Three months before the annual Easter egg roll at the White House, the usually festive event is already taking on a divisive edge because of plans by gay- and lesbian-led families to turn out en masse in hopes of raising their public profile.
The Family Pride Coalition and other organizers envision the April 17 action as a celebration that will earn good will and showcase their families engaging in the annual tradition.
"It's important for our families to be seen participating in all aspects of American life," said Family Pride executive director Jennifer Chrisler.
Yet some conservatives, alerted to the plans this week, accuse gay activists of trying to "crash" an event for children and turn it into forum for ideological politicking. Some groups are discussing ways to respond.
"It's improper to use the egg roll for political purposes," said Mark Tooley of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. Tooley wrote a critical article this week in the Weekly Standard magazine about the planned event that has circulated widely on conservative Web sites.
Since the article appeared Tuesday, Chrisler said Family Pride has received "a flood of hate-filled, venomous messages telling us that our families aren't welcome."
"It's not surprising that the right would be against it," Chrisler said. "They are very clear about wanting to make our families invisible."
The issue was raised at a White House news briefing Wednesday when spokesman Mark McClellan was asked if President Bush would seek to prevent the gay families' action.
"This event is a time to celebrate Easter and to have a good family celebration here at the White House," McClellan replied. "In terms of any other details about it, I think it's still a few months off, so we'll talk about it as we get closer."
On conservative chat rooms, some critics of Family Pride suggested the White House could make the egg roll an invitation-only event, as it did in 2003 when attendance was limited to military families. Other critics said conservatives should mobilize to outnumber gay families at the egg roll.
Chrisler, who raises twin boys with a spouse she married in Massachusetts in 2004, intends to bring her family to the egg roll. She said organizers were intent on proceeding despite any criticism, but that plans might change if, closer to Easter, confrontations seemed possible.
"I'm a parent first — I would never want to put my child, or anyone else's child, in harm's way," she said. "If we get any intelligence about that happening, we'll make a decision."
Family Pride has been recruiting participants for several months. Chrisler said more than 100 families had signed up thus far and hopes at least 400 eventually enlist.
"Religious and political extremists who oppose our equality have targeted our planned participation in this event, saying we have no right to 'crash' the White House Egg Roll," Chrisler wrote to supporters Thursday.
"That's not our goal," she said. "We simply want our children and our families to be able to fully participate in an event generations of children have enjoyed."
Free tickets to the egg roll will be distributed first-come, first-served starting at 7:30 a.m. on April 15 — two days before the event. Family Pride has urged its supporters to be in line the night before so their families can be among the first on the White House lawn.
To ensure visibility for the action, Family Pride will issue T-shirts to participants, bearing a "nonpolitical message" that would identify them as gay and lesbian families. Chrisler said the T-shirt theme would be "Love makes a family."
Co-sponsors of the effort include Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and Soulforce, a national interfaith group.
The egg roll, in which children use spoons to push dyed eggs through the grass in a race, has been a Washington tradition since the mid-19th century. Last year, 16,000 tickets were issued.