Clinton to address gay group President will use speech to promote 'diversity' in America

November 08, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a symbolic gesture deeply appreciated by gays and lesbians but resented by religious conservatives, President Clinton will be the featured speaker tonight at a fund-raiser for America's largest gay political organization.

White House aides say Clinton believes that addressing the group will help advance his goal of bringing Americans of diverse backgrounds together. The president will be thanking members of a constituency who have loyally supported him politically, even though he has not always sided with them on their highest-priority issues.

Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said the president would use his speech to promote "diversity" in American public life, decry hate crimes against gays and other groups -- in advance of a White House conference on hate crimes Monday -- and seek support in his battle to get Bill Lann Lee confirmed as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Clinton carefully avoided making a public speech to a gay rights group during his first term. But leaders of the Human Rights Campaign are expressing pride that in addressing their group now, Clinton was going where no previous president had gone before.

"We're very honored and excited to welcome the president of the United States," said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the organization. "This is the first time a sitting president will be addressing a gay civil rights event."

"It represents a coming of age for gay and lesbian people," added David Smith, a gay activist and official spokesman for the event. "The president is sending a signal for civility in America, and he will be speaking not just to 1,500 people at the dinner, but to gay and lesbian people across the country and to their families."

Yet the president's appearance at the sold-out, $250-a-plate event has also prompted harsh reactions from cultural conservatives who accuse him of cheapening the presidency.

"Clinton is using the office of the president to reward militant homosexuals for their enthusiastic support for his agenda," said Paula Govers, a spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America.

Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, added: "The public policy agenda of this group is way out of the mainstream, whether it's same-sex marriage or trying to force groups such as the Boy Scouts to accept homosexual counselors. So unless Clinton is going to attack this radical agenda, he's giving them aid and comfort."

Bauer, a former Reagan administration official, said he believes the recent public expression of support for gays by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore is politically "pretty risky."

Because Clinton cannot run for re-election, the political fallout for him appears to be minimal. For Gore, who plans to run for president in 2000, the stakes are higher, and in the run-up to tonight's dinner, his journey through the thicket of liberal and gay politics is attracting intense scrutiny.

Three weeks ago, in a Los Angeles speech to entertainment executives, Gore lavished praise on Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian who stars in the TV sitcom "Ellen," for coming out of the closet -- in real life and on screen -- in a widely followed odyssey that boosted ratings and made DeGeneres a heroine in the gay community.

"When the character Ellen came out, millions of Americans were forced to look at sexual orientation in a more open light," Gore said in that speech.

The remark drew cheers from his audience but prompted heated attacks from conservatives, including one possible Republican rival in the 2000 presidential race, Dan Quayle. During his tenure as vice president, Quayle was outspokenly critical of the values espoused by Hollywood, notably the lifestyle of the single mother on "Murphy Brown."

"Today, you have Al Gore applauding what Hollywood is doing," Quayle said. "He's pandering, basically, to Hollywood and the gay constituency, which is a big part of the Democratic Party."

But Clinton and Gore have also managed to keep some distance between themselves and the liberal gay groups. And even though the national gay newspaper the Advocate has dubbed him "the most pro-gay president in history," Clinton has been skittish about appearing to be too close to gay causes.

Clinton boasts, for instance, of appointing openly gay Democrats to his administration. Yet during a 1993 gay march, Clinton went on a hurriedly arranged trip so that he was in Boston when gay marchers passed the White House, some chanting, "Where is Bill?"

Likewise, after having championed allowing openly gay people in the military, Clinton yielded to criticism and settled for a "don't ask, don't tell" compromise that angered gay leaders. One longtime gay friend of the president's, David Mixner, protested by getting arrested during a protest in front of the White House.

Clinton also spoke out against same-sex marriage and signed into law a ban on such unions.

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