CINCINNATI -- A preview of what may be one of next year's political blockbusters is playing here to a somewhat befuddled audience. It could be called "Culture Wars -- the Sequel."
The drama is being directed by conservative activists who believe they have a strategy to reverse recent gains by the gay rights movement. Here in Cincinnati the effort is aimed at nullifying a section of a human rights ordinance enacted by the City Council last November. The law barred discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on any one of a number of factors, including race, age, religion and "Appalachian origin." But the most controversial aspect of the ordinance expanded civil rights protections to include sexual orientation.
In local elections here Tuesday, voters will decide whether to amend the City Charter to prohibit the city government from enacting or enforcing any measure or policy that would grant "minority or protected status, quota preference or other preferential treatment" to gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.
The Cincinnati campaign, which has divided this picturesque city in the hills overlooking the Ohio River, is the most high-profile example of the new strategy being followed around the country by opponents of the gay rights movement. The approach is summed up by the slogan and name of the organization that is pushing the charter amendment: "Equal Rights Not Special Rights."
In the 1992 elections, the main battlegrounds over gay rights were in Oregon and Colorado. In Oregon, a proposed state constitutional amendment declaring homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse" was decisively defeated. But in Colorado, a mildly worded amendment to deny "protected" or "minority" status to gays was approved by 54 percent of the voters, although it has not gone into effect because of a legal challenge to its constitutionality.
Opponents of the Colorado amendment have argued in court that the measure violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law by singling out gays.
The Colorado approach now is being exported to other states. It is the rallying cry of gay rights opponents here and in Lewiston, Maine, where a similar measure is on the ballot Tuesday. Even the anti-gay rights Oregon Citizens Alliance, which crafted the strident language of last year's failed constitutional amendment, has adopted Colorado-style tactics in pushing local measures to deny "special rights" to gays.
National gay rights leaders fear that this year's skirmishes may be a prelude to an avalanche of state and local "no special rights" initiatives in the 1994 elections.
"The marketing of 'no special rights' has been very successful," said David M. Smith of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. "It's very difficult to refute because they have been framing the debate ever since the last election."
The Cincinnati showdown, Smith added, "is definitely going to provide an early indication of what we're going to be facing in '94."
Cincinnati would appear to be fertile ground for the advocates of the charter amendment, known as Issue 3. It was at this city's Contemporary Art Center where police and sheriff's officers in 1990 collected videotaped evidence to support obscenity charges against a public showing of a controversial exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
In its language and the tactics of its proponents, the Cincinnati initiative is almost identical to the successful Colorado amendment drive. Mark McNeil, coordinator of the anti-gay rights campaign here, said local activists met with their Colorado counterparts to map strategy. Earlier this month, Colorado for Family Values, the group that pushed that state's anti-gay rights provision, contributed $75,000 to the Cincinnati campaign, accounting for more than half the $147,056 that McNeil's organization had raised by Oct. 20.
Will Perkins, a Colorado Springs auto dealer who heads Colorado for Family Values, said the group considers its mission to serve as "a resource for other cities and states" in the anti-gay rights movement.
At the core of that movement are fundamentalist Christian churches and organizations that have strong moral objections to homosexuality. McNeil, 39, is the owner of five "Christian-oriented" radio stations, including WFEL-AM in Baltimore. But the campaign for passage of Issue 3 is devoid of religious or moral rhetoric and instead focuses on the question of whether gays need or deserve "special rights."
"The Constitution gives homosexuals equal rights," one television commercial says. "Last year City Council gave them special rights. Shouldn't we stop this in Cincinnati?"
The commercials, citing a report in the Wall Street Journal, say that the average annual income of "homosexual households" is $55,000 compared with about $32,000 for all families. "The income test plays well to white males," McNeil said. "They're offended that homosexuals make that kind of money because they don't."
A key target of the anti-gay rights campaign is the 40 percent of Cincinnati residents who are black. Among the weapons in McNeil's arsenal is a 40-minute videotape, produced by an anti-gay rights group in California, that begins with an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s celebrated "I have a dream" speech and accuses gay rights leaders of trying to exploit the struggles of the civil rights movement.
"A lot of black people really are insulted that they would equate homosexuality with being black," said the Rev. K.Z. Smith, president of the Black Ministers Conference here who serves as chief spokesman for McNeil's group and whose picture appears on anti-gay rights billboards around the city. "Being black is not an orientation."
It is a measure of the explosiveness of the issue that the Cincinnati NAACP took no position on last year's enactment of the human rights ordinance and also has stayed out of the fight over Issue 3. The local Chamber of Commerce opposed the ordinance but it, too, is neutral on the proposed charter revision.
But one powerful local voice has weighed in, providing an unexpected lift for gay rights supporters. Roman Catholic Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk said that while he remained opposed to the ordinance's protection of "homosexual behavior," the charter revision would allow discrimination based solely on "homosexual orientation."
"It is not right to mistreat persons or to be legally able to mistreat persons on the basis of their homosexual orientation," he said.
Gay rights advocates here are also flooding the airwaves with their 30-second television spot. It shows Adolf Hitler haranguing a crowd of Nazi supporters, hooded Ku Klux Klan members at a rally and the sneering image of the late senator Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.), who was censured by the Senate in the 1950s for the excesses of his anti-Communist crusade.
Supporters of Issue 3 "promote a kind of discrimination that comes from another time and another place," a narrator says. "We must stand up to them. Vote no. Never again on Issue 3."
The ad's suggestion of a parallel with the Holocaust has upset some members of the Jewish community, according to Michael Rapp, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, part of a broad alliance of organizations opposing passage of Issue 3. But Nancy Minson, a local political activist who is running the campaign against the charter revision, said the stakes in Tuesday's election justified this approach.
"We decided this issue was sufficiently dangerous we had to take strong measures to fight it," she said.
Both sides say there appears to be considerable confusion in the electorate about the issue, with a "yes" vote effectively expressing a negative sentiment toward gay rights. Both sides also believe the outcome here will have more than a local impact. "There's a momentum we would like to maintain with a win here," McNeil said. "A loss here would hurt these repeals countrywide."