US Democrats have blocked progress on gay rights, according to activists.

Eight Democratic senators, including Senator Hillary Clinton, former first lady and wife of President Bill Clinton, listened to complaints last week from gay groups that they and their party colleagues have hindered progress on gay rights.

The officials were criticised for “tortured” and “hair splitting policies” on gay issues, and were accused of hurting the gay movement by remaining ambiguous on issues such as same sex marriage.

Mrs Clinton organised the meeting in her role as chair of the Senate Democrats’ Steering Outreach Committee. The meeting was closed to the media and public.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also attended, along with leaders of more than 20 prominent gay rights and AIDs organisations.

“We talked about the way [senators] appear to be largely passive, doing nothing affirmative on LGBT issues? in ways that actually are problematic for us and harmful to the work that we do,” said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defence Education Fund, who was among the gay leaders who spoke at the meeting.

Mr Cathcart said he told the senators the gay and AIDs groups appreciated the Democratic senators’ overall support on gay and AIDs related issues. But, he said, he also told them that gay leaders were worried that Senate Democrats and the party generally were not responding in a visible and assertive way to attacks against gay marriage and other gay rights efforts by conservative Republicans and conservative religious advocacy groups.

“Particularly the rhetoric they use around the things like marriage, where instead of advocating for fairness and inclusion, they actually advocate discrimination,” Mr Cathcart said.

He was referring to statements by most Democratic senators, as well as most Democratic members of the House of Representatives, that they oppose gay marriage but support civil unions or domestic partnerships as the best means of strengthening same-sex relationships.

Howard Dean, chair on the Democratic Party and a former presidential candidate, has also said he opposes gay marriage while supporting civil unions.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the party’s presidential nominee in 2004, was not present at the meeting and he, too, backs civil unions, even supporting an amendment to his home state’s constitution that would ban gays from marrying.

Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Mr Reid, said the meeting was part of the Democratic senators’ regular outreach efforts to constituency groups, including gay and AIDs groups. He said the meeting marked the third time the Steering Outreach Committee has met with gay and AIDs group representatives during the past four years.

“These are important meetings for Senator Reid and the committee,” Mr Manley said while declining to comment on the issues discussed at the meeting. “We never talk about what is discussed at these meetings. It’s more conducive to frank discussion if we keep these meetings private.”

Diana Bruce, director of policy and government affairs for the AIDs Alliance for Children, Youth Families, said she and other representatives of AIDs groups briefed senators on issues such as the pending reauthorisation of the Ryan White AIDs CARE Act.

Others briefed the senators on gay-related issues such as the status of a federal hate crimes bill and efforts to repeal the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military.

The meeting took place three months before a scheduled June 5 vote in the Senate on the Marriage Protection Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

The amendment is expected to be defeated, just as the Senate and House failed to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, a similar proposal, in 2004. But Democratic Party strategists have expressed concern that Republican supporters of the amendment and their allies among conservative religious groups will seize on the issue to attack Democrats in the upcoming 2006 congressional elections.

With polls showing President Bush and Republican candidates losing support over an unpopular war in Iraq and lobbying scandals linked to GOP contributors, Democrats are pulling out all the stops to regain control of the Senate and House. Some party activists have expressed concern that the gay marriage issue could hurt the Democrats’ chances of winning back Congress.

Mr Cathcart said he understands the senators who attended the meeting don’t believe they are advocating discrimination, but he said their position for civil unions rather than same-sex marriage was similar to the “separate but equal” policies that barred African Americans from attending public schools designated for whites only.

“One of our concerns as a group is that they don’t necessarily hear enough back from the community on how we hear and perceive the sometimes tortured and hair-splitting positions they try to take,” he said. “We are tired of being seen as the embarrassment to the party.”

The meeting came less than a month after Alan Van Capelle, a leading gay rights activist, who represents the Empire State Pride Agenda, said Mrs Clinton was “a complete disappointment” over her opposition to same-sex marriage and her support for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

His criticism of Mrs Clinton surfaced in a private e-mail he sent to members of his organisation that was leaked to the media.

Mr Van Capelle attended the meeting with the senators but did not speak, according to others who were there.

Mrs Clinton supports civil unions, a similar system to the British civil partnership scheme, gay marriage in all but name. However, she continues to support the Defence of Marriage Act, enacted by her husband that maintains that marriages must be between partners of the opposite sex.

She opposes moves to create a constitutional amendment that permanently rules out gay marriage.

The meeting also follows complaints by gay Democratic activists that Mr Dean, as Democratic Party chair, abolished the party’s gay and lesbian outreach desk as part of a party reorganisation that eliminated all constituency “desks.”

Mr Dean’s decision to eliminate the gay desk, along with his statements claiming the party opposes gay marriage, prompted New York gay Democratic activist Jeff Soref to resign last year from his position as chair of the Democratic Party’s Gay Lesbian Americans Caucus.

Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN,) said she and other activists attending the meeting with the senators pointed out that negative rhetoric on gay-related issues, including gay marriage, often has a negative impact on young people.

She said her organisation, which monitors the nation’s public schools, has found that anti-gay statements made by elected officials and others in the public eye can lead to anti-gay harassment and bullying of gay students in high schools and middle schools.

“When elected officials say negative things about us, it has an impact on young people,” she said.

Joe Solmonese, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, who also attended the meeting, said each of the Democratic senators have been supportive of gay rights in general and have expressed support for a gay civil rights bill. He said each has pledged to vote against the upcoming anti-gay marriage amendment.

“The conversation was more about the message and how to talk about the issues,” Mr Solmonese said. “I think that everyone in that room was committed to us on the issues.”

He said he and other gay and AIDS group officials called on the senators to begin “speaking out a little more vocally and bit more extensively, not just supporting us on the marriage fight that is coming up in June but really being much more vocal about calling it for what it is.”

Evan Wolfson, head of the pro-gay marriage group Freedom to Marry, pointed to a new public opinion poll released this week showing that support for gay marriage is increasing.

Mr Wolfson did not attend the meeting with the senators but said he briefed the gay leaders on upcoming marriage developments in a telephone conference before the meeting.

“The Democrats are viewed as the party of gay rights because that’s part of their historic tradition of supporting civil rights for all Americans,” he said.

“They will never be anti-gay enough to satisfy their opponents” who strongly oppose same-sex marriage, he said.

Instead of pandering to voters whose support they are unlikely to get, Democrats should make the case for same-sex marriage in a way that will move the issue forward, he added.

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