WASHINGTON (AP) -- Decades after its birth, the civil rights movement is finally turning its attention to gay Americans.
By JILL LAWRENCE
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Decades after its birth, the civil rights
movement is finally turning its attention to gay Americans.
For 30 years the movement has piled up countless victories for
minorities and women, the elderly and the disabled, religious
people and sick people. All the while it's remained legal in
most of the country to discriminate against homosexuals.
But a landmark debate is about to begin.
A bill banning job discrimination against homosexuals is the
first gay cause to be embraced by the larger civil rights
community. And a Senate hearing on the measure Tuesday will
mark the first time a gay rights issue has been aired on
The Labor and Human Resources Committee will hear from people
whose sexual orientation cost them their jobs. A disabled
Republican will testify, along with the chairman of the U.S.
Civil Rights Commission, supportive union and corporate
witnesses and possibly the assistant attorney general for civil
Conservative groups have been claiming for some time that
homosexuals are seeking special rights, special protection,
special status. The argument is the cornerstone of direct-mail
appeals and campaigns against state and local
Tuesday's hearing is "an important opportunity to dispel the
myth," says David Smith, spokesman for the National Gay and
Lesbian Task Force. "Gay people are discriminated against, do
not have recourse, and are looking for equal protection under
the law -- nothing more."
The bill recently introduced in the House and Senate is
narrowly drawn for maximum potential appeal. It says an
employee's partner is not entitled to benefits; quotas and
preferential treatment are verboten; religious employers are
exempt except for their for-profit enterprises; the act doesn't
apply to the military, and it's not necessarily violated if a
policy affects gay people more than heterosexuals.
The exceptions are expected to assure eventual Clinton
administration support for the bill. So far the White House has
endorsed its principles; that's the line Justice Department
civil rights chief Deval Patrick is expected to take in
It was undecided as of Thursday whether Patrick would appear in
person or send a statement. The administration, burned by last
year's furor over gays in the military, may choose the latter
course as least likely to divert attention from the vital
health reform and crime bills before Congress.
The job discrimination bill has nearly 150 House and Senate
sponsors, only nine of them Republicans. Justin Dart, a
Republican who will testify Tuesday, said he hoped more GOP
lawmakers "of vision and conscience" would sign on.
"This law is absolutely in the tradition of the Declaration of
Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act," said
Dart, a wheelchair user who helped lead the fight for the 1990
Several religious organizations support the bill, but
congressional Republicans can expect considerable pressure from
religious right and "pro-family" groups already mobilizing for
"Our view is that this is entirely different from race or sex,"
said Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council.
"Inevitably you're going to force employers who have deep moral
objections to that way of life to bring people into their
business who are openly promoting that way of life."
Bauer, whose group has asked to testify Tuesday, contends that
discrimination against homosexuals is rare and that there is no
societal consensus against discrimination except in the areas
of race, sex and religion.
But gay rights groups say their polls show more than
three-quarters of Americans agree that gay people shouldn't
lose their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Their
research also shows, however, that most people wrongly believe
gays already are protected by federal civil rights law.
Eight states have protective laws, leaving 42 in which gay
people continue to be vulnerable. Success at the federal level
may take a year or more, but some see it now as inevitable.
During the 1980s, the country increasingly began to believe
discrimination against the disabled was a violation of basic
"That's exactly what's happening with gay and lesbian
anti-discrimination measures," said Ralph Neas, executive
director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "More
and more people are viewing this as a fundamental civil rights
issue." Jill Lawrence covers political and social trends for
The Associated Press.