Clinton to Openly Advocate Gay Rights

In historic first, the president will attend a gala Saturday hosted by homosexual group.

When Vice President Al Gore thanked Hollywood last month for helping to educate and create an atmosphere of tolerance for homosexuals through the situation comedy "Ellen," conservative critics blew a fuse.

Just as the political smoke from that has begun clearing, the White House this weekend has plans sure to fire things up all over again.

President Clinton will be the honored guest and keynote speaker at a gala thrown Saturday by the nation's largest homosexuals lobbying organization. Actress Ellen DeGeneres will also be on hand to receive an achievement award.

Mr. Clinton's attendance, a historic first, will showcase what the administration says is an increased level of national tolerance, if not acceptance, of homosexuals in this country due in part to its policies. If that premise isn't enough to light up talk radio phone lines, the subject of his speech will.

Clinton is using the event to kick off a public lobbying effort for the controversial Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA.

"ENDA is the watershed event that history will record 50, or 100 years in the future," says Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the organization hosting Saturday's event.

The legislation would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in many workplaces. A similar bill was narrowly defeated last year in the Senate. This year, the House failed to act on a slightly rewritten version of the Senate bill. Earlier this month, a Senate committee held the first set of hearings on the bill. Testimony was largely supportive.

When the measure is brought up again in Congress early next year, proponents will tout poll data gathered last spring. In a joint survey conducted by a Democratic and Republican polling firm, 68 percent of Americans asked said they supported the measure in concept.

But if the experience in some states is any guide, the nation is in for a loud and divisive debate. Opponents have apparently been successful in portraying these laws as attempting to establish a new, or special set of rights, for homosexuals.

In the first statewide test of an ENDA-type measure, on Tuesday Washington State voters overwhelmingly opposed the ballot initiative.

In 1992 Colorado voters were so united against any ENDA statute, they passed a statewide referendum to preempt any city from enacting one. But the Supreme Court later declared the ballot initiative unconstitutional.

The battles in those two states have energized ENDA opponents, who are already framing their counter campaign in terms of ENDA undermining family values and workplace morality. They question the national polling data, suggesting the phrasing of the questions in surveys accounts for the high level of support.

But it's not just Clinton's support of ENDA that riles critics. It's his use of the office to publicly support gay rights, an issue that has traditionally been out of political bounds.

Undeterred, the president's presence Saturday night, and his lobbying effort, is "in context, an appropriate show of support for a country that recognizes the right of every human being to live up to their God-given talent," according White House spokeswoman Ann Lewis (sister of openly gay Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank).

But already the White House has come under fire from very different constituencies.

Political critics say Clinton's appearance at the gala event is prompted by the Human Rights Campaign's hefty campaign donations, which totaled more than $3 million in the last election.

Peter LaBarbera, an editor at the conservative Family Research Council, says Clinton is offending the broad political center of the American electorate. "He's out there using his presidential power to boost the gay lobby," says Mr. LaBarbera. "I think there is an increasing acceptance [of homosexuality], but the majority of Americans are put off by the kind of homosexual advocacy they are seeing," he says.

LaBarbera plans to join a protest group called Americans for Truth About Homosexuality protesting Saturday night's event and the pending legislation.

And despite his broad support in the gay community, Mr. Clinton is also facing fire from pro-gay rights interests. Act-Up, the international AIDS awareness organization will also reportedly be on hand to protest the event over the lack of a federal needle exchange program.

And then there are those who still chafe at what they believe is the president's biggest single misstep, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Norris has called on Clinton to renounce the policy that allows homosexuals to serve in the armed forces as long as they do not disclose their sexual orientation. "Discrimination against lesbians and gay men as official governmental policy has emerged as the most intractable civil rights issue of the '90's" the judge says.

Moreover some describe the president's actions, such as the appointment of homosexuals within his administration, as lacking substance. "Most of what the administration has done has been symbolic," says Howard Ehrlich of the Baltimore-based Prejudice Institute, pointing to Mr. Gore's support of the "Ellen" television program as an example.

The claim of wider tolerance for homosexuals from almost all sides of the debate is largely based on anecdotal evidence. Inclusion of gay themes or characters in television programming, for example. Polling data indicate opinions have remained relatively constant in recent years.

The reason, says Stanford University political scientist Richard Brody, is that "people are super-focused" elsewhere, mostly on the good economic times. That gives the administration plenty of elbow room in which to operate on this issue, he says, because people are less concentrated on finding an unpopular group to flail when times are good.

"There is a live and let live attitude at play now," Mr. Brody says. He says that it's a sentiment that deepens with the coming of age of a younger generation.

On this point, Ms. Birch of the Human Right's Campaign agrees. "There is a transformation going on," she says, crediting the White House's ENDA effort. By pushing for equality for all Americans, including homosexuals, "the president has absolutely altered the air we breathe," she says.

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