By GENARO C. ARMAS
WASHINGTON - Hundreds of thousands of gays and supporters marched Sunday on the Capitol, transforming the National Mall into a sea of multicolored flags and joining hands in a show of unity they hope will transform recent victories into wider protections for homosexuals.
"We're only asking for the same rights as anyone else," Adam May of Atlanta declared as he walked with the throngs of marchers. "Depriving one person … puts everyone at risk of losing."
In a crowd dotted with openly gay celebrities, the marchers celebrated a week of victories that included passage of a new law in Vermont giving gays marriage-like rights and a renewed plea by President Clinton's for a federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
But participants vowed not to rest until same-sex couples get equal rights in all 50 states, and some wore costumes or carried signs calling attention to fights still on the horizon.
One man wearing a Boy Scout uniform and held up a "Straight Scouts for gay scouts," calling attention to a case heard by the Supreme Court last week in which a Scout leader was fired because he was gay. Others carried signs saying "Stop Hate Crimes" and chanted "full rights for gays."
Clinton spoke via videotape to what was the first gay rights march on Washington since 1993. His image shown on a giant screen, the president declared he had presided over "the most inclusive administration in history" that has appointed more than 150 openly gay people to important government posts.
Also in the crowd was the father of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student who died in October 1998 after being beaten into a coma and tied to a fence.
Dennis Shepard said he met with Clinton on Friday and was optimistic the hate crimes bill would pass.
"If my son was alive, he would be here today," Shepard said. "Gay rights is the civil rights issue of this century."
Small Business Administration head Aida Alvarez praised Clinton and Vice President Al Gore as "true believers" in making government represent all groups.
Law enforcement officials said there was no sign of any anti-gay rights demonstrators, and agreed with estimates the crowd numbered at least 200,000 in size. March co-chair Donna Red Wing gave a much higher estimate, saying it may have been as large as 1 million.
March organizers spoke of trying to mobilize gay and lesbian supporters into an important voting bloc for November's presidential election, and some dismissed Republican George W. Bush's recent overture to the gay community.
"I think there would be a lot of anger if Bush got elected because a lot of conservative values would come back into play," said Debbie Fitzpatrick, who traveled from New Jersey for the march. "The Clinton administration has done more for gays than anyone in the past."
One demonstrator sported a "Gore 2000" button and wore a T-shirt urging Bush's defeat.
Not all pro-gay activists were happy about the march.
William K. Dobbs of New York, a member of the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process, complained that many felt left out of the march planning because local grassroots organizing committees weren't used like in past years. His group urged a boycott of the event.
"This march has opened up a rift over who speaks for the movement and how decisions are made," Dobbs said. "The way it's been done is to use a lot of Hollywood celebrities and newspaper advertising, no local organizing committees. There's no platform, … and much of the decisions were made behind closed doors."
Julian Potter, the White House liaison to the gay and lesbian community, tried to smooth over differences. "We don't always agree" on which path to take, but "what I do know is that every step we take" leads closer to equal rights for all, Potter said.
Actress Ellen DeGeneres addressed the gathering. "As a celebrity the most important thing I will ever do is stand up" and speak out for gay rights, she said. "I feel very proud for being gay. When you are gay and when you are fighting for something, your life takes on so much more meaning."
To loud applause, DeGeneres partner, actress Anne Heche, said "it would be really wonderful if in the next reunion" in Washington "we had as many straight people here as gays."
"Smile!" Martina Navratilova yelled from the podium as she looked out over the cheering crowd and held up a camera to take a panoramic photograph.
Participants had mixed feelings about the latest political development on the AIDS front, a declaration by the National Security Council that the disease is a threat to U.S. national security.
The NSC concluded that the global spread of the disease could undermine free-market democracies, trigger ethnic warfare and even overturn foreign governments.
Robin Meresman of Los Angeles said the NSC designation "sounds good. It sounds like it makes it more of a national priority."
"I am pleased to see it recognized for what it truly is," said Charles Anderson of Denver.
But Chris White of Stafford Springs, Conn., said the NSC action "seems strange, I don't know what it means, but when I hear about national security I'm not used to thinking that it could possibly help gays."