Gay-Rights Activists to Rally This Weekend's March in Washington Comes at a Time of Growing Support for Anti-Discrimination Legislation

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THE gay-rights march expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants to Washington this weekend is both a show of political strength and a celebration. And although he is not likely to take a high-visibility role, the man of the hour is President Clinton.

Mr. Clinton actively courted gay and lesbian voters, named homosexuals to administration posts, held an unprecedented White House meeting with movement leaders last week, and is looked to now as a key ally in passing landmark legislation adding sexual orientation to the list of categories protected under civil rights law.

"The Clinton victory put us out in the sunlight," said Torie Osborne, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Suddenly, the world is listening, and suddenly, we have a chance to tell our story and make our case to the American people. This decade really will be the `Gay '90s.' "

Opponents of special legislation for gays agree that there has been a shift in activity and energy for the gay-rights movement. "Anyway you look at it, they're on a roll like they've never been before," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, which represents some 25,000 United States churches. Mr. Sheldon says gay-rights legislation "is definitely within reach, {with} better than a 50 percent chance that it can pass."

While both sides are cranking up efforts to win support, the public remains ambivalent. A Newsweek survey taken last fall found that 78 percent think gays should have equal job opportunities.

But a slight majority disapprove of homosexuality as a "lifestyle," and clear majorities are against legally sanctioned marriages between same-sex partners (58 percent to 35 percent approval) and adoption rights for gay spouses (61 percent to 32 percent).

"We have the toughest job on personal issues," Ms. Osborne says. "The truth is: 50 percent of Americans still think we're abnormal." Recent survey

For years, many have assumed that researcher Alfred Kinsley was right when he reported in 1948 that some 10 percent of American males are homosexual. But more-recent surveys, including a study announced last week, put the figure at less than 2 percent.

That would seem to reduce the potential political influence of gays. But gay-rights groups discount the findings, saying many people remain reluctant to reveal an atypical sexual orientation - even in an anonymous poll. "The important thing is not the numbers. The important thing is that we not be discriminated against," one gay man said.

Whether sexual orientation should be given protected status under federal law turns on this question. Gay-rights leaders point to discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas, and they note a rise in violent attacks against gays, as shown in recent "hate crimes" reports.

But Sheldon cites a survey published in The Wall Street Journal to assert that, in some ways, gays are better off than the average American. The 1991 survey of subscribers to publications designed for gays showed higher income and education levels, and a greater percentage holding managerial or professional positions. "The issue is not discrimination," he insists.

The proposed "Civil Rights Act of 1993" states: "It shall be unlawful to discriminate against any person (1) in employment, education, credit, or housing; (2) in the sale or use of goods or services; (3) with respect to any public facility; or (4) in any federally assisted program or activity; on account of that person's sexual orientation, actual or perceived. …