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Gay Rights Groups Predict Backlash


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By Ceci Connolly and Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page A18

Although gay rights leaders say they are just as disappointed with President Clinton as the rest of the country these days, many predict that what they call "sexual McCarthyism" unleashed on their longtime ally may provoke a backlash against Republicans.

Some of the 2,200 gay rights activists meeting in Washington this weekend for an annual political convention said the publication of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's lurid report and the expected release Monday of Clinton's grand jury testimony has pushed them over the edge.

"I want someone to stop all this craziness," said Los Angeles gay rights leader David Mixner, who helped raise money for the president's 1992 campaign. Last week, Mixner said, he was on the verge of calling for Clinton's resignation, but then he read the Starr report. "I found a lot of disturbing information," he said, "but found no impeachable offenses and no reason for resignation."

Last night, at a black-tie dinner hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, executive director Elizabeth Birch praised Clinton for his history-making appearance at the event last year, when he was the first sitting president to address a gay audience.

"As the president and his family work through this difficult time, it is a glimpse into an America that would have no basic civil liberties," she said. "Let us be a nation where people can seek forgiveness and let us not become a nation of hunters and the hunted, a condition that our community knows all too well."

Despite their support, many in the community worry that Clinton's extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and his subsequent coverup will hurt their candidates in November and ultimately undermine their support in Congress.

"All the polls and feedback we are getting show that mainstream Americans are fed up, and if they're fed up with politics they're not going to vote," said Kathleen DeBold, political director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. "We want fair-minded Americans to come to the polls."

At the dinner, Vice President Gore and his wife, Tipper, drew several sustained standing ovations from members of the largest gay advocacy group in the country.

"We are determined to stand for justice and the American dream being available to all of the people in this great nation of ours," Gore said to rousing applause and table-thumping.

Gore reiterated the administration's support of legislation extending hate crimes protection to homosexuals and pressed the Senate to approve the nomination of James Hormel, a gay businessman, as ambassador to Luxembourg.

And he reminded one of the Democratic Party's most influential constituencies that they have a friend in the beleaguered president.

"We know that our progress so far would have been impossible without one person who is at the center of all progress we have made: President Bill Clinton," Gore said. "His policies have been good for the United States of America. His leadership has been good for our country. He is a great president."

Gore, who is quickly becoming the Democratic Party's most appealing stump speakers this fall, continues the effort next week with a fund-raiser for the openly gay House candidate Tammy Baldwin, who is running for an open seat in Madison, Wis., and a New York appearance Oct. 6 for the Empire State Pride Agenda.

With just over six weeks to Election Day, the fear among homosexual leaders, as well as Democratic candidates, is that the Clinton scandal will mobilize the most socially conservative wing of the Republican Party, while disillusioned Democratic voters will stay home.

Rich Tafel, executive director of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, said that polls he has seen suggest that "it could be a wave, maybe a tidal wave, for some Republicans in swing districts." Referring to Starr, DeBold said, "It certainly is ironic that the biggest challenge facing our gay and lesbian candidates is mobilizing voters who have been turned off by a heterosexual man's peephole politics."

She said there are three lesbian congressional candidates running in swing districts and other candidates who are sympathetic to gay rights who could be affected by a surge in the number of conservative Republican voters.

Birch said the scandal will probably depress overall voter turnout in November, including by gay rights supporters. "There is no question it's more uphill, it's more of a climbing of Mt. Everest," she said. "But, you know, some people do make it to the top of Mt. Everest."

At the dinner, Birch noted that the conservative Christian Coalition was holding its annual convention on the other side of town, and said gay and lesbian voters should not be dissuaded from voting.

"There is perhaps no group in America that can least afford to stop caring," she said. "They want to drive us from the democratic process. We will not let them."

The challenge for the administration will be convincing gay male and lesbian voters that the controversy has not deterred the White House from its focus on candidates and issues of concern to the community, said Richard Socarides, the administration's point person on gay rights.

"You will see between now and the election an effort to draw sharp distinctions between the policies of inclusion this administration has articulated and some of the real extremism on the right," he said yesterday.

In fact, as the Lewinsky saga has dragged on, sentiment seems to have softened toward Clinton because "sexual McCarthyism is very familiar to gays and lesbians," said Socarides.

"There's no doubt about the fact that what the president did was wrong, and the word 'stupid' gets bantered around our office quite frequently," Smith said. "But that shouldn't deflect from the fact that the president has stood firm in terms of equal rights for lesbian and gay people."

"Gay and lesbian people, I think, can relate to persecution and attacks for private, consensual behavior," said Tracey Conaty, communications director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "In that sense there is empathy with the president. At the same time, our community is part of the American public, and there is a sense of disappointment and disapproval with the president lying and misleading the American people."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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