HOUSTON — `COMPLETELY abandoned." That's how AIDS activist James Sweeney says he feels about the Republican Party platform, whose adoption capped the opening session of the Republican National Convention yesterday.
Activists say that in opposing or omitting virtually the entire agenda of the homosexual community, the Republicans are driving up to 10 percent of the electorate into the camp of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton.
The GOP document supports the Defense Department ban on homosexuals in the military, spurns protection of sexual orientation from discrimination, and rejects child adoption by same-sex couples.
The platform also says a cure must be found for AIDS (acquired immune-deficiency syndrome). But the document is silent on future commitments for federal funding of AIDS research. It strikes a self-congratulatory tone on the "enormous resources" committed to research, although Congress appropriated larger sums than Republican administrations sought every year since 1982, when federal funding of AIDS research began.
Finally, the platform links prevention of AIDS to "moral behavior," saying this should be the focus of AIDS-education efforts.
"Given the potential importance of gay and lesbian voters, why is the Republican Party writing us off?" asks Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She says the party is making "a complete miscalculation."
"By pandering to the far right," which Ms. Vaid places at 15 to 20 percent of the electorate, "they've lost the middle," she says.
Based on Kinsey Institute studies done in the 1940s, the homosexual community estimates that it accounts for 10 percent of the United States population, a figure that many say is exaggerated.
But even if the doubters are right, gays and lesbians are still a significant constituency. Surveys of gay organizations find that more than 99 percent of members are registered to vote, and usually do. And that doesn't include their heterosexual family members and friends, Vaid says.
"This is a motivated community. So many people in our community are dying," she says.
Health officials estimate that AIDS has claimed more American lives than were lost in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars combined - more than 138,000; up to 1 million Americans are estimated to be infected.
While Bush administration officials bury "their heads in the sand, we continue to bury our friends and relatives," says Mr. Sweeney, executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis, which cares for New York AIDS victims.
At a rally in Montrose, a gay neighborhood of Houston, Sweeney criticized Bush for lack of leadership on AIDS. He told 500 onlookers: "Empty words and gestures are just as dangerous as none at all." "Shame, shame, shame," the crowd chanted.
AIDS has hit Houston hard: According to medical surveys, 1 resident in 90 is infected, compared to a national rate of 1 in 250 men and 1 in 800 women. As the epidemic worsened, the standing of homosexuals in the community has declined from amused tolerance in the early 1980s to open contempt.
An anti-discrimination measure covering homosexuals employed by the city was struck down in 1985 by a 5-to-1 vote in a citywide referendum. Later a former mayor seeking reelection was overheard making derogatory remarks about homosexuals. And early this month, a city councilman declared that all money spent on AIDS is wasted and that the infected should be quarantined. "Gay bashing" incidents have increased, including some fatal attacks.
But Mayor Robert Lanier recently hosted an AIDS fund-raiser and has urged compassion for those diagnosed with the disease.
AIDS activists wish Bush would similarly speak up, noting that he has devoted only one speech to AIDS. "We are all human beings," sighs Juanita Hayes, a Republican delegate from San Diego who says her party needs to catch up with the times on gay and lesbian issues. "What are you going to do with them, put them on a boat and send them somewhere else?"