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Legislators, gay relatives rally on Capitol Hill for anti-discrimination bill


WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress, along with the gay and lesbian relatives of several prominent lawmakers, gathered on Capitol Hill yesterday to push for a law banning workplace discrimination against homosexuals.

And they cited the recent incident at the White House, in which Secret Service agents put on rubber gloves before admitting gay elected officials, to bolster their case.

Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank called the incident an "outrageous example of stupid insensitivity" and proof that individuals are still frequently mistreated simply because they are gay or lesbian.

"When people at the level of Secret Service officers show that kind of bias, it ought not to be surprising that it exists elsewhere," said Mr. Frank, a Democrat and one of a few openly homosexual members of Congress.

"People needed to be protected against it. They need to be protected against inappropriate behavior from the Secret Service at the White House. They need to be protected against bigotry elsewhere."

Among gay and lesbian family members promoting the measure -- which would forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in hiring, firing, promotion and pay -- were Candace Gingrich, sister of House speaker Newt Gingrich, and Chastity Bono, daughter of California Rep. Sonny Bono.

Ms. Bono, whose mother is singing star Cher, said she was "appalled" at Tuesday's White House incident, for which the director of the Secret Service has apologized.

She said she hoped her father, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee -- which has jurisdiction over the legislation -- would support the anti-discrimination bill. However, she said, she has not talked to him about it.

Mr. Bono does not expect to support the bill, his spokesman said.

"I don't really discuss politics with my father," said Ms. Bono. "My father is a Republican. I'm a Democrat. We keep things on a very friendly and loving plane, so we don't really talk to each other about politics. I love him and I'm proud of him even though we have very different views on issues."

Ms. Gingrich, who has embarked on a 50-city tour as spokeswoman for the National Coming Out Project, a campaign to persuade homosexuals to openly declare their sexual orientation, was less charitable in describing her brother, who has spoken out against legislative protection for gays and lesbians.

When asked if her brother, a Georgia Republican, supported the bill, she said with a chortle, "Do I even need to answer that question?"

She said she had not given up on "trying to sway him," but added: "There are millions of other people I have a better chance of talking to and educating. My brother does not understand what American principles and values are really about."

Mr. Gingrich's office said neither the speaker nor a spokesman was available to respond.

Vermont GOP Sen. James M. Jeffords, one of the lawmakers who introduced the bill, said the legislation merely extends to sexual orientation the same protection against discrimination that exists in the workplace for race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability.

He admitted that passage is unlikely this year.

The bipartisan bill "creates no special rights," said Maryland Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Republican and another sponsor.

Among several people at yesterday's news conference who said they had been victims of workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation was financial adviser Michael Engler of Ellicott City, Md.

Mr. Engler said that in January 1989, he was fired from his job as a top manager at a financial services firm in Western Maryland because he was gay.

He said he was told by the CEO of the company, which he refused to name, "that my lifestyle was not compatible with the community and not compatible with the image the company wanted to portray."

Although he sought legal help, "the lawyer had nothing to stand on to press the case," said Mr. Engler, who has since started his own financial services firm.

Federal civil rights laws, and the laws in 41 states including Maryland, do not forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. A bill banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation failed in committee in the Maryland legislature in April.

The proposed federal bill would not apply to the military, religious organizations or businesses with fewer than 15 employees. It would not require an employer to provide benefits for workers' same-sex partners, nor allow quotas based on sexual orientation.

"Everyone in America deserves the same basic rights," said Sandy DeWine, cousin of Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican. "We're not asking for special rights. We just want equal rights."

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