The New Gay Struggle


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It has been a long road from there to here. Largely because of opposition from unions, blacks and church groups, it was not until 1983 that a gay organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was admitted to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, one of Washington's most liberal legislative coalitions. It was 11 years more before the group took a consensus position on anything involving gay rights. In 1994 it backed a modest change in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while permitting an exemption for churches. Two years later that amendment was defeated in the Senate by just a single vote.

For a long time, the most prominent nationwide gay-rights organization was the 35,000-member National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which grew out of the scruffy radicalism of the old gay-liberation movement. But after 25 years, it still has virtually no lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. In the later 1980s the AIDS epidemic brought forth the street-theater militancy of ACT UP and in 1990 the in-your-face tribalism of Queer Nation. "We here, we're queer, get used to it" was an interesting statement of the facts. But the cutting edge of gay politics threatened to cut gays off altogether from the give and take of lawmaking.

The election of Bill Clinton was a psychological turning point, even though his support on gay-rights issues has been unsteady. His "Don't ask, don't tell" compromise on gays in the military satisfied no one. He signed the "Defense of Marriage" Act, which denies federal recognition to same-sex unions, then advertised the fact in '96 campaign spots on Christian radio stations. But he was canny about the symbolic gestures. He ended the federal policy of treating gays as security risks and invited gay activists to the White House for the first time. The message he sent was that gays were part of the American family and also part of the political game.

"The Clinton election took the wind out of the sails of street activists," says John Gallagher, national correspondent of the Advocate, the gay news monthly. "They used to be outside shouting. Now people have to be inside talking, which is a new experience." And during those years, a new kind of gay lobbying group has emerged. The Human Rights Campaign, founded in 1980, is the group that corresponds to mainstreaming impulses within the gay community. It's also the largest--membership 250,000, up from 85,000 just five years ago. Sedate and pragmatic, with a name so innocuous it could be transferred intact to a group devoted to fair labor practices, H.R.C. was established to speak to the middle class in middle-class terms. Its annual black-tie fund-raising dinner is the peak event of the gay political season. The guest speaker last year was Clinton; this year's was Al Gore. Executive director Elizabeth Birch is a corporate lawyer from Silicon Valley, former head of international litigation at Apple Computer; she has run H.R.C. like a software start-up--new image, new logo, fast growth. After she came to H.R.C. in 1995, she quickly changed its symbol to a yellow equal sign on a blue background. Cool as a computer-keyboard button, it has no visible connection to the pink triangle or rainbow flag, two more freighted symbols of the ragged glories of gay history.

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