When the New York City Council passed a gay rights bill last Thursday, it joined the more than 50 municipalities and one state that have similar laws. The bill passed relatively easily here, despite the conservative mood in the United States, and despite concerns that have surfaced because of the tragedy of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), which is said to be most common among male homosexuals and intravenous drug users.
But the issue of making sexual orientation a protected category in the law continues to be debated throughout the country.
Although various cities, counties, and the state of Wisconsin have passed bills protecting the rights of homosexuals, there have also been instances of laws repealed.
The bill in New York City was introduced 15 years ago, turned down once 12 years ago, and bottled up in committee until last week.
It forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, public accommodations, and commercial leases.
Employment discrimination against homosexuals in the public sector has already been banned by an executive order by Mayor Edward I. Koch.
Like many bills around the country, it includes several exemptions. It does not apply to employers with fewer than four employees, to owner-occupied housing of one or two units, and religious institutions and the charitable or educational facilities they run.
Several amendments to the bill have already been discussed, including increasing the number of housing units that can be exempt, stating clearly that the bill in no way will lead to affirmative action plans or quotas, and that it would not require schools to teach the nature of homosexuality.
When President Reagan was asked about the passage of the New York City bill by the New York Times, he said he believes in individual freedom.
``I don't want [homosexuals] discriminated against simply on that basis as to housing and jobs and so forth,'' he said. But ``I do have to question sometimes whether individuals' rights are being defended in this particular field . . . or whether they are demanding an acceptance of their particular life style that others of us don't demand.''
The issue of ``life style'' is called a red herring by some gay rights activists, who insist that legislation is needed simply as a civil rights measure. It gives gays and lesbians legal recourse when they feel they are unjustly discriminated against. Some New Yorkers who decry discrimination admit they are still uneasy that sexual orientation will now be considered in the same category as race or sex.
``I just don't think it is the same thing,'' says one man.
During the debate in New York City, some officials said the very actions of the opponents of the bill convinced them the law needed to be passed.
``We have a representative democracy, and we elect legislators in order to study the needs of society,'' says Ronald Najman, spokesman for the National Gay Task Force.
``[Legislators] look at these issues more closely than the average citizen. [In New York] a majority determined that we needed this law, even if they felt their constituents did not share their opinion. The [lawmakers] would be willing to go back and explain their vote.''
The chief opponent to the bill, Councilman Noach Dear of Brooklyn, says he will pursue repeal of the amendment to the city's administrative code.
On Friday he said he had received ``thousands'' of phone calls from people both inside and outside his district, offering to help fight the bill. He says he is considering legal challenges and a public referendum on the issue.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy has also been involved in the fight against the bill, and the New York Archdiocese has announced that it will seek legal counsel to determine how to reverse the action.
According to most sources, none of the laws throughout the country have been overturned in courts, although several cities have repealed legislation through referendums.
But an Oklahoma bill restricting the rights of teachers to speak out on homosexual rights outside of the classroom. The law was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, and though there was a tie vote there, it meant that a lower courts decision to overturn the law would stand.
Many of the fears that gay rights bills will lead to widescale acceptance of homosexuality will be allayed, says Mr. Najman, the longer the bill is in effect. He points out that some cities have had laws in place for more than five years with little trouble.
The National Gay Task Force does not endorse quotas or affirmative action, because this would means declaring a person's private life in public. ``Most gays are very, very private people,'' says Mr. Najman.
Los Angeles passed a bill in June 1979. Since then there have been occasional instances of discrimination, but the ordinance is mostly self-enforcing says an aide to L.A. Councilman Joel Wachs.
``Almost everybody obeys once they are informed of the law,'' he says. A person who suspects discrimination contacts the city attorney''s office or hires a private attorney. Most cases are settled through hearings. ``There has been great compiance,'' the aide says. ``We feel this is a nonintrusive way to protect the rights of individuals.''
In 24 states, homosexuality is still technically illegal.