Gay officials gain small victories Growing group quietly paves way toward tolerance

April 17, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Glen Maxey was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives, some of the distinguished gentlemen and gentlewomen he would serve with moved their seats. "So they wouldn't have to sit next to the queer," he says.

When he would step up to the microphone to introduce a bill or amendment, a piercing hush would fall over the otherwise zoo-like House floor, interrupted only by shouts of "Vote no! It's Maxey's amendment."

Today, just two years later, the Texas House is a different place, he says. When he stands up to talk about child abuse or ethics reform, he gets ignored and talked over like everyone else.

For the state's first openly gay legislator, "That's a victory."

Such victories, however small, have been piling up in the pockets of Mr. Maxey and other members of one of the smallest, perhaps most isolated, fraternities in government -- the nation's openly gay and lesbian elected and appointed officials.

Even though their numbers are still relatively slight, openly homosexual officials -- who organized in 1985 with about 20 people at their first annual conference in West Hollywood -- are the most visible members of an often invisible community, making up the front lines of today's gay rights movement.

Many of them will gather here next week for the gay and lesbian march on Washington and a lunch today where they will be addressed by Clinton campaign strategist James Carville. They are hoping this year's march will have the same effect that a smaller gay march in Washington had in 1987.

After that gathering, the gay community bubbled with political activism -- fueled further by the AIDS crisis -- that included the start of groups such as ACT UP and greater numbers of gay men and lesbians running for office.

Before 1980, you could count the number of openly gay officials on both hands, and the most famous of that select group, San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, was killed by a staunchly anti-gay colleague.

Today, there are 84 openly homosexual officials, including everyone from appointed judges to two members of Congress to another San Francisco supervisor, Roberta Achtenberg, recently nominated by President Clinton to be assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Many believe such appointments of homosexuals to key jobs is already paving the way for more tolerance and acceptance of gays in government -- everywhere from low-level government cubicles to state assembly ballots.

When Bob Hattoy, associate director of White House personnel, spoke in January before the Gay and Lesbian Federal Employees Association, 800 people showed up, as opposed to the usual two to three dozen.

"From cold to hot," says William Waybourn, head of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a 2-year-old political action committee for homosexual candidates, in describing the recent change in climate.

But most of the change has been taking place outside the White House. Gay politicians have been instrumental in getting gay rights bills passed in eight states, the latest one in Minnesota, where a gay man, Allan Spear, is president of the state Senate.

The Victory Fund last year raised money for 12 openly gay and lesbian candidates around the country, half of whom won.

"Just as it was for African-Americans, Hispanics and women, the next step toward the maturity of the movement is electing our own people," says Mr. Waybourn, "having a seat at the table."

In fact, most openly gay officials say their greatest impact as openly gay politicians is not necessarily in shepherding gay rights legislation, but in being there -- at the table -- to shatter myths and stereotypes about homosexuals.

"There I am, I am a human being like everyone else," says Mr. Spear, elected to the Minnesota Senate in 1972 and considered the dean of gay elected officials.

Not surprisingly, most openly gay politicians are concentrated in urban areas with heavy liberal or gay constituencies, such as Manhattan or San Francisco, or college towns such as Chapel Hill, N.C., and Madison, Wis.

But, more and more, there are exceptions such as Gerald Ulrich, a plant supervisor at a sponge rubber factory who earns $3 a year as mayor of rural Bunceton, Mo., and Dale McCormick, a Maine state senator who campaigned by going farm-to-farm on her bicycle in her conservative rural district.

Virginia could see its first openly gay official on Tuesday if Democratic nominee Jay Fissette, executive director of a

Northern Virginia AIDS clinic, wins a seat on the Arlington County Board as he's expected to do.

(There have been no openly homosexual elected officials in Maryland. Former Rep. Robert E. Bauman admitted his homosexuality -- to the public and himself -- only after a sex scandal involving a male prostitute cost him his 1st District seat in 1980.)

Robert Bray, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, insists, "To be openly gay is not a political kiss of death."

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