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Heart attack claims longtime Vancouver gay activist

Resume included Out on Screen, A Lovin' Spoonful

Vancouver has lost a popular community leader whose work ranged from helping people living with AIDS to overseeing a controversial drug treatment plan for sex trade workers and chronic offenders.

David Holtzman, who lived in the Keefer Place neighbourhod on the edge of Chinatown, died Tuesday of a heart attack while on vacation with his partner, Peter Regier, in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 53.

"David was a really good man who had this eternal optimism and belief that we could all be better than ourselves, and that really drove him," said Mark Wirtz, a longtime friend and neighbour. "He always said he felt blessed to live in the best city in the best country in the world, but there was always so much more that we can do."

Wirtz said he spoke to Regier Wednesday in Palm Springs and learned that Holtzman had gone out Monday night. Regier wasn't feeling well and stayed at home.

Details of where Holtzman was when he died aren't clear and Wirtz said he didn't press Regier for details. Holtzman seemed healthy, Wirtz said, noting he loved to snowboard, practised yoga and enjoyed running. An autopsy was to be performed Wednesday.

Holtzman and Regier were in Palm Springs to decompress from a recent court trial in which two men were charged with allegedly beating the gay couple outside their townhouse June 12, 2010. The couple testified in the trial that is expected to resume in the fall.

"It took an emotional toll on both Peter and David," Wirtz said. "They felt they needed to get away from the city for a while. That's why they planned this trip."

In an interview after the incident, Holtzman told the Courier that he and Regier were attacked and beaten after they questioned one of the men for urinating on the building.

The couple was treated for cuts, bruises and said they suffered concussions in the attack that prompted Mayor Gregor Robertson and Police Chief Jim Chu to hold a press conference to condemn gay bashing.

Though that case and the ensuing media coverage introduced Holtzman to many people for the first time, the longtime Vancouverite had been a familiar face and voice to many in the city.

At the time of his death, he was director of operations and human resources for Out on Screen, the city's queer film and video festival.

For five years, beginning in 1996, he was the executive director of A Loving Spoonful, providing food, nutritional support and counselling people living and dying with AIDS.

His various interests and leadership capabilities saw him work in Europe, Asia and around North America with the Department of External Affairs. He toured the globe as a planner with Rick Hansen's Man in Motion tour and was a director at Friends for Life and Leadership Vancouver.

In 2007, Holtzman became then-mayor Sam Sullivan's consultant overseeing a drug treatment plan to prescribe legal drugs to people with long-time addictions, particularly sex trade workers and chronic offenders.

"Sure, it's a bold initiative but I think anyone who's an adult in Canada sees what's going on [with the drug problem] that just attacking it from a criminal place is not helping," he told the Courier. "So we have to try something different."

The plan never got approval but Holtzman's desire for change was evident in much of what he did, said Wirtz, noting his passion for improving community.

Barb Snelgrove worked with Holtzman on the red ribbon council of Positive Living B.C. and across the community, where she said he was an impassioned voice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

"We as a community are deeply shocked and saddened by such a great loss," Snelgrove said. "He was an amazing, amazing man, a quick wit and generous of time and energy."

A memorial is expected to be announced at a later date.

Twitter: @Howellings