Another Fight For Unpopular Human Rights
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Another Fight For Unpopular Human Rights

By Marc Fisher

The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2001; Page B01

Forty years ago, Franklin Kameny, a U.S. government astronomer who was fired because personnel investigators found out he was gay, brought Washington its first gay rights group, the Mattachine Society.

Thirty years ago, Kameny became the first openly gay political candidate in city history, running for delegate to Congress. He was a prime mover behind a District anti-discrimination law that was one of the first specifically to protect homosexuals. And in 1978, Kameny was one of the first people a young Marion Barry sought out when Barry became the first District politician to realize there was a rich vein of votes and campaign money in the city's gay community.

Kameny is 75 and retired now, but he has plenty of fight left for a battle that will win him no popularity contest -- a battle the D.C. Council takes up today, when it reconsiders whether to allow new nude dancing bars in a city that hasn't permitted any in six years.

Last month, the council passed a bill that would lift the moratorium on strip clubs, allowing them to seek licenses only in the central business district -- and only if they pass muster with regulators and with neighbors.

But those restrictions weren't enough for the nannies around town, and when an application surfaced from Scores, the mobbed-up Manhattan topless bar, you could hear council members scurrying for cover like the rats on E Street NW. Suddenly, there were whispers that downtown Washington was going to turn into Baltimore's The Block or the District's own sleaze row of yore, 14th Street NW.

So now the lid may once again be slammed on nude clubs -- in the name of protecting the city's renaissance.

Please. We're building a huge convention center, and we're worried about a couple of nightclubs designed to separate conventioneers from their per diems?

Oh, the nannies fret about the crime, the prostitution, the evils associated with strip clubs. But some of the existing nude clubs are in fancy neighborhoods -- Connecticut Avenue NW a block south of the Hilton and M Street NW, surrounded by top-dollar restaurants and snazzy law firms. Where are these mythical "adverse secondary impacts"?

"Yes, we're concerned about what might happen to the three gay nude dancing places in Southeast," Kameny says, "but I'm more interested in protecting the rights of customers against these prim, prissy puritans and arrogant business people who want to keep life out of downtown. The old 14th Street is always looked down upon now, but I remember that very fondly. What replaced the old 14th Street is totally dead, drab, a dreary concrete desert. Is that what 'economic development' is going to make of our downtown?"

No one wants a downtown teeming with sex clubs. Washington will always be a family destination, with history and power its draw rather than seamy stuff. But clearly, there's a market for these clubs, and they have survived for years without altering the character of their neighborhoods.

"Things work best when there's a free market and appropriate regulation," says Rick Rosendall, former president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. "Problems arise when you force things underground. This bill is packed to the gills with protections for residents." A place like Scores wouldn't have a prayer of getting through the approval process. (Not that Scores has diminished the attractiveness of Manhattan's Upper East Side.)

Times have changed since Kameny first dared to conceive of a "gay vote." There are two openly gay council members now. When members of the gay alliance lobbied for a relaxation of the nude club moratorium, council members listened.

Now they're listening to the other side, as they should. A fair compromise would protect neighborhoods but allow clubs to open where they'd do no harm.

The law is on the clubs' side: Although cities have extensive rights to regulate such businesses, including segregating them in industrial zones, the courts have repeatedly affirmed the clubs' right to exist.

Kameny says he understands the pressures the council faces, but he notes that a continuing moratorium is not far from a ban and is unlikely to withstand a constitutional challenge. Gay activists don't want to fight this in court; they hope they won't have to.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

2001 The Washington Post Company


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