Spotlight on Gay Rights Intensifies Across Nation

Recent rulings on the rights of homosexuals reflect divide between urban and rural areas

THE political and social battle over gay rights is intensifying on several fronts around the country.

* Arguing that government should ``not interfere with [a person's] choice about associating with homosexuals or bisexuals,'' Colorado state Attorney General Gale Norton has petitioned the United States Supreme Court to rule on this state's controversial anti-gay-rights Amendment 2.

* In Oregon, voters in seven jurisdictions Tuesday approved measures similar to the Colorado one that forbade local governments from passing laws granting ``special rights'' or minority status to gays. In November, similar measures will be presented to voters in Lewiston, Maine, and Cincinnati. Gay-rights advocates say they expect to confront the issue in as many as 15 states next year.

* A federal judge in Los Angeles, who this year declared the US military's ban on gay servicemen and servicewomen to be unconstitutional, has ordered Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and the commander of a US Navy base near San Francisco to say this Thursday why they shouldn't be held in contempt of court for continuing to enforce that ban.

* And in child custody and adoption cases involving same-sex couples, recent conflicting rulings reflect diverse social and moral values on this subject - one that both sides see as crucial to their chances for political success on the broader question of public acceptance of homosexuality.

Meanwhile, more gays are publicly acknowledging their homosexuality to ``[put] a face on the issue,'' says Robert Bray, a spokesman for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. ``Coming out is our secret weapon.''

One person to come out recently is Theresa Donohue, deputy chief of staff to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. In a letter published in the Denver Post Sept. 19, she wrote: ``For those people who like and respect me and haven't known I'm a lesbian, if they support Amendment 2, I want them to have a face to think about when supporting discrimination.''

Coloradans are split on the issue, though a plurality support the ``no special rights'' essence of Amendment 2. A Sept. 15 poll showed that the same 48 percent plurality believes homosexuality to be ``morally wrong,'' but 74 percent agrees that ``except for their choice of sexual partners, homosexuals are not really different from anyone else.''

This year, a Colorado judge and the state's highest court temporarily blocked Amendment 2's enforcement on grounds that, as state Chief Justice Luis Rovira wrote, ``it bars gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals from having an effective voice in government.''

While the case still must be tried in state court, Ms. Norton wants the US Supreme Court to take it up because, she wrote to the high court, ``It presents an issue of exceptional public importance. It impacts not only Colorado, but all places in the country where, regardless of the outcome, issues pertaining to homosexual and bisexual rights are addressed by governmental entities or the people themselves.''

While the Oregon case is unlikely to reach federal courts, the legal battle is accelerating there as well. This year, the state legislature passed and Gov. Barbara Roberts (D) signed a measure blocking local jurisdictions from enacting laws providing for or denying gay rights. But the conservative Oregon Citizens Alliance gathered signatures to put anti-gay-rights measures on the ballot in six cities and one county. The American Civil Liberties Union plans to challenge the votes.

The Oregon and Colorado elections show a philosophical and social divide. Metropolitan areas tend to reject anti-gay-rights measures while smaller, conservative communities support them. Sometimes the split is evident within jurisdictions. The cultural community of Ashland, Ore., for example, voted 68 percent ``no'' in last Tuesday's election. Nearby Medford, a more working-class town, approved the measure by 58 percent.

Nowhere is the split more evident than in child-custody, adoption, and parental-visitation cases.

In Washington State, Charles Snyder, Whatcom County Superior Court commissioner, ruled last Monday that two gay men could become foster parents to a boy whose mother had given him up for adoption when she was a teenager. Now she wants her parental rights restored.

On the other hand, Circuit Court Judge Buford Parsons of Henrico County, Va., ruled Sept. 7 that a lesbian living with another woman is ``an unfit parent'' for her son. The judge ordered the boy placed with the woman's mother - even though she lives with a man not her husband.

In a Florida case involving a gay man previously married with two children, Jacksonville Circuit Judge A.C. Soud ruled in July that the man may visit his children only when they are supervised by their mother. ``His homosexual lifestyle is so indicative of moral unfitness that it disqualifies his ability to live up to and perform the societal duty of parenting children,'' the judge wrote.

According to a National Gay & Lesbian Task Force survey, ``Most states prohibit or discourage adoption by gay people.'' At the same time, it found, ``Eleven states have laws that say sexual orientation is irrelevant in custody disputes.''

This debate has rallied both sides. The Virginia case ``is living proof that we can be discriminated against,'' says Bray, who heads the task force's ``Fight the Right'' project. ``We define a family as one that is filled with love and not intolerance,'' he adds.

The Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, sees it differently. ``This is another attempt by homosexuals to overhaul straight America,'' he says. Living with a same-sex couple ``is devastating to the child,'' he asserts.

Both Bray and Mr. Sheldon say their groups will pay close attention to and perhaps attempt to influence any plan for national health care as it relates to important issues to gays.

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