It seemed like a typical political fund-raiser: the California congressman stood in one corner of the comfortable row house in Northeast, chatting with his wife and several men in pinstripes. Outside, on the patio by the pool, was a top aide to the mayor. And the front-runner for City Council chairman dropped by to work the crowd of 50 drinking jug wine from small plastic tumblers.
By Washington standards, the event was small: only $2,000 was raised. But the speechmaking and the presence of a few key politicians and wealthy District residents marked this reception as something special.
It was hosted by a well-organized group of Washington gays, newcomers to national politics who are lobbying for anti-discrimination laws and raising money this election season for congressional candidates who support gay and lesbian rights.
"When we first started this national campaign, we figured we'd raise, say, $100,000," said Stephen R. Endean, the Washington-based treasurer of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which will give money to 100 candidates nationwide.
"But then the response was so good that we had to revise our goal upward, to $250,000. Now it looks like we'll hit the half-million dollar mark pretty soon," Endean said.
Gay fund-raisers in Washington this year have generated more than $25,000 for the human rights fund, a total Endean says will surpass the amount expected to be raised by San Francisco's larger gay population. The events have been frequent, about one a week recently. Although gay political fund raising for local candidates is not new, Endean and others say that gays here are becoming more interested in national issues.
"Gay rights are simply part of the civil rights agenda," said David J. Vos, the liaison to the D.C. gay community for Mayor Marion S. Barry's reelection bid. "As the gay rights movement has grown, so has our ability to accomplish things politically."
Five years ago, few politicians would have attended buffet dinners like last week's. Now, Democrats in the 1984 presidential sweepstakes compete for crucial endorsements and contributions from national gay organizations like the Human Rights Campaign Fund. A recent New York banquet drew former vice president Walter F. Mondale; one last week in Philadelphia featured Sen. Alan Cranston, the California Democrat. Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.) was to highlight a gay fund-raiser in Boston this week.
"The most the fund raising means is that in 1984, a presidential candidate cannot be silent on gay rights," said Larry Bush, the Washington editor of The Advocate, a national gay weekly. Bush, who attended last week's D.C. fund-raiser, said major political candidates "will have to make concrete statements on issues affecting gays and lesbians."
Last week's party -- one of more than 20 held here -- drew some of the city's top political workers and allies. Rep. Julian C. Dixon, a D.C. native who now represents part of Los Angeles and its large gay population; David Clarke, likely to be the next City Council chairman; and city official Barbara Washington, D.C.'s liaison to Congress, attended the fund-raiser.
"Discrimination in any form, be it based on ethnicity or sexual preference, is a strike against all of us," said Dixon, a Democratic member of the D.C. Appropriations Committee in Congress.
If attending gay fund-raisers is something new for politicians, organizing them is just as unusual for gays themselves. "Several people have come up to me tonight and said that five years ago they would have been hesitant to be at a function like this," Dixon told the predominantly male crowd. "But if the cause is right, and if we work together, we can change people's attitudes."
"The money raised here in D.C. is a substantial amount, and it's coming from people who have never given before," said Bush, a journalist who writes frequently on gay political issues. "The strength here is one of the best kept secrets of the gay community across the country. It's a very good structure for political work. The potential is tremendous."
Bush said Washington gays "are more politically sophisticated than most others and work with less fanfare so they can get more done.
"Not that it's clandestine or anything. It's just different than other parts of the country. Everybody looks to San Francisco as the example, but it's really an overblown case; here, they get things done with local and national results," he said.
Endean agrees. "Washington's gay community may not be big in the overall scheme of things, but we aren't afraid of putting money where our mouths are, of getting involved with the candidates who support us. And the money has a very real impact," he said.
However, there is at least one irony to gay politics in Washington.
"The gay community is more apprehensive and closeted here than in other cities," said Endean, "and many don't come out to support the fund or other causes because they're afraid of their names appearing in our FEC (Federal Election Commission) filings." Many gays in government or those in lobbying or public relation firms would lose their jobs if their employers discovered they were gay, he said.
"And that's what's worse: that's exactly the attitude we're fighting."
Although no money from the Human Rights Campaign Fund has gone to any congressional candidate in the Washington area, gays have made large contributions in several close races around the country. Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta, running for reelection from his south Philadelphia district, received $5,000, the legal maximum from the fund. And Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) received $1,500 in his primary contest, Endean said.
The fund has targeted 10 close races nationwide for contributions, customarily giving money to Democrats. "We're a nonpartisan political action committee, and we're trying to get more Republicans' support," Endean said. At least 20 percent of the fund will go to GOP candidates, he added.