Election Spotlights Battle over Gay Rights ; Conflict Escalates over Issues from Same-Sex Unions to Dr. Laura's New TV Show

Article excerpt

More than any other election year, this one reflects the country's continuing unease with the subject of sexual orientation.

The public battle over gay rights returns to Oregon with a ballot measure that would prevent schools from discussing homosexuality or bisexuality "in a manner which encourages, promotes, or sanctions such behaviors." It's the fourth time Oregonians have faced the issue.

But this is just one element in the broader spectrum of controversies over gay rights. It's also reflected in the debates over domestic-partner benefits and same-sex "civil unions," the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay scout leaders, whether or not to broadcast talk-show host Laura Schlessinger's moralistic judgments on homosexuality, and the telling differences in how the subject is playing in the Republican and Democratic campaigns for the White House.

Among the ways in which conflicting and conflicted views on the subject are exhibited politically and culturally:

*In addition to the Oregon vote, Nevada and Nebraska will vote on proposals banning same-sex marriages. A ballot measure in Maine would prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.

*In Vermont, many state legislative races are tied up in the fierce argument over that state's recent provision for "civil unions" between same-sex couples. "Take Back Vermont" signs around the state reflect opposition to the new law. In their primary election tomorrow, Vermont Democrats are likely to nominate an openly gay man as their candidate for the US Senate.

*Such major companies as United Airlines and Proctor & Gamble are refusing to advertise on the new "Dr. Laura" television show, which premiers today. Local TV affiliates in Boston and elsewhere have wrestled with whether or not to air the controversial and widely popular talk-show host who calls homosexuality "deviant" and a "biological error."

*A school district in Orange County, Calif., last week settled a federal lawsuit by allowing a gay-tolerance club to meet at El Modena High School. Salt Lake City, Utah, has just ended a four- year ban on nonacademic clubs imposed to keep a student "gay- straight alliance" from meeting.

*Following the recent US Supreme Court 5-4 vote upholding the Boy Scouts' position, several cities are preventing the Scouts from using public land and facilities.

*Cities around the country are starting "domestic registries" where same-sex couples can declare their partnerships and, in many cases, qualify for benefits traditionally reserved for married couples. Some 3,500 companies (about 10 percent of the US total) now provide employment benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

Such issues have galvanized gay-rights activists, as well as their opponents, many of whom see the upcoming elections as a forum for their views.

"To place domestic partner relationships on a par with marriage denigrates the marital imperative," says Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group in Washington. …