WASHINGTON -- In a gaffe rich with symbolism, gay and lesbian lawmakers who trooped into the White House this week for unprecedented talks were detained outside the executive mansion while security guards found and then donned blue rubber gloves.
"I was one of the first people in line and I actually saw them put their gloves on," said Alderman Mike Nelson of Carrboro, N.C. "I was in complete shock. I couldn't believe that that's what they were doing."
The guards were apparently worried about infection from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
But the White House, clearly embarrassed by the incident, yesterday called it "an error in judgment" and promised a swift investigation.
"We were unaware of that until we had been made aware of it by news accounts of the meeting, and of course it was raised during the meeting itself," said Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman. "And it's safe to say that the chief of staff or others were distressed by that."
Members of the gay and lesbian community, while applauding President Clinton's move to name a new 30-member council to advise him on issues related to AIDS, are irate at the administration's decision not to fight a Colorado constitutional amendment that bars civil rights protections for gays.
And Tuesday's action at the White House's southeast gate did not make things better.
"I've lost my own lover to AIDS and this is one of the basest, ignorant, homophobic reaction to AIDS I can imagine," said Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco supervisor who was among those detained. "A first-grader will tell you that you're not going to get AIDS by putting someone's camera through a metal detector. It's unconscionable and criminal."
Mr. Ammiano said that the gay and lesbian delegation's White House tour -- which preceded talks with high-level White House officials -- was clearly marked on a clipboard at the mansion's gate.
He said he and colleagues questioned the guards about the delay and about why they suddenly began to pull on rubber gloves.
"I asked a supervisor and he said, 'Well, I have a cut on my finger,' " Mr. Ammiano said.
Like all visitors to the White House, the delegation passed through metal detectors and submitted to the search of their bags.
Gay and lesbian lawmakers said the glove incident is symbolic of the political obstacles they face -- even with an administration that is sympathetic to their concerns.
"The whole thing highlights how far we've come and how far we have to go," Mr. Nelson said. "Here we are about to have this historic meeting with the first president who has invited gays and lesbians to the White House to talk about issues and we're faced with this kind of prejudice as we walk in the door."