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WE'LL HAVE A GAY OLD TIME

12:00 AM, Sep 2, 1996 • By MATT LABASH
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Chicago

Billed by its sponsor as the first-ever "gay political convention," OutVote '96 promised to be a Tommy Tune musical opening smack in the middle of a pallid season -- the week before the Democratic convention and in the same town. One goes to such an event eagerly anticipating jaunty bursts of color from the nipple-cuffed, softball-cleated fire-snorters who usually comprise the crowd.

Not this time. The only costume on display was borne by some hulking Adam's apple stuffed into a floral-print dress, wobbling around on stacked heels -- and he didn't make much noise. Most of them don't. The Human Rights Campaign, which sponsored OutVote, is an organization of ice-water pragmatists who'd rather talk precinct programs, fund-raising, and voter mobilization for gay- friendly candidates than make placards and scream at people. The largest gay organization in the country (it claims 175,000 members), HRC is a haven for a more subdued Italian-silk and tasseled-loafer set, where well-to-do's can discuss election strategy and be dazzled by each other's White House access.

It is where, as more traditional hardliners like ACT-UP's Steve Michael suggest, chi chi activists become Vichy activists.

"This isn't a gay convention," Michael says, "just the HRC sugarcoating Clinton's record and taking us down this silly little path of assimilation."

The HRC would take issue that it's completely in the tank for Clinton. Sure, it endorsed him all the way back in February, before primary season was over and before he felt compelled to assure the straight world he'd sign the anti- gay-matrimony Defense of Marriage Act (Dole received an HRC spanking for sponsoring the same measure). And yes, in 1992, its membership pumped Clinton about $ 2.5 million (though it had never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 12-year history) -- and it'll kick in around another million this year.

But everyone from HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch to HRC celebrity spokesmodel Candace Gingrich insisted this was a non-partisan convention thrown by a non-partisan organization. And a good thing too. Because with all the Clinton/Gore '96 pink triangle signs, the workshops headed by DNC and Reelect Clinton/Gore staffers, the Emily's List panelists, the speeches by Henry Cisneros and George Stephanopoulos, and the video greeting from Clinton himself, one started noticing a slight partisan accent.

But wait! There was gay Republican Steve Gunderson sharing a microphone and a kiss at the lunch dais -- with his non-Republican "co-author, partner and conscience," Rob Morris. The two men, promoting their new tome House and Home, did a little he said/he said schtick that made even George Hamilton- Alana Stewart banter look dignified. Rob got all the sassy lines about those tacky, bejeweled Republican heifers he saw in San Diego, while Steve wrinkled his nose as straight man, shooting a couldn't-you-just-put-him-in-a-pepper- grinder-and-sprinkle-him-over-salad look at his beloved.

Birch herself fostered a spirit of bipartisan equanimity when invoking Bob Dornan, Phyllis Schlafly, and the two Pats, Robertson and Buchanan: "We are trying very hard to hate the sin but love the sinner -- in their case, it is very tough." Others, like the very gay Rev. Troy Perry, were less circumspect: "Pat Buchanan, you're going to die and go to Hell!"

Okay, so it's not exactly screaming headlines for a gay organization to go whole-hog Democrat. Except consensus in the activist community isn't as cut- and-dried as one might think. One out of three gay voters supposedly went Republican in the '94 elections, which was the impetus for a doubling of the response to the HRC's direct mail. Though the overtly partisan Log Cabin Republicans have a much smaller membership (10,000), executive director Rich Tafel says a recent survey of his members shows nearly half have been or are members of the HRC.

"More important than votes," says Tafel, "gays are an ATM machine for politicians, especially with all that West Hollywood and New York money." And with its $ 8 million budget, 60 staffers, its ranking in the top 50 PACs, and proactive ground organization in over 150 races this fall, the HRC is a force that warrants heavy courtship.

But it doesn't take much wooing, since Steve Michael and others allege they're already on their backs for Clinton. While HRC staffers spent their time in San Diego financing anti-Republican ads about the "anti-gay-marriage bill" (a bill Clinton couldn't endorse fast enough on both constitutional and moral grounds), the HRC is co-hosting six parties with Clinton's reelection campaign during the Democratic National Convention. This election cycle, it has given over five times as much money to Democrats as Republicans, and on its 144-race endorsement sheet, Republicans garner a mere 14 nods.