The video is titled "Gay Rights/Special Rights." Its music is sinister, its images provocative. The camera lingers on scenes of gay men and lesbians kissing passionately and dancing suggestively. African-Americans and Latinos complain that the gay movement is undermining their civil rights gains. Gay protesters scream, "We're gonna rule the world!"
A speaker warns that "we're going to lose thousands and thousands and thousands of good heterosexuals to the homosexual revolution." A ravaged AIDS patient tells of having 50 sex partners in one night.
Switch to a television advertisement aired briefly last summer. The music is gentle. There are scenes of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a snapshot of a smiling soldier.
"Among the 58,191 names on this wall are those of gay Americans," intones a sympathetic voice. "Young Americans like Donald Dean Winn, killed in combat New Year's Day, 1971, remembered now on the fifth panel of this black, granite wall. Donald Winn, soldier, patriot, gay American. . . . Was it wrong for them to serve and die? Should their names be erased from this wall?" The words "End Discrimination" fill the screen.
The techniques are classic: Warnings of society's ruination, tales of disease and sexual menace on one hand; cries of equality and justice on the other.
The clash over gay rights has become America's latest morality play, with gay advocates and their opponents competing for public support on a variety of stages. The war of words escalated this year with the debate over the military ban on gays, but it also is being waged on such matters as adoption rights and partnership benefits, anti-discrimination laws and the inclusion of gays in multicultural school curricula.
Like abortion, the gay rights issue has taken the nation into hazy, emotionally charged territory where traditional notions of morality collide with an evolving sense of civil liberties. X-rated topics have become the stuff of political flyers and videotapes. Catch phrases such as "special rights" have become potent tools of persuasion, as have fear and anxiety. Science, religion and civil rights have all been thrown into the pot of rhetoric stirred from talk shows to televangelist broadcasts to referendum battles.
Each camp's message attempts to strike different chords of the national psyche--a sense of equality and fairness versus a widespread discomfort with homosexuality. The framing of the issue thus becomes crucial, a nudging of public attitudes in one direction or another.
Get the public to think of gay men and lesbians as individuals discriminated against because of who they are, and opinion leans toward them.
Get the public to view gays as a threatening minority seeking special treatment, and opinion veers off in the other direction.
"Gay Rights/Special Rights," distributed by the Traditional Values Coalition of Anaheim, reflects many of the major themes repeatedly struck by gay rights opponents, particularly religious conservatives. Gays are portrayed as beyond the moral pale, a moneyed and politically influential group carrying out a carefully orchestrated plan to overhaul society in their image.
From the standpoint of shaping public opinion, such characterizations can carry a powerful punch. "The minute you say someone is different, (they're) already at a disadvantage," said Sheila T. Murphy, an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at USC.
In the case of gay men and lesbians, the difference is rooted in sexuality--a subject about which American society is generally uneasy.
"They then play on people's fears about those differences. 'The Gay Agenda' does that brilliantly," Murphy added, referring to a widely circulated, church-produced video that focuses on lewd behavior in gay pride parades and contains many of the motifs in "Gay Rights/Special Rights."
Further, gays are a group most Americans say they do not know well and don't like. Voters questioned for a national political survey conducted during presidential election years by a University of Michigan-based consortium have consistently placed gays at the bottom of popularity ratings compared to a wide spectrum of ethnic, religious and political groups.
Whereas most groups earn at least a neutral rating of 50 (with 100 the highest), gays have yet to hit 40.
Those sentiments give gay rights foes a foundation of discomfort on which to build. "If they can translate the whole debate as whether people will be forced to live with, be taught by and take a shower with openly gay people . . . I think by and large (opponents) can win," said Virginia Sapiro, a University of Wisconsin political science professor who specializes in political psychology.
In contrast, Sapiro said the "straightforward justice argument" used by gay activists "is a kind of abstract argument. . . . It doesn't seem to be as a symbol as compelling as when (Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam) Nunn says 'look how close those bunks are.' "