President to meet with gay and lesbian leaders Oval Office session will be a first

April 16, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has invited gay and lesbian leaders to the White House today to talk about their legislative agenda and his apparent reluctance to participate in a major gay rights march here on April 25.

It is the first White House meeting ever between a president and gay and lesbian leaders.

Organizers of the march, which could draw as many as one million people, said they will lobby Mr. Clinton to address the demonstrators and ignore warnings that his identification with gay and lesbian causes will hurt him politically.

"My feeling is that he's already identified himself with us on the issue. The 'taint' has already happened," said Torie Osborn, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and one of seven activists invited to attend the Oval Office session. "I'm not sure what cost his advisers perceive he may pay that he hasn't already paid."

One of the co-chairpersons of the march warned that Mr. Clinton would damage his standing in the gay and lesbian community if he failed to attend. "I think he's losing an opportunity to galvanize an incredible amount of support. People will be very disillusioned with his commitment to civil rights," said the organizer, a woman named Scout.

White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos told reporters yesterday that Mr. Clinton would be addressing a conference of newspaper executives in Boston on April 25, suggesting it was unlikely the president would make a personal appearance at the Washington march.

The issue is a delicate one politically for Mr. Clinton, who got off to a rocky start with the furor over his proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military.

With polls showing the public sharply divided on lifting the ban and other gay rights issues, Mr. Clinton runs the risk of alienating some voters if he is perceived as being too closely aligned with gay and lesbian causes.

"The president shouldn't be placing the approval of the chief executive on a lifestyle that is repugnant at best to the vast majority of people whom he serves as president," said Robert G. Grant, chairman of Christian Voice, a conservative lobbying group. "He needs to somewhere along the way draw the line on how far he's willing to go."

Despite their disappointment at Mr. Clinton's hesitance to appear at the march, gay and lesbian activists said yesterday they were heartened by Mr. Clinton's willingness to meet with them personally.

Gay and lesbian leaders once met with an adviser to President Carter and were part of a 1990 White House ceremony for hate crimes legislation signed by President Bush, but have never met with a president to discuss their legislative agenda.

Activists said they would ask Mr. Clinton to support federal legislation extending civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. During the campaign, Mr. Clinton said he would support such legislation, provided that it exempted religious organizations from its provisions.

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