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Gay rights leaders gather in Virginia

WARRENTON, Va. -- Homosexual activists gathered from across the country for a weekend 'War Conference' to draft strategies for pushing effective AIDS legislation and to combat what their leaders say is growing homophobia in America.

The meeting set for today was the most expansive national gathering of gay rights leaders since AIDS became an epidemic, said Vic Basile, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a Washington-based political action committee.

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'Those who put this together feel like war is being declared on the gay community,' said Basile, estimating 200 activists were attending the three-day conference that began Friday.

'With the introduction and in some cases passage of very repressive legislation on AIDS -- I'm talking about quarantine and mandatory testing -- it feels like a state of siege,' he said.

Steven Ault, of the human rights group Coalition for Survival in New York, said homosexuals 'feel they're almost in a state of war' over the issue of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

'When you look back on the history of the AIDS epidemic, if there had been an adequate response much earlier, perhaps people wouldn't be dying now,' Ault said. 'But it certainly goes beyond that. AIDS is being manipulated to (eliminate) civil rights' of homosexuals.

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The conference, at the Airlie House about 50 miles west of the nation's capital, is to last until Sunday, as gay rights activists work to consolidate their political power.

'It's the first time in the era of AIDS that a meeting like this has been held,' Basile said. 'We want some type of strategy on how we can get the community organized nationally.

'We're looking for ways to pass pro-active types of legislation and get money released to do the job. One of the things that needs to be decided is what are the appropriate ways to face the problems facing us? How do we get affirmative, progressive kinds of public health measures passed?'

Basile said related issues affecting homosexuals will also be discussed.

'In the midst of having to deal with the AIDS crisis, how do we deal with the other issues paramount to the gay community, such as anti-gay and anti-lesbian violence, which is epidemic?' Basile said. 'How do we deal with child custody issues when lesbian mothers and gay fathers continue to lose their kids?'

Ault said the conference is 'set in the context of an incredible crisis. Perhaps that's what makes it unique.'

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