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Gay and lesbian rights, once treated like an embarrassing stepchild in presidential politics, is now assuming the role of favorite son in the race to the White House. President Clinton made a rousing appearance before 1800 gays and lesbians and supporters of gay rights in New York as part of his long farewell tour, and the Democrats vying to succeed him came to town and made unprecedented commitments here on gay issues. But the presumptive Republican nominee also visited, only to make a conscious effort to run away from his antigay record.
Clinton spoke to the Empire State Pride Agenda's $1 million fundraising dinner at the Sheraton October 7 to enthusiastic standing ovations, despite his mixed record in moving the nation toward ending discrimination based on sexual orientation. "I wish we could have done better," he said in reference to his exclusion of out gay people from the military through his "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 1993 and his signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, barring federal recognition of same-sex couples.
Empire State Pride's board cochair Jeff Soref catalogued the president's achievements in introducing him: banning antigay discrimination in federal nonmilitary jobs, appointing more than 200 out gays and lesbians to administration posts, supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in Congress, opposing relentless Republican antigay amendments, giving gay philanthropist James Hormel a recess appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg when the Senate refused to confirm him, breaking "the deadly silence of the White House about AIDS" under Reagan and Bush, and "standing up to hatemongers."
But the warmth of this upscale, mostly male audience for Clinton was about much more than advances on policy and administrative fronts. Clinton's survival of Ken Starr's sexual witch hunt heartens people who, however successful, feel that sexual intolerance can still hurt them with a boss, neighbor, or family member. "I am indebted to you," Clinton said. "You made me a better president and a better person."
"I adore him," Martin Bowe, a law student and activist said flatly, immune to the suggestion that Clinton's lack of resolve may have set back some gay issues. "He has elevated the discussion in this country about gay men and lesbians."
Terry Boggis, the usually low-key director of family programs for the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center and a lesbian mom with her grade-school son in tow, bubbled after shaking Bubba's hand, "He's a dreamboat. I'm changing my sexual orientation."
The polls predict a Republican in the White House after the 2000 election, but most gay and lesbian activists aren't paying attention to wringing much of substance out of the last 15 months of this Democratic presidency other than the pending Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The focus has been on raising the bar on the Democratic candidates, a process that has led both Bill Bradley and Al Gore to take stands that go where no viable candidate for president has gone before.
Bradley, challenged by a gathering of some 40 gay and lesbian movers and shakers at the Upper West Side penthouse of Council Member Ronnie Eldridge two weeks ago, has not backed off his opposition to same-sex marriage but has extended his support for domestic partnerships to favor all of the benefits due spouses. While he voted for DOMA, he opposes California's Knight Initiative, set for March, that would ban state recognition of same-sex marriages. He also wants to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation.
Gore, who also opposes same-sex marriage, followed Bradley's lead on the California referendum issue. In a private meeting with Manhattan Democrats October 5 at the Grand Hyatt, he responded to gay parent leader Doug Robinson by saying that he will support gay couples receiving "all 1049 rights" to which sex-discordant marrieds are entitled. And while he has yet to state so in a public forum, he said that he opposes DOMA and claims to have argued against the president signing it. He also told the group that he is against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And he just appointed Donna Brazile, a lesbian activist, as his campaign manager. But he has yet to completely satisfy those who have hounded him for the administration's policy against letting Third World countries produce cheap copies of AIDS drugs.
In New York gay and lesbian political circles, Gore has already secured the support of three prominent out elected officials state senator Tom Duane of Chelsea, assemblymember Deborah Glick of the Village, and Chelsea councilmember Christine Quinn. Bradley boasts former judge Karen Burstein and longtime activists Ethan Geto, Alan Fleishman, Ed Rogowsky, and Allen Roskoff. Councilmembers Margarita Lopez of the Lower East Side and Phil Reed of Manhattan Valley have yet to commit. Glick and Quinn cite the depth of Gore's record. Rogowsky says that Bradley has taken "the most progressive positions on gay issues of any major party candidate in history."'
After this dizzying week, both candidates are now for equal rights for gay folks save calling same-sex commitments "marriage" in law, but neither has articulated a strategy for moving this ambitious agenda forward. On letting gays serve openly in the military, Bradley says he will make it happen "in my own way, in my own time."
Nevertheless, Evan Wolfson, director of the Marriage Project of Lambda Legal Defense Fund, is encouraged. "The only mistake we make is when we let them off the hook by asking for less," he said. He is also optimistic. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe same-sex marriage will be legalized in the new century.
The only candidate who is determined not to discuss gay issues is the front-runner, Texas governor George W. Bush. He did not bring them up in his Christian Coalition appearance last week, especially since his theme has been positioning himself as a centrist.
If Clinton is on a farewell tour, Bush's campaign appearances are more like victory parties. At his $1000-per-person cocktail party at the Sheraton October 6, both his dad's brother Jonathan and former state comptroller Ned Regan were among those who smilingly brushed off Voicequestions about issues like W.'s support of antisodomy laws that might make him less than acceptable to Rockefeller Republicans, no less Democrats and Independents. The only visible gays spotted were Giuliani appointees Christopher Lynn ("I'm here for Rudy") and Antonio Pagan, who declined comment. And Bush shared the stage with such prominent antigay pols as Conservative Party leader Mike Long and State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno.
Since the candidate's press availability in New York was almost nil, I waded through the herd at the cocktail bash to waylay Bush. Clasping his hand, I asked, "Governor, what are you going to do about the sodomy law in Texas?"
"That law is not enforced," he said, looking stricken. "It's not used. Why call attention to it?" But in 1998, Tyrone Garner and John Geddes Lawrence were arrested in Lawrence's Harris County, Texas, home for making love, and Governor Bush is opposing their suit to overturn the 119-year-old Texas sodomy law. In 1994, he vowed to veto any attempt by the legislature to repeal the law, one of five in the U.S. that applies only to same-sex activity (there are 19 overall). And he twice ran on his party's state platform that holds that "the practice of sodomy tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous communicable diseases," not to mention being "contrary to the fundamental, underlying truths that have been ordained by God." The archaic law was also cited prominently by proponents of the Texas bill, supported by Bush, to bar gay people from adopting children. But why call attention to it?
Bush is also not highlighting his record on AIDS. Larry Kramer calls Texas, with the fourth-highest number of U.S. cases, "the worst state in the union for AIDS anything. Don't get sick in Texas." Francisco Sanchez, a gay Democratic official in Texas, says that under Bush, "assistance from the state has dropped dramatically" to Latino AIDS organizations.
Gay protest is now shifting from Gore to Bush. ACT UP was among the 1000 demonstrators picketing Bush's Sheraton event along with prochoice and anti-death-penalty groups. And no matter which Democrat gets nominated, it is more than likely he will raise the issue of gay rights in a debate with the Republican a first in presidential politics.