A Gay-Friendlier White House: While Some Activists Say the President Hasn't Done Enough, His Outreach Hasn't Gone Unnoticed

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Some activists say President Clinton hasn't delivered on his promises to gay men and lesbians. They point out that Clinton opposes gay marriage, that gays are still being kicked out of the military, and that he hasn't thrown his weight behind enough gay-friendly legislation. Yet when he spoke to 1,500 of the most influential gay men and lesbians in the nation at a fund-raising dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay rights organization, he received tremendous applause just for saying he was glad to be there.

Clinton made history not for what he said but for simply showing up. He became the first sitting U.S. president to address a gay organization, and that gesture spoke volumes to a community that has been ignored by previous administrations. "I want this to be a country where every child and every person who is responsible enough to work for it can live the American dream," the president said. "If we're ever going to build one America, then all Americans have to be part of it. "

"Clinton is the champion political sweet talker of all time," says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "So his speech to the HRC was nothing particularly unusual, except that it was aimed at a constituency group that is particularly grateful to be acknowledged because of its history of oppression."

Beginning in September, after almost five years of equivocation, the Clinton White House made a series of overtures to gay men and lesbians:

* Vice President Al Gore made a positive reference to the sitcom Ellen, which features an openly lesbian character.

* The White House announced several appointments of gays to senior administration posts, including Virginia Apuzzo, assistant to the president for administration and management; M. John Berry, assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the Department of the Interior; James Hormel, ambassador to Luxembourg; and Fred Hochberg, deputy administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Berry's appointment has been confirmed by the Senate; the nominations of Hormel and Hochberg await Senate action. Apuzzo's appointment did not require Senate confirmation.

* Clinton hosted the White House Conference on Hate Crimes, at which he promised to make fighting antigay violence a national priority.

Still, gay activists have reason to be wary: The White House has disappointed them repeatedly. Chief among the differences were Clinton's decision to back down on his pledge to lift the military's ban on gay and lesbian personnel and his signing of legislation banning same-sex marriage. Activists were also angered by the Justice Department's decision not to file a brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn Amendment 2, Colorado's antigay ballot measure that was struck down by the high court anyway.

But at the HRC dinner, at least, all was forgiven. "Because our needs were almost as great as our expectations, it was inevitable that we -- you and this community -- would experience both shared disappointment and some disagreement, "said Elizabeth Birch, HRC's executive director, when she introduced Clinton. "But, Mr. President, you have played a brave and powerful and indispensable role in the march toward justice for us." Clinton responded with a rousing speech, calling for a redefinition of "the immutable ideals that have guided us from the beginning" to include tolerance of gay men and lesbians and for passage of federal gay rights legislation because such discrimination "is wrong. And it should be illegal."

During the limousine ride to the HRC dinner, Apuzzo, one of Clinton's 18 top aides, spoke with Clinton about the state of gay politics. "When I said to him that people from all over the country had called me to say what a historic event it was, the president said, It's the right thing, I want to do it, and I'm glad to do it,'" says Apuzzo, who is widely considered one of the founders of the modern gay rights movement. …