At a gay nightclub off of Dupont Circle, the manager surveyed his half-empty bar, where a few guys with chins in hand watched television and drank beer. "Business is way off," the manager said. "A lot of people are downright frightened. Twenty years ago, to get into a place like this, you had to be screened at the door through a peephole and buzzed in. I think we're headed back to those days."
These have been rough times for the gay community here, starting in March when Arlington and D.C. police raided and put out of business two male "outcall" services in Georgetown. Then, in June, former congressional page Leroy Williams made his accusations of sexual impropriety by some members of Congress.
In July, Dale Smith, a former investigator for a New York state crime committee, went public with claims that lists of male prostitutes' clients had been sold to agents of foreign governments. In August, a middle-level State Department employe left his job afer his name turned up on list of more than 1,000 alleged clients of one of the raided outcall salons.
Investigations were begun -- with few results so far -- into Washington's latest summer sex scandal. To some in the gay community, it looked like a 1950s-style witch hunt.
Along P Street west of Dupont Circle, where the sight of men holding hands as they stroll has become commonplace, strangers are increasingly viewed with suspicion. There are many stories about FBI agents asking questions and staking out bars. One man said he had received a call from C&P Telephone Company saying agents had requested his telephone records.
"There's definitely something going on," said one homosexual man, who asked not to be identified. "Its nothing you can put your finger on. A friend of mine called me one night to say he had just received a call from the FBI asking if he knew anything about child pornography. He said no, but then they started asking him about other people and my name came up. Now what am I supposed to think? I called to see if they wanted to talk to me, and they said no. So what am I supposed to do?"
Ron Dervish of the FBI's Washington field office denied that his agency had taken a special interest in gays or gay bars.
"We investigate violations of laws, not bars or persons of a particular group such as gays," he said. "If an investigation takes us to a particular bar, it is because we are investigating a crime, not the bar."
Homosexuals estimate that their community in Washington numbers about 70,000, and as a group they are considered among the most politically active in the city, their support sought by Mayor Marion Barry and other politicians. Gay leaders see their ties to the city government as their best defense against harassment, but they nonetheless are concerned.
The city's largest gay newspaper, The Washington Blade, devoted its latest issue to a special report entitled "The Gay Community Under Attack," in which the newspaper wrote of "faceless accusers and reckless charges" about homosexuals.
"Although the evidence is not conclusive, we at the Blade do not believe there is a witch hunt going on at this point," read part of a front-page editorial. "What we believe is at work is the convergence of a legitimate law enforcement investigation and the institutional homophobia that still pervades much of American society . . . . "
Gay leaders from national and local groups did, however, voice strong feelings over the impact that so-far-unsubstantiated accusations might have on the image of gays.
"I am outraged," said Leonard Graff, legal director of the Gay Rights Advocates. "Young people today don't understand how oppressed we were as a community in the past. In Washington, it was not uncommon for the police to check license plates of cars outside of bars and although nothing might have occurred, there's always a horrible cloud hanging over you as to who is getting this information and what is made of it."
Says another gay leader, "So far all you get from the press is a composite picture of gays who spend their time molesting teen-aged pages if they are not selling secrets to the Soviets."
Jeff Levi, president of the Gay Activists Alliance, said the accusations have caused many people in the gay community to become more cautious. Because the purpose of the gay movement is essentially bring its members "out of the closet," Levi says the cause has been hurt.
"It's a vicious cycle," Levi says. "If you are in the closet, you are subject to blackmail. But if you are open and honest, you are not a security risk. But this government policy of harassment is forcing people to stay in the closet."
"I think it is clear that the gay community is alarmed and will not ignore the problem," said Steve Endean, director of the Gay Rights National Lobby. "There is no willingness among the activists or the broader community to head for the hills and back into the closets because of distorted publicity. This is a fight we will not walk away from."