In a city notorious for its fickle tastes, where many are looking for “the next big thing,” one Los Angeles nightclub has been a steady force to be reckoned with for 30 long years. Jewel’s Catch One, owned by Jewel Thaïs-Williams, is a landmark establishment for people “in the life,” a club as legendary as it is vital to the fabric of the Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Its success comes not only from the trendy hip-hop and house beats bouncing off the walls of the South Los Angeles joint, but also from the fact that by day, “The Catch” is a critical epicenter for AIDS-related prevention efforts, educational workshops, political gatherings and grassroots activism.
“I want our people here to experience nice things and good health,” says Jewel. “We deserve that.”
As the owner of the oldest Black gay disco in the world, Jewel feels a personal imperative to help her “children.” Along with her life partner Rue, she has made it her mission to make a difference in the quality of life for those in LA’s urban gay and lesbian community.
Catch One had been open 11 years when, in 1984, Jewel co-founded the predominantly gay and lesbian Unity Fellowship of Christ Church and along with it, Minority AIDS Project with the Rev. Carl Bean. “My biggest motivation for doing something about AIDS,” says Jewel, “was the number of friends, employees and acquaintances that I saw coming down with it. I had a club in Houston at the time, so I was feeling the brunt of shame and death on two fronts. Initially, no one knew what was happening. Most people went in [the hospital] with pneumonia and never came out. I could not not do anything.”
In the late 1980s, at the request of Stephen Bennett, then executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, Jewel joined APLA’s Board of Directors, intent on bringing HIV/AIDS services to “the hood.” One such effort resulted in the Imani Unidos food pantry.
In 1989, Jewel and her partner Rue opened Rue’s House, the nation’s first shelter for women and children with HIV/AIDS. The goal was to keep the families in need under one roof, something that wasn’t being done at the time. Before the government provided additional funding, Rue’s House was solely supported by the couple and their fundraisers, which were held at the club. Eventually, the shelter evolved into the Village Health for Sober Living facility, now part of the Village Health Foundation.. Founded by Jewel (who also serves as executive director), the Foundation is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide affordable, accessible, and effective professional services in the areas of complementary and alternative medicine.
“I sense that there is an overall genocidal situation around Black people,” Jewel notes. “We’re being attacked from various areas and one of them is health. In addition to helping people with AIDS, we help with other epidemics that exist among Blacks: high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes. I’m interested in the health of minorities, poor people and people with HIV.”
The Foundation’s clinic is housed in a renovated building next to Catch One and although open to all, the clinic’s aimed is to improve the statistically poor health of African Americans and other people of color through nutrition, acupuncture, acupressure and herbal therapy. In an effort to reach out to all people—both gay and non-gay—clients have access to Chinese, Korean, Spanish and English translators.
“We want to provide care for indigent people. Free clients will never be charged anything for care,” Jewel says. “I would like to see more and more people come to the clinic whether they’re infected or not. We have a lot to offer as far as improving one’s health in general.”
Part of her motivation for being a crusader for good health comes not only from seeing the ranks of her club clientele decimated by AIDS, but also from being sober herself for almost two decades. Around the time of her 60th birthday, Jewel, who already possessed a B.A. in History from UCLA, was graduated from Samra University with a M.S.O.M. degree after extensive studies in traditional Chinese medicine, and received her acupuncture license from the State of California in 1999.
Meanwhile, Jewel is focused on “what’s in front of me, what I can contribute to humankind.” She says she is “humbled” by being recognized as a Hero in the Struggle honoree. “Today it’s about helping people live with AIDS, not just exist. We’re trying to help them think that just because they live with the virus, it doesn’t have define who they are. That’s not all they think about, all they talk about. There is life after being diagnosed. The people that fare the best are the ones who become involved, stop pitying themselves and start living outside themselves. There are ways and means—with or without meds—of having a quality life. We’re still in it and we will be as long as it takes.”