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Heilman was active in the incorporation of the City of West Hollywood. He was elected to the City's first City Council in November 1984 and has served continuously since then. John Heilman was chosen as the City's second Mayor in 1985, and also served as Mayor in 1990, 1995, 1999, 2001 and 2006. He began his most recent turn as Mayor in April 2010.
Since his earliest days on the City Council, one of Heilman's main concerns has been domestic partner rights. Heilman was instrumental in the establishment of West Hollywood's domestic partnership registration program that permitted city employee partners to register and obtain domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples and seniors, regardless of gender, who are at least 62.5 years old and living together.
Heilman is a past board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Openly gay, Heilman is also the past president of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Local Officials Group and past co-chair of the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials. His 2007 re-election campaign has won the support of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. He holds an active membership of the Stonewall Democratic Club. Heilman is also a member of the Coalition for Economic Survival.
As a result of Heilman's leadership on the issue of AIDS, he received the U.S. Conference of Mayor's Award in 1990.
John Heilman is an avid runner and was responsible for bringing Frontrunners Annual 5k/10k Pride Run to West Hollywood as part of the city's annual Christopher Street West/CSW Pride event held in June of each year.
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- Yeager, Ken (1999). Trailblazers: profiles of America's gay and lesbian elected officials. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780789002990. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
- "LA Councilman Sues To Discourage Gay Bashing". Lodi News-Sentinel. 23 November 1988. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
- Russell, Ron (May 4, 1989). "W. Hollywood Orders Study of Police Force Costs". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 29 March 2012.