The following article appeared on page 1 of the New York Times Week in Review of Sunday, January 31, 1993.
Last week, not even three months after that euphoric night and days after gay celebrations at the Clinton inaugural, reality hit home. President Clinton's plan to end the ban on homosexuals in the military ran into a firestorm of protest from the military, from Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress and, most important, from the American people. Mr. Clinton was forced to retreat, putting off for at least six months an executive order to lift the ban.
Almost lost in the nitty-gritty of the battle over the military was the larger issue: the gay struggle for individual rights in running head-on into America's deep ambivalence about homosexuality.
The dispute over gay men and lesbians in the military reflects a kind of continuing national referendum on homosexual rights, revealing just how tenuous support can be despite big political and social advances and polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose job discrimination against homosexuals. It is being played out over and over: in Colorado, in efforts to overturn a statewide referendum barring local gay-rights measures. In New York, in a battle over the "rainbow curriculum," which encourages tolerance toward homosexuals.
"I thought all along that the Willie Horton issue of the campaign would be gays and Clinton's support of gay rights," said William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute/ "Well, instead of happening in the campaign, it has come true now." the outcry over the President's military proposal stunned gay-rights leaders, who had expected opposition but nothing like this. After being blinded by their vision of Mr. Clinton as the white knight, they realized that having the President on their side was not enough. Without question, the religious right, still stinging from the defeat of George Bush and its losses on abortion, fueled the furor, flooding call-in shows and Congressional phone lines with vehement opposition to the Clinton plan.
But members of Congress said they were hearing from average citizens, too. The office of Senator John Glenn, Democrat of Ohio, said calls early in the week were running 10 to 1 against lifting the ban. By Friday, after gay groups began to muster their phone banks the ratio had dropped , but it was still 4 to 1.
Representative Jim leach, an Iowa Republican, said "The majority of the Christian right may have a particular perspective, but the debate appears to have tapped a groundswell of feelings in Americans of all walks of life."
As is often the case the gay rights, it became clear that even the middle-of-the-road Americans who said they opposed discrimination were still uncomfortable with homosexuality. "I'm sorry," a caller said apologetically last week to a Detroit radio station. "I don't think I'm a bigot. We shouldn't deny them their rights. But I think gay people want society to say they're normal and it just isn't so." Gay and lesbian Americans reacted with anger, hurt and ever fear. Many questioned Mr. clinton's allowing the issue to become a confrontation so quickly. but in random conversations with almost two dozen homosexuals, all were in favor of pressing the fight. And though a bit rattled, all took some pride in the events of last week: Their issues, all but unmentionable not so long ago, were on the national stage, and championed by the President himself.
"I fault Clinton's timing, but I feel close to him," said Bill Goldstein, a 32 year-old editor at a Manhattan publishing house. "When I read the newspaper in the morning, I can't believe that my people are on the front page. I can't help thinking, 'Damn it, we're not going to let them stop thinking about us.'"
But there was also hurt and rage, emotions expressed by David Goodhand, a 29 year-old computer software designer in Seattle. "Now every gay man, every gay woman in America knows where we stand. They hate us," he said. "It's like being a black and hearing the government debate pro-slavery." Lynn Greer, 35, a property manager in Columbus, Ohio, put it this way: "I'm a little sad. We've gone from euphoria and feeling like part of the process to finding we're not at the table. Now we have to start again with our neighbors, one by one."
Gay groups were ecstatic with the 1992 campaign, in part because Republicans backed off the gay-bashing comments prominent at the party's Houston convention in August. But as a result, gay issues never got an airing in the campaign.
Political strategists say President Bush had to back off because mainstream Americans perceived the religious right as running away with the party. Gay rights, like abortion and single parents, became a topic to be avoided. And with the issue not engaged, Mr. Clinton seemed to get a false sense of confidence.
"Americans don't want to glorify minorities, but they don't want to persecute them, either," said Mr. Schneider. "The Republicans, at the convention, crossed into persecuting gays. Now, people seem to feel Clinton has crossed into glorifying them."
What made matters worse, analysts agree, was that the American armed forces were involved. The dispute had the effect of pitting the gay agenda of social change against favorable feelings about the military, perceived by many Americans as one part of the Government that works. Pentagon officials said the presence of open homosexuality would undermine cohesion in the ranks.
"I think the election created a false security," said Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of two openly gay members of Congress. "Sometimes winning can be bad for you." National gay-rights groups in Washington, already stretched thin by the fight on AIDS, seem overwhelmed and confused. Preoccupied with preventing passage of an anti-gay measure last year in oregon, they didn't concentrate enough effort in Colorado, and the measure there passed. It is because of the ground-work done by the national organizations that the issue of homosexuals in the military advanced at all. Now, however, the groups are being criticized for not lobbying quickly and thoroughly enough: They let the Pentagon run away with the issue as a military one. They failed to drive home the message that it was a civil-rights fight.. And they failed to muster strong support from natural allies, like those in the pro-choice movement.
"We have lost much of our experience and leadership through AIDS and movement burnout," said Thomas B. Stoddard, a gay-rights lawyer. "there's no reservoir of experienced leadership. All of our national organizations are weak and bereft of people with substantial experience."
Meanwhile, one of the biggest fights ever is looming. "There's no going back," said David B. Mixner, a gay corporate consultant in Los Angeles who advises the White House on gay issues. "This isn't about just the military. This is about homophobia in America. It's the beginning of a two-year, a three-year fight in 11 states or more and in school-board rooms around the country." The Rev. Lou Sheldon, national chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, representing 25,000 churches, agreed. "Lifting of the ban is just the tip of the iceberg of the homosexual agenda. We are in the research stage on how to proceed, to find what people are thinking, to find out what will fly."