GAY rights proponents got a boost Monday when the Massachusetts Senate pushed through a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, and credit. Both the Massachusetts House and Senate had already passed the legislation. A parliamentary maneuver by Senate opponents was voted down 21 to 9 Monday.
If Gov. Michael Dukakis signs the bill into law, as he has said he will do, Massachusetts would become the second state in the nation to bar discrimination against homosexuals. Wisconsin passed such a law in 1982.
The bill - written on former legislator Elaine Noble's kitchen table in 1972 - has seen 17 years of fighting in the State House. Crucial to this year's passage, observers say, has been a low-key approach, with traditional lobbying replacing past years' civil disobedience. It is also not a election year for state legislators.
``In the last two years, the gay movement has developed the sophistication it takes to make the legislature do something its members might be disinclined to do,'' says Robert Schaeffer, a public policy consultant. He says legislators found it less damaging to vote for the bill than to vote against it.
The impact of the Massachusetts bill's passage on states with similar legislation pending is uncertain.
It is ``a good sign'' for those proposing similar legislation in Iowa, contends Michael Current, cochair of the Iowa Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus in Des Moines. ``This is struggle that may be around for a long time. Massachusetts proved it's worth staying with it.''
Other states are watching Massachusetts closely, including Maine and Connecticut, says Robert Bray, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. States where proposed legislation is, or has recently been, under consideration include Vermont, New York, Iowa, and Washington, Mr. Bray says.
Some 64 cities and 16 counties have passed a spate of ``human rights'' ordinances containing clauses prohibiting discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation, Mr. Bray says. Aspen, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and San Francisco all have passed such ordinances. Twelve states have orders or civil-service rules barring discrimination against homosexuals in the public sector.
Despite this push, there is evidence of a building backlash. Some conservative politicians have picked up on the issue and are using it to raise funds. In Orange County, Calif., for example, there is an effort to revoke an existing gay-rights ordinance.
And opponents of the Massachusetts bill have also not given up their fight. ``I think this bill represents an erosion of moral standards,'' says state Sen. Edward Kirby (R) of Whitman. ``I believe it's going to be harmful to society, harmful to the family. And I don't think it will take too many years for people to realize it.'' Senator Kirby advocates a referendum to revoke the pending law.
Still, Massachusetts has undergone an evolution of public thought and emerged favoring greater tolerance, some say.
``I don't think opponents of the bill understand that positive images of gay people are projected in the popular culture,'' Sen. Michael Barrett (D) of Cambridge, a supporter of the bill.
``I simply cannot get a rise out of my constituents on the subject of gay rights,'' Senator Barrett says. ``They aren't concerned.... They want to see traditional values strengthened, they abhor the generally permissive culture that seems afoot in the land. But they don't associate gay people living quietly with the kind of permissiveness they dislike.''
Others say changing public attitudes have also reduced the political risk of voting in favor of gay-rights legislation.
Many ``legislators are saying they feel comfortable going back to their constituency and saying I do not personally approve of homosexuality, but I don't believe it should be legal to discriminate against them just because they are gay,'' says Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
The bill has had a majority of votes for years, contends Ms. Isaacson. But it has been stalled by delaying tactics. One senator, she says, held it in committee for 45 days, long enough to avoid a vote. Homosexual activists then chained themselves to Senate gallery chairs and 14 were arrested.
The Massachusetts homosexual community is now left to ponder the next step. Isaacson says the bill does not address foster care by gays, survivor rights, bereavement leave, and ``all the legal rights between gay partners that weren't known 17 years ago when the bill was designed.''