The Clinton administration named a new AIDS policy director yesterday, as AIDS activists and gay rights leaders nationwide began to prepare for a new, more conservative Congress that may be less receptive to their causes.
Patricia S. Fleming, who has been the acting chief of AIDS policy since August, was appointed by President Clinton to the high-profile and often controversial position. She is charged with coordinating the administration's policy on AIDS.
Before being asked to temporarily head the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Ms. Fleming, 57, was a special assistant to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.
Ms. Fleming took over the position left vacant July 8 by Kristine Gebbie, a former Washington state public health official who resigned after 11 months amid criticism from AIDS activists and conservatives alike.
The new AIDS director was hailed by many members of the AIDS community as a longtime AIDS advocate and a savvy Capitol Hill player well-suited to the coalition building that will be necessary for her to succeed.
"Ms. Fleming has been working on Capitol Hill for 25 years, she knows how to get the job done and she understands how to work collaboratively," said Daniel Bross, executive director of the AIDS Action Council, which lobbies on behalf of community-based gay rights groups.
"Her appointment represents a real opportunity for a collaborative working relationship between Clinton and Republicans," Mr. Bross said.
Already, Ms. Fleming's remarks seem more conciliatory toward conservatives than Ms. Gebbie's had been.
Ms. Gebbie had incensed some members of Congress by calling the United States a "repressive Victorian society" that tried to deny homosexual activity, especially among teen-agers.
By contrast, Ms. Fleming, who has three adult sons, seemed to signal yesterday that promoting abstinence could become a larger part of the administration's campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS.
"I think kids today have to delay having sex as long as possible to protect themselves," she told the Associated Press in an interview.
"My advice would be to try to abstain from sex until you find a partner you want to stay with for a long, long time," she said.
Mr. Clinton created the position of AIDS policy coordinator in 1992 to fulfill a campaign promise that AIDS would be a priority of his administration.
In addition, gay rights became a high-profile national issue when the president pushed for greater tolerance in the military for gays.
But yesterday's announcement comes at a time when AIDS advocates and gay civil rights leaders are hastily retooling their political strategies to mesh with the new, more conservative Congress -- as well as increased numbers of Republicans in state legislatures and gubernatorial offices.
"We had taken two steps forward and now we may be taking one step back. That's the nature of civil rights work, but it felt like we were getting closer to equality and it is upsetting to think that trend might not continue," said Suzanne Goldberg of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund, a gay rights group.
Although some gay activists point to the defeat of anti-gay measures on state ballots Tuesday in Oregon and Idaho as a measure of success, others say they are taking no chances.
"As a general rule, Republicans haven't been favorable toward the issue of gay and lesbian rights, and they are not likely to want to make room at the table for gays," said Bonnie Berger, co-chair of the Free State Justice Campaign, a Maryland gay rights group.
New strategies are among the topics being discussed this week at a gay and lesbian rights conference being held in Dallas by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
"One of the things we are talking about doing is returning to basics: building our movement's infrastructure, working toward grass-roots support, building coalitions," said Peri Jude Radecic, executive director of the task force, which includes increased AIDS prevention education among its priorities.