WASHINGTON — Like other gays, George Beier and John Caner have never known a president who welcomed them as part of America. No president seemed comfortable with their concerns. None openly offered support.
But here comes Bill Clinton. Among many gays and lesbians, his inauguration is being welcomed with quiet joy – a historic watershed with a personal message of acceptance.
“The way Clinton accepts gays and works with them, he’s saying, ‘It’s OK to be who you are,’ and that’s really important,” said Beier, 29. “With Bush it was, ‘It’s OK to be who you are – if you’re like me.’ “
Beier and Caner, a gay California couple, are joining a sizable group of gays and lesbians traveling to Washington for the Inaugural. For the well- connected, there is a whirl of special parties, peaking Inauguration Night when 1,500 lesbians and gays will dance at the first-ever gay inaugural ball.
“To be honest, this is the most important single day that our community has had in many, many years,” said Gregory King of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, one of three sponsoring gay groups. “Bill Clinton has already demonstrated his willingness to include us in his administration, and his hopes for America.”
At least they hope they’re included. Gay groups are a little nervous that Clinton may be easing off from his campaign promise to allow open gays to
serve in the military. That has been hotly controversial among the military, some congressional leaders and the public.
Yet Clinton has continued to reach out. While the gay inaugural ball is not an official Clinton-sponsored event, it is not being relegated to the closet, either. It is listed along with all the other inaugural activities, King said.
George Beier and John Caner won’t be attending the sold-out ball or any event that requires a special ticket. But they don’t care. The Californians plan to shiver on the Capitol grounds with the masses, feeling patriotic, hopeful and finally included.
“Just being on the Capitol lawn and hearing what he has to say is something that I’d really like to share with George,” said Caner, 35. “Our society is so damned cynical, particularly about politics, that it’s great to be able to share in a moment of unabashed joy in our system.”
Unlike presidents before him, Clinton came of age in the first American generation where homosexuals did not generally have to hide – and where the issue of AIDS has started to unmask the breadth of the gay community.
If the AIDS virus today is spreading fastest among heterosexuals and women, gay men still are dying disproportionately. More than 170,000 Americans have died of the disease.
Clinton won Beier’s vote and those of many other gays with an emotional speech last spring. The candidate told a gay audience he was tired of the politics of divisiveness, then emotionally thanked the gay community for its efforts in fighting the AIDS epidemic, caring for the sick, promoting education and working for a cure.
“When we saw the videotape of Clinton’s speech, there were tears in people’s eyes,” Beier remembers. “They really believed, for the first time, that someone was listening to them, that somebody cared. . . . He said thank you to all the people who have been fighting AIDS. It was like, this man is finally giving recognition to this huge struggle that is going on.”
Their inclusion has continued. At Clinton’s invitation, the Lesbian and Gay Band of America will perform on Inauguration Day, and 100 panels from the AIDS memorial quilt will be part of his parade.
“On four separate occasions since 1987 we brought the entire quilt to Washington and put it on the President’s doorstep, and neither President Bush nor President Reagan visited,” said Jim Jones, a spokesman for the NAMES Project. “This time, the (incoming) President . . . has asked us to bring it into the inaugural parade. That fills us with a great deal of hope.”
Gays also talk of keeping expectations in check, knowing the inevitable letdown will come. “We’ve been disappointed before,” Jones says. But for now, like Cinderella, they are just happy to be welcome at their own inaugural ball.
Said Beier, “We’ve come out of our political closet.”
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