sentence, my name is John McDonald.
John McDonald: [01:25:30] My name is John McDonald, I live in Colorado. I have a home in Palm Springs, and have enjoyed this session together.
Mason Funk: Can you just say for the cameras. I was born in 1932 as a stand-alone sentence.
John McDonald: I was born in 1932. As a stand-alone sentence.
Mason Funk: [01:26:00] You got me. Okay. Last question. This archive is called OUTWORDS, and could you tell me why, in essence why did you agree to be interviewed? What is the importance of a project like OUTWORDS? If you could mention the name of the organization that would be great.
John McDonald: [01:26:30] The history of change in society is an important thing, number one, and to have it be honest and allow people to years from now look at things and try to understand how this happened, and to try to figure out why there was so much discrimination in the first place. Why did we have to overcome such discrimination? A lot of it based on religion. I personally consider the fact that my family was not religious was a real plus in my getting along in this world, and not having to carry the burden of sin, and all that crap that must be very terrible for people that are truly believers.
What's worse is to have your parents totally believing you're going to go to hell. That they even believe there is a hell is appalling to me. You can be a good person without going to church every Sunday.
Mason Funk: Wonderful. That's fantastic. I think that's everything I want to ask. Anything else you want to share?
John McDonald: I think I've shared everything. You know more than Rob now.
Mason Funk: I'll keep your confidence. All right?
John McDonald: You're going to publish it.
Mason Funk: That's true too. Goro, anything from your end?
Goro Toshima: [01:27:30] No, that's great.
Mason Funk: Okay, then should we cut it?
Goro Toshima: Yeah, let's cut.
Mason Funk: All right. Cut.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Goro Toshima
Date: June 13, 2016
Location: Home Of John Mcdonald And Rob Wright, Palm Springs, CA