THE controversy over homosexuals in the armed services is just the beginning of what is likely to be a long and hard-fought political battle pitting gay-rights advocates against their conservative opponents.
"We believe civil rights for gay people will be the social-change issue of the 1990s," says Robert Bray, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Although it is probably the only thing they see eye-to-eye on, Kelly Mullins of the Traditional Values Coalition agrees: "Just as abortion was the issue in the 1980s, in the 1990s there is no doubt it will be homosexuality."
The 1992 presidential election was the first in which a candidate actively sought the support of homosexuals, and it also was the first in which gay and lesbian activists contributed heavily to and worked on behalf of a campaign. The morning after the election - in which more than 70 percent of homosexuals voted for Bill Clinton - the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force presented the Clinton team with its own "transition document" wish list.
Besides announcing he will lift the ban on homosexuals in the military, President Clinton has been quick to deliver in other ways as well.
He nominated lesbian and gay-rights activist Roberta Achtenberg of San Francisco to be assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This week, the administration said it would lift the ban on travelers with AIDS entering the US.
However, in a dozen states around the country organizers are preparing ballot measures patterned after an initiative that passed in Colorado last November repealing gay-rights laws in Denver, Aspen, and Boulder and preventing any other such law at the state or local level.
The states where fund-raising and signature-gathering activities are taking place are California, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, and Washington.
"We are trying to defeat the homosexual agenda," says Ms. Mullins of the Traditional Values Coalition, an Anaheim, Calif.-based organization with a lobbying office in Washington, D.C., that represents about 25,000 churches in the United States. Mullins and others describe this "agenda" as creating a special protected status for homosexuals under civil rights laws, then working through human-rights commissions, schools, and other places to establish homosexuality as acceptable.
"Homosexuality is not a healthy thing, not something we want to allow to be legitimized by our public institutions," says Scott Lively of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), the group that unsuccessfully pushed in this state an anti-gay-rights measure that went further than Colorado's. (It linked homosexuality with pedophilia, sadism, and masochism, and it would have required schools and state agencies to label such behavior "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse...to be discouraged and avoided.")
This time, the OCA and other US groups are crafting milder "No Special Rights" initiatives like Colorado's, some to appear on the ballot this year and some in 1994. The underlying principle, Mr. Lively says, is that US and state constitutions already protect the civil rights of people who happen to be homosexual - in areas such as housing and employment.
"That `no special rights' rhetoric effectively exploits citizens' social and economic anxieties," Mr. Bray says. "We want no special rights. What we want is the right to have an income without being fired, housing without being evicted."
"Discrimination against gays is pervasive," he adds. "We're being bashed and fired for being gay, not given special rights."
The recent controversy over gay-rights ballot initiatives and homosexuals in the military has paralleled an increase in the number of attacks on homosexuals, according to Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors "hate" crimes.
Promoters of the "no special rights" effort condemn such violence and cite instances in which their own supporters have been abused.
"We don't have a dislike of homosexuals," Mullins says. "But we oppose homosexual advocacy." And they stress that such ballot measures would not, for example, hurt employment possibilities of homosexuals.
"For 99 percent of the jobs in this country, it doesn't matter what you do in the privacy of your bedroom," Lively says. Asked what the other 1 percent might include, he says: "If you're involved in high-risk sexual behavior and have a higher likelihood of carrying a sexually transmitted disease, then you should not be working where there are children."
In the minds of gay-rights advocates, however, such generalizations about all homosexuals open the door to discrimination.
Both sides predict a growing political involvement over gay rights at the federal level. At the close of the 102nd Congress, a proposed amendment to the Civil Rights Act, which would include homosexuals, had 127 sponsors in the House of Representatives and Senate and a promise of support from Mr. Clinton.
The number of sponsors has since risen to 140, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts says he will take the lead in pushing the legislation through. Meanwhile, gay-rights groups push for more appointments in the administration. "Clinton promised a government with the `face of America,' and we assert that this should include qualified gays and lesbians," Bray says.