For one man, gay march is a campaign for dignity

April 25, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When Tim Mason joins the masses in the giant gay rights march in Washington today, he'll be going just one more mile in a quest for dignity and equal rights that has driven him to the bedrock of despair but that he believes is headed finally for redemption.

The 32-year-old telecommunications specialist from Gaithersburg quit his job in Northern Virginia on Thursday, partly because he had felt threatened for eight months by working in a state with no job protection for homosexuals.

"I knew I could have been fired at any time, just because of what I am,"he said the next day on his way to Capitol Hill to take his message to his congresswoman, Rep. Constance A. Morella. "It's not a new feeling, but it's scary just the same."

He walked through a city aswirl with gay and lesbian activists from all over the country, the first contingents of what organizers were predicting would be the biggest civil rights march in U.S. history -- perhaps a million strong.

In the past three days, they have swarmed through the halls and across the lawns of Congress, picketing and pestering harried aides. In the city, they staged sudden protests, snarled traffic and shouted slogans.

Around Dupont Circle, the city's main gay hangout, restaurants and sidewalks were clogged day and night. Travel agents said every hotel and residential establishment within 100 miles of Washington, including Baltimore, was booked to capacity. The Metro was jam-packed, and on Friday, for once it was hard to pick out the pin-stripe suits among the leather jackets, chromed belts and tie-dyed denims.

And through it all walks Tim Mason: gray suit, white shirt, tie, neatly combed brown hair; the image of "straightness," except, perhaps, forthe buckled ankle boots, a little triangle of pink cloth -- a gay insignia -- pinned to his lapel and a sardonic grin when someone suggests that he doesn't look homosexual.

"Oh, I'm very cognizant of the image I project," he said, chuckling. "And I can also do things that make it very obvious what I am: I can hold my partner's hand, we can kiss in public, go to gay establishments, wear earrings -- as you see, my ears are pierced.

"But those are risky things to do; there are people out there who hate me, who'll take a club to me without giving it a thought."

Mr. Mason's first stop is the Bellevue Hotel, not far from the Capitol. The tiny lobby and reception area is in a state of frenzy, with gays and lesbians milling about and everyone talking at once.

The Human Rights Campaign Fund has staked out the area to brief volunteers on how to lobby members of Congress.

"Think of it as a long-term relationship," human rights campaigner Mark Pauling says to a group of men and women who, like Mr. Mason, have come to learn how best to press their interests on the Hill.

"Don't think that if you get a 'no' today that it'll necessarily be a 'no' tomorrow; or, if it's a 'yes,' that it'll be a 'yes' tomorrow," he continues. "Members of Congress often change their position."

By question and answer, each of the 15 or 20 would-be lobbyists in the group selects the most important issues he or she will raise with the Congress member or aide. It would be practically impossible to talk about all issues of the march. So most concentrate on four issues: overturning the ban on gays in the military, adopting a Civil Rights Act to protect homosexuals, increasing funding on AIDS research and treatment, and improving women's health care.

"Don't think that just because you haven't been directly affected that you haven't been discriminated against -- you have," says human rights adviser Dan Coats. "It may be as simple as choosing where to live or not to live, or steering away from a job because you want to avoid problems."

Mr. Mason nods vigorously in agreement. "That's me," he murmurs knowingly.

Later, over coffee, Mr. Mason recounts a time in college when a fraternity brother, enraged to be associated with a homosexual, tried to beat him up. That was the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1980. He was treasurer of his frat, and one of three openly gay members, which was amazingly bold then, he says, for such a straight-laced university.

Now he's involved in a mentorship program there, which will take him back to the college several times a year to speak to undergraduates about their futures.

It shows how times have changed, he notes.

But Mr. Mason says he's not interested in trying to change entrenched heterosexual attitudes toward homosexuality. That would be an exercise in futility.

"Even if science proved one day that [homosexuality] is a born, not a learned, thing -- that the earth is not flat -- there'd still be people saying it's not true."

All he wants, he says, is to be comfortable with his homosexuality.

"And that doesn't depend on raising the consciousness of others, because then I'd be trying to define myself as others see me, and it would destroy me, as it almost did."

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