WASHINGTON (AP) -- Decades after its birth, the civil rights movement is finally turning its attention to gay Americans.

Gay Rights
19-Jul-94 21:42

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 
Capitol Hill.

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 
rights.

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 
anti-discrimination laws.

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 
testimony Tuesday.

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 
disabilities law.

Several religious organizations support the bill, but 
congressional Republicans can expect considerable pressure from 
religious right and "pro-family" groups already mobilizing for 
battle.

"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 
American principles.

"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.


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