THE gay-rights march expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants to Washington this weekend is both a show of political strength and a celebration. And although he is not likely to take a high-visibility role, the man of the hour is President Clinton.
Mr. Clinton actively courted gay and lesbian voters, named homosexuals to administration posts, held an unprecedented White House meeting with movement leaders last week, and is looked to now as a key ally in passing landmark legislation adding sexual orientation to the list of categories protected under civil rights law.
"The Clinton victory put us out in the sunlight," said Torie Osborne, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Suddenly, the world is listening, and suddenly, we have a chance to tell our story and make our case to the American people. This decade really will be the `Gay '90s.' "
Opponents of special legislation for gays agree that there has been a shift in activity and energy for the gay-rights movement. "Anyway you look at it, they're on a roll like they've never been before," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which represents some 25,000 United States churches. Mr. Sheldon says gay-rights legislation "is definitely within reach, [with] better than a 50 percent chance that it can pass."
While both sides are cranking up efforts to win support, the public remains ambivalent. A Newsweek survey taken last fall found that 78 percent think gays should have equal job opportunities.
But a slight majority disapprove of homosexuality as a "lifestyle," and clear majorities are against legally sanctioned marriages between same-sex partners (58 percent to 35 percent approval) and adoption rights for gay spouses (61 percent to 32 percent).
"We have the toughest job on personal issues," Ms. Osborne says. "The truth is: 50 percent of Americans still think we're abnormal." Recent survey
For years, many have assumed that researcher Alfred Kinsley was right when he reported in 1948 that some 10 percent of American males are homosexual. But more-recent surveys, including a study announced last week, put the figure at less than 2 percent.
That would seem to reduce the potential political influence of gays. But gay-rights groups discount the findings, saying many people remain reluctant to reveal an atypical sexual orientation - even in an anonymous poll. "The important thing is not the numbers. The important thing is that we not be discriminated against," one gay man said.
Whether sexual orientation should be given protected status under federal law turns on this question. Gay-rights leaders point to discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas, and they note a rise in violent attacks against gays, as shown in recent "hate crimes" reports.
But Sheldon cites a survey published in The Wall Street Journal to assert that, in some ways, gays are better off than the average American. The 1991 survey of subscribers to publications designed for gays showed higher income and education levels, and a greater percentage holding managerial or professional positions. "The issue is not discrimination," he insists.
The proposed "Civil Rights Act of 1993" states: "It shall be unlawful to discriminate against any person (1) in employment, education, credit, or housing; (2) in the sale or use of goods or services; (3) with respect to any public facility; or (4) in any federally assisted program or activity; on account of that person's sexual orientation, actual or perceived."
During last year's campaign, Clinton said he favored such a bill, and backers now claim some 170 congressional supporters. Although they represent districts all over the US, supportive lawmakers are mostly Democrats and a few liberal GOPs. But there is a sense on Capitol Hill that the concept of gay-rights legislation has become much more acceptable.
"There's a real, fundamental sea-shift going on that would have been unimaginable here a year or two ago," one legislative source says. Another adds: "I have noticed in the past few months that many of those most vociferously opposed to gays in the military have gone out of their way to express support for the general concept that gay people should be protected from discrimination." Gay-rights laws face obstacles
But even supporters say such sweeping legislation could take years to get passed, and they acknowledge key hurdles - such as the need for a religious exemption. "That's the issue that's of concern to most people, but there are other issues as well," says another congressional source working on the legislation. Among these are same-sex marriages, child custody, and adoption.
Gay-rights advocates are drafting a more-detailed bill they hope to have ready in a few weeks. They have been working with congressional staff and such groups as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Organization for Women.
Gay activists also would like to see repealed the remaining 24 state statutes that outlaw sodomy. They are also working to increase the number of states and localities with laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Eight states and about 130 local jurisdictions now have such laws.)
Opponents, such as the Traditional Values Coalition, are working just as hard to pass measures like the one approved in Colorado last year, which forbids "special rights" for homosexuals. Signature-gathering and fund-raising for such measures are now under way in a dozen states.
But both sides realize that a federal gay-rights law would supersede all other measures on the subject. And that is what concerns opponents like Sheldon, who worries that some recent court decisions mean "the exemption for clergy and churches will not be worth the ink it's printed with." In other words, he says, the likelihood is that nonprofit, church-related institutions (like some private schools) would have to hire homosexuals.
But such decisions are at least several years off, and, for now, attention is focused on a long weekend's worth of activities that organizers expect will draw 1 million people. Nearly 300 events are planned, ranging from prayer breakfasts to lobbying workshops to the "coming out" (publicly acknowledging their homosexuality) of a group of active-duty gay and lesbian military personnel. Some civil disobedience is expected, as well.