HADDONFIELD, N.J. – Gay Americans have arrived at a "teachable moment."
Often feeling marginalized in political discourse or grousing that they're used as political pawns, they have the nation's attention — and sympathy — after a recent spate of teenage suicides and two apparent anti-gay attacks in the heart of their community.
Same-sex marriage and gays in the military remain on the political front burner, but general education and anti-discrimination campaigns are drawing a wider audience. While advocates hesitate to appear as if they're capitalizing on tragedy, some observers say the political gains from it could come naturally.
Rep. Barney Frank, the nation's first openly gay congressman, drew a parallel to the violent images of trained animals attacking civil rights protesters in the segregated South — and how they helped galvanize white sentiment in favor of black civil rights.
"The police dogs helped the movement," he said. "It's when bigotry shows itself at its worst that people respond."
Several teenagers from California to Rhode Island committed suicide in the past few weeks, including New Jersey college student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge into the Hudson River after, prosecutors say, his roommate and a friend secretly streamed his sexual encounter with a man on the Web. New York police reported two anti-gay assaults over the weekend, including one at the bar where riots credited with the birth of the modern gay rights movement took place.
Sympathy and outrage have manifested themselves in campus vigils, viral videos by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, a call for awareness by comedian Margaret Cho on "Dancing With the Stars," and even state legislation addressing the New Jersey case. Politicians including U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez attended a "statewide town meeting" at Rutgers on Wednesday night in honor of Clementi and bullying victims elsewhere in New Jersey.
Political strategists think the tears and reflection might be an opportunity to advance gay rights.
"Every once in a while, there's something about the victim and the way it happens that transfers from tragedy into a teachable moment," said Richard Socarides, an adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay and lesbian issues.
It's not a moment of optimism for all gay rights activists.
"There have been many high-profile incidents of adolescent suicide, even pre-adolescent suicide where kids have ended their own lives because of despair and hopelessness," said Ethan Geto, a lobbyist who works on gay rights issues. "This has not yet led to a comprehensive, truly meaningful social-slash-governmental reaction."
But there are signs this time might be different.
Christian A. Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, noted that the conservative tea party movement that has captured much of the Republican zeitgeist has not focused as much on social issues as has the party establishment.
"A lot of them are saying that these fiscal issues should be the foremost concern," Berle said. "Time and time I've heard that banning gay marriage would not give anyone a job; banning gays from serving in the military is not going to gain any jobs."
Billy Kluttz, a co-president of the gay student organization at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said his organization is holding a vigil Thursday to honor the suicide and assault victims and spread awareness of violence that can confront young gays.
Straight students he talks to are sympathetic about what happened to Clementi, the student at New Jersey's Rutgers University, he said.
"People are more receptive," Kluttz, a junior from Concord, N.C., said. "We use that for building more ally support."
The suicide problem, like bullying, has long been a major concern among rights groups and carefully tracked by gay-oriented media outlets, but the widespread attention is new — even as formerly far-fetched ideas like legalized gay marriage have become reality in some places.
"While we have openly gay politicians and gay characters on television, the reality of life still seems dire for some of these young people," said Michael Cole, spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group. Despite increasing tolerance for gays on some fronts, the most-heard insult at schools is, "That's so gay," he said.
Hate-crime laws came into being in several states after Matthew Shepard, a gay, 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was found beaten and tied to a remote fence post in 1998.
In the time since then, gay rights have become a mainstay in the national political conversation — but marriage and the military have gotten the most attention and seen key court victories in both areas.
Former Clinton adviser Socarides, now a lawyer in New York, said the suicides can demonstrate why gays should be allowed to marry, join the military and work without fear of being fired because of their sexual orientation.
"When you speak out for full equality now, as opposed to partial equality, or incremental equality," he said, "you send a message to everybody, including the bullies, that everyone is equal."
In New Jersey, lawmakers are preparing to introduce a bill to toughen the state's anti-bullying laws. That push was under way months ago, before Clementi's suicide gave the problem a public face. But Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said it's possible the bill will be adopted more quickly because of Clementi's death.
"Any tragedy points out the need for action, but believe me, we'd rather not have this tragedies happen at all," he said. "Don't we elect our public officials to have foresight and vision to prevent tragedy?"
Associated Press writer Glen Johnson in Boston and AP news researcher Julie Reed in New York contributed to this report.