Leading Article: An aggressive step in the wrong direction

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YESTERDAY'S march by homosexuals in Washington is likely to prove counter-productive. President Clinton needs no reminding that he has been unable to fulfil his election campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. His early, blundering and nave attempts to do so met fierce opposition both in Congress and at the Pentagon, from Democrats as much as from Republicans. He was forced to retreat. The Senate is holding hearings and a mid-July deadline has been set for some sort of conclusion.

In the three months of the Clinton presidency the issue has aroused strong emotions across the nation. Homosexuals have no need to remind the United States of their existence. Mr Clinton wants to keep his promise. But he has learnt, painfully, that a discreet approach may well prove more effective. The most likely consequence of the Washington march will be to strengthen the homophobic backlash and make the President's task more difficult.

If new findings by the Battelle Human Affairs Research Center in Seattle are to be believed, yesterday's huge turnout represented a higher proportion of the nation's homosexuals than might previously have been thought. The centre's study, considered one of the most thorough ever conducted on male sexual behaviour, found that only 1 per cent of those surveyed considered themselves exclusively homosexual. Hitherto the assumption has been that Alfred Kinsey, of the eponymous 1948 report, was right in putting the figure at 10 per cent. Studies in Europe have tended to opt for between 1 and 4 per cent. There are no signs that the US quarterly magazine called 10 Per Cent is planning to adjust its title. But if the new figure gains widespread credence, it will inevitably affect public perception of the strength of the homosexual lobby.

A drastic shrinkage in estimates of the homosexual population, and therefore of the gay vote, could in turn influence the public debate about other items on the activists' agenda, and President Clinton's attitude to those issues. They include repealing laws outlawing sodomy between consenting adults in 24 states; extending spouses' rights to homosexual partners; and preventing seven more states following Colorado's example in forbidding laws that protect gays from discrimination.

Mr Clinton has already done the homosexual community a great service by being - uniquely among US presidential candidates - happy to be identified as supporting their cause. It matters not that his main aim was to secure their votes; in seeking to gain the 'pink vote' he could easily have suffered a net loss if swathes of majority opinion had been alienated by such a display of sympathy. American homosexuals now have a friend in the White House, one who is prepared to meet leaders of their organisations. That is worth a lot. He may not be a wholly reliable friend. He may not deliver on all his promises. He may choose to be elsewhere (in Boston) on the day of their big march. But for all that, he is a friend, and one whom it would be a mistake to alienate by using injudiciously aggressive tactics.