In spite of - or perhaps more accurately, because of - the recent advances, the gay and lesbian community here is facing a fierce right-wing backlash. In November, voters in as many as nine states, from Florida and Maine in the east to Washington and Oregon in the west, are likely to be asked to vote on constitutional amendments that would annul all state laws (none exist on the federal level) protecting homosexuals against discrimination. They would also forbid the drawing-up of any new ones.
For gay activists, who are now gearing up to counter the threat, the outlook seems bleak. It was just such an amendment that won popular approval in Colorado in 1992, leading to a patchy but highly visible international boycott of the state. That provision has since been ruled unconstitutional by a state court. None the less, last year similar anti-gay initiatives were put to voters in 19 towns and cities around the country - and all were passed.
Philadelphia, which recently topped the US movie charts for three consecutive weeks and opens in Britain later this month, mirrors the conflicts surrounding gay rights. The fact that it has been made at all - and that its star is Tom Hanks - testifies to the progress already made. But its story, of a brilliant (gay) lawyer who is junked by his employers when they discover he has Aids, also serves as a moving primer on the ignorance and bigotry that remains.
'I admit it, I'm prejudiced, I don't like gays,' declares Denzel Washington, the (straight) attorney who represents Hanks when he sues his former employers. Recent opinion polls reflect a similar ambiguity towards the homosexual way of life. A survey for Newsweek last week suggested that 43 per cent of Americans had a gay friend or acquaintance. A majority said that the Aids epidemic had made them more, not less, sympathetic towards gays. And yet when asked whether same-sex couples should be allowed to adopt, 65 per cent said no.
Leading the anti-gay campaigns are several groups of the ultra-conservative Christian right. To get their initiatives on the state ballots, they must first gather a minimum number of signatures on public petitions. In most of the states they have targeted, this is unlikely to be a problem. They contend that gays are asking for special rights to help them advance the homosexual cause and, as they see it, subvert traditional values.
'As the level of awareness is raised in America about what the homosexual agenda is, it's important that people feel that it can be turned back by grass- roots involvement,' explains the Rev Lou Sheldon, chairman of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition. 'We know our people and the majority of the populace in America will not endorse homosexuality as a special lifestyle.'
The impression that they are seeking some special, protected status in society is exactly what leaders of the gay movement are hoping to dispel. They argue that gays have a legitimate need for legal protection against discrimination because of their sexuality. 'Discrimination against gays remains pervasive in the US,' argues Robert Bray of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. 'Under these initiatives, if you are a homosexual, you can legally be fired from your job for no other reason than that you are gay or perceived to be gay. You can be evicted from a restaurant, thrown out of your apartment or kicked off the metro and you have absolutely no legal recourse.'
Bray, who recently led a 15- state, 'Fight the Right' tour to train local gay activists on tactics for combating the ballot initiatives, is pessimistic about the future. 'What we have is the civil rights and equality of a minority, a loathed and certainly misunderstood minority, being held up for popular vote by the majority. No one in this country - black people, women, immigrants, certainly gays - have ever won recognition through a popular vote.'
That analysis in itself is an acknowledgement of the unease the majority still feel about homosexuals. 'It's what I call the 'ick' factor,' Bray says. 'Most people still have a negative, visceral reaction to homosexuality. They collapse all homosexuality into a certain sex act that they think all of us do, and that informs their awareness of gays.'
Bray believes it is this gut sentiment that the right intends to exploit. He points to one initiative, expected to appear on the ballot in Arizona, that, in one phrase, lumps homosexuals, lesbians and bisexuals together with paedophiles.
The battle is likely to be most intense in Florida, already identified by both sides as a bellwether state. Nadine Smith, of the Human Rights Task Force based in Tampa, is equally concerned. 'We're constantly on the defensive, constantly having to tell people, 'No, we don't eat Christian babies and we're not paedophiles.' '
But she has no difficulty understanding the attraction of the opposition's message. 'These are scary times, especially here in Florida. You know, tourists being killed and the most heinous crimes being committed. People like to be drawn into this very black and white world, where this is bad and this good and everything that is bad ought to be wiped off the face of the earth.'
The Christian right is a formidable foe. It is a growing force around the country, and its leaders have the benefit of extensive mailing lists, drawn often from church attendances, and access to considerable private financial support. The gay movement, on the other hand, remains more disparate and certainly less wealthy.
Recent efforts to adopt a single slogan with which to fight the ballot initiatives produced little consensus. Alternatives printed in a recent edition of the Washington Blade gay newspaper included, 'The Religious Right is Neither', 'No Religious Reichs, No Discrimination', and 'My Pride is Special. My Rights are Basic'.
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