Religious right, gays on a crusade of images Foes show videos to sway opinion

June 07, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In one video, they are wearing polo shirts and jackets and talking about their rights, their struggles, their families and loved ones.

In the other, they are wearing chains and leather, dancing lasciviously and hoisting signs with a declarative four-letter word.

These are the dueling videos, the dueling images of gay and lesbian people. And they represent a furious battle to define and portray the homosexual community -- a battle between the gay community itself and its nemesis, the conservative right -- that is now raging at the nucleus of the debate over gay and lesbian issues.

With the gays in the military question pushing an otherwise back-burner issue front and center, both sides have embarked on all-out crusades to try to shape public opinion on homosexuality.

For the gay community, that means convincing the public that they are mothers, brothers and daughters, bankers and bus drivers and ministers who have the same souls and minds as the rest of mainstream America.

"Our agenda is equality and an end to discrimination and violence. Nothing more and nothing less," says Robert F. Bray, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

For the conservative right, it means convincing the public that homosexuals are asking for special rights above and beyond the equal rights they already have, and that they choose to indulge in behavior that is immoral, abnormal, unhealthy and destructive.

"The image projected by gay activists is largely benign," says Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the conservative Family Research Council. "They focus only on civil rights, tolerance and diversity.

"What you won't see is a focus on actual homosexual behavior and the health risks associated with the homosexual lifestyle. The public is not aware of the dangers of some of these practices."

His and other conservative organizations are doing everything they can to get their message to the public -- publishing newsletters such as The Lambda Report, a new publication that tries to link homosexuality with pedophilia and reports that "gays can change"; holding frequent conferences to debunk "Homosexual Disinformation"; and circulating videos about gay sexual practices.

"There's the sense that the media aren't telling the truth, so the facts have to be gotten elsewhere," says Mr. Knight.

New cause for the right

The Christian right is promoting the image of gays as disease-ravaged perverts not only to support the ban against their service in the military. Such a portrait is also key to its fight against a "rainbow" curriculum in schools that includes a discussion of homosexuality.

Major fund-raising campaigns for right-wing groups are now framed around gay issues, what televangelist Jerry Falwell calls in his mailer "the forces of Satan that have gripped our nation."

The anti-gay appeals have proven so effective that even groups such as Operation Rescue and Concerned Women for America, which had focused on anti-abortion activities, are fighting the gay agenda through rallies and direct-mail pieces.

"There's no doubt, if abortion was the issue of the '80s, for this movement, homosexuality is the issue of the '90s," says Arthur J. Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a leading liberal organization.

Public opinion on homosexual issues, poll takers say, has remained largely unchanged for several decades, and falls somewhere in between the conservatives' portrait of deviant, promiscuous men and women looking for special privileges and the gay community's portrait of an oppressed minority deprived of basic human rights.

"Both activist groups are probably pretty far from mainstream opinion," says Everett C. Ladd, president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. "Among most Americans, you don't see any great desire to condemn, but neither is there any desire to support."

For instance, he says, while the majority of people do not favor discrimination against gays, the majority do have a visceral negative reaction to the gay lifestyle.

These negative feelings -- what gay activists call the "ick" factor -- are arguably the religious right's greatest asset in this battle and the gay community's greatest obstacle.

Exploiting 'ick' factor

It is at the heart of one of the conservatives' most lethal weapons -- an 18-minute video titled "The Gay Agenda," a highly sensational film distributed this year to churches across the country, members of Congress and high-ranking Pentagon officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Deplored by gay leaders as propaganda, the video mixes footage from gay pride parades -- featuring near-naked men and women engaging in lewd behavior -- with explicit commentary about sexual practices and the gay community's rate of disease.

"Studies show that male homosexuals average between 20 and 106 partners every year," the narrator claims. " . . . Thirty seven percent engage in sado-masochism. At least 20 percent have engaged in sodomy with more than 1,000 men."

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