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MAYA ANGELOU // "I must stand with them'

She is a 68-year-old woman from a nowhere town in Arkansas who has the ear of presidents and the arm of every man or woman struggling to stand.

If a cause is just, Maya Angelou will be there.

Angelou will be in Tampa today to give the keynote speech at the opening ceremony of GALA Festival V, the weeklong gay and lesbian music and arts event. The poet, author and social activist says she could not be anywhere else.

"These are human beings. Each time a gay man is bashed or a lesbian woman is trod upon, something in me is hurt," Angelou says. "I want to lend my voice and my spirit where anyone is belittled or trying to rise."

Even in a phone interview, her voice is redolent of Southern preachers and mothers singing low-pitched lullabies, the same voice of On the Pulse of Morning, a poem she wrote for President Clinton's inauguration. Her earthy invocation of hope silenced the crowds gathered in Washington, her melodic cadence rolling across a nation.

Angelou, the person, is a simmering stew of creativity and causes. She is a woman who has authored poems, books, and plays, the first African-American woman to have a screenplay produced (Georgia, Georgia in 1972), an activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1959-1960), a friend who pals with talk show host Oprah Winfrey and author Toni Morrison, a cosmopolitan who speaks six languages and hopscotches across continents.

She is, she admits, a woman who cannot rest.

"I'm working with my sister, my cousin, for 35 years to try and establish a library at the church. We're working feverishly," Angelou says, speaking from Winston-Salem, N.C., where she is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

"Some younger women were standing around with their chins on their chests. "Where do you get the energy?'

" they asked.

"We don't have that much time left," Angelou says she replied.

The younger women were mortified, assuring her she has many years ahead. But Angelou laughs. "There's less and less time. The bones will not let you forget.

"If you feel it, you must stand up. In the gay and lesbian struggle for equal rights, they must stand up first, but I must stand with them."

Nationally, a move to legalize same-sex marriages is mired in political posturing. Locally, the city of Tampa is conflicted over a human rights ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The GALA festival considered changing venues after Tampa voters temporarily repealed the ban four years ago.

Angelou says she is not discouraged. "When you do reach an age to do something, you have to have a sense of power, and a sense of humor," she says.

Sent as a small child to live with relatives in Stamp, Ark., raped at age 8, and later a teenage mother, Angelou's essence is hope. She is not discouraged by the sorry state of race relations evidenced after the O.J. Simpson verdict or the burning of black churches. She wrote a poem about perseverance for last year's Million Man March. She will not be dissuaded by baby steps forward, or backward, or by "the schizophrenia that is a part of us."

"The dichotomy is a part of us," she says. "They came here to a land where they could have religious freedom _ and deny it to everyone else." When Thomas Jefferson spoke of man's right to liberty, his slaves were "wreathed in chains."

No matter the lesson, she says, the moral is the same.

"Whether I'm teaching translation of French poetry, or a course on the philosophy of liberation," Angelou says, "in the end, the students will get the same theme: We are more alike than we are unalike."