Election spotlights battle over gay rights

Conflict escalates over issues from same-sex unions to Dr. Laura's new TV show.

More than any other election year, this one reflects the country's continuing unease with the subject of sexual orientation.

The public battle over gay rights returns to Oregon with a ballot measure that would prevent schools from discussing homosexuality or bisexuality "in a manner which encourages, promotes, or sanctions such behaviors." It's the fourth time Oregonians have faced the issue.

But this is just one element in the broader spectrum of controversies over gay rights. It's also reflected in the debates over domestic-partner benefits and same-sex "civil unions," the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay scout leaders, whether or not to broadcast talk-show host Laura Schlessinger's moralistic judgments on homosexuality, and the telling differences in how the subject is playing in the Republican and Democratic campaigns for the White House.

Among the ways in which conflicting and conflicted views on the subject are exhibited politically and culturally:

*In addition to the Oregon vote, Nevada and Nebraska will vote on proposals banning same-sex marriages. A ballot measure in Maine would prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.

*In Vermont, many state legislative races are tied up in the fierce argument over that state's recent provision for "civil unions" between same-sex couples. "Take Back Vermont" signs around the state reflect opposition to the new law. In their primary election tomorrow, Vermont Democrats are likely to nominate an openly gay man as their candidate for the US Senate.

*Such major companies as United Airlines and Proctor & Gamble are refusing to advertise on the new "Dr. Laura" television show, which premiers today. Local TV affiliates in Boston and elsewhere have wrestled with whether or not to air the controversial and widely popular talk-show host who calls homosexuality "deviant" and a "biological error."

*A school district in Orange County, Calif., last week settled a federal lawsuit by allowing a gay-tolerance club to meet at El Modena High School. Salt Lake City, Utah, has just ended a four-year ban on nonacademic clubs imposed to keep a student "gay-straight alliance" from meeting.

*Following the recent US Supreme Court 5-4 vote upholding the Boy Scouts' position, several cities are preventing the Scouts from using public land and facilities.

*Cities around the country are starting "domestic registries" where same-sex couples can declare their partnerships and, in many cases, qualify for benefits traditionally reserved for married couples. Some 3,500 companies (about 10 percent of the US total) now provide employment benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

Such issues have galvanized gay-rights activists, as well as their opponents, many of whom see the upcoming elections as a forum for their views.

"To place domestic partner relationships on a par with marriage denigrates the marital imperative," says Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington. "Call it what you will - fairness, political correctness, tolerance - but it won't change the fact that what is happening in Vermont is an enormous tragedy, and an assault on the very foundations of our civilization."

In a tight presidential race, the gay vote could be important. Those who identify themselves as homosexual now comprise about 5 percent of the voting public. That's nearly as many as Hispanics and more than Jews. Three-quarters of them typically vote Democratic, and they are well-organized and big fundraisers.

Political maneuvering

Both major-party campaigns are well aware of this, maneuvering for advantage (in Gore's case) or damage control (in Bush's).

After first refusing to, George W. Bush met with gay Republicans earlier this year. Still, Mr. Bush has conceded that "an openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy." Bush also has declared that he is "against gay adoptions."

The Republican platform supports "the traditional definition of 'marriage' as the legal union of one man and one woman," states that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service," and "stand[s] united" with the Boy Scouts of America and its positions. At the GOP convention in Philadelphia, some delegates bowed their heads in protest when gay Congressman Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona spoke.

For their part, Democrats are eagerly courting the gay vote. The campaign notes that the Clinton-Gore administration has appointed more than 150 openly gay officials. Mr. Gore would do away with the military policy of "don't ask, don't tell" in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the armed forces. He supports the adoption of children by gay individuals and couples.

Democrats "support the full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of the nation," according to the party platform, including "an equitable alignment of benefits." At their convention in Los Angeles, some delegates booed when a Boy Scout color guard took the stage.

A critical election year

According to a Harris Poll conducted in June, gay and lesbian voters support Gore over Bush, 83 percent to 16 percent. The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group promoting gay rights, will give more than $1 million in political donations and endorse some 200 candidates this year.

"This is one of the most critical election years in our movement's history," says Virginia Apuzzo, political director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "The battle isn't just for who resides in the White House or who controls Congress. We will be deciding the future of our Supreme Court and of the state legislatures that will conduct redistricting and influence elections for a generation to come."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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