The Maine Archive on the Queer Resources Directory

Saturday -- February 25, 1995

Gay rights battle gets more complex; Officials sorting out legal issues as groups boost coffers for campaign

by John Hale Of the NEWS Staff

PORTLAND -- Carolyn Cosby, 43, lives in a modest house on Portland's outskirts with her husband, David, a postal worker, and their friendly Maine coon cat, Tigger.

Cosby is persuasive, articulate and sounds just like a lawyer, even though she never went to college.

"The gay lobby is a tremendously powerful, well-organized group," said Cosby during an interview in the kitchen of her home.

"We want to make it very clear that the people of Maine are opposed to the special gay status that militant gays are proposing.

"They're not a legal minority yet. They don't qualify. "

Cosby, a portland native, is chairwoman of Concerned Maine Families, the group that collected 66,768 petition signatures to force a voter referendum next fall on striking down gay rights laws and ordinances and banning future municipal ordinances.

But her group's effort is clouded by legal uncertainties.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week announced it will rule on a Colorado gay rights ban. The ruling, not expected for a year, could affect the Maine referendum, though both sides point out the Maine question is different because it is an initiated law and not a constitutional amendment.

The referendum is being challenged in Kennebec County Superior Court by the Maine Civil Liberties Union and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Those groups contend the referendum should not go to the ballot because its wording effectively would change the Maine Constitution.

Meanwhile, the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance is gearing up to present a bill to the Legislature for the 10th time since 1977 that would outlaw discrimination against gays in employment, housing, public accommodations and credit.

Making the situation even murkier is Cosby's group's contention that the gay rights bill cannot be passed by the Legislature this session. Instead, it claims the bill must be considered a competing measure to the CMF referendum, and must be placed side by side with the referendum on the November ballot.

"The only thing they can do with that bill is send it out to referendum," said Cosby. "If they don't do that, we will take some legal action. We're going to make that very clear. "

The question of whether the gay rights bill is a competing measure, or can stand alone on its own merits, must be decided by the attorney general or the Maine Supreme Judicial Court before the November ballot can be made final.

And the lawsuit against the referendum also must be resolved before a clear picture can emerge of how the debate is going to unfold.

Nonetheless, both sides are digging in, raising money, and preparing for a major battle in Maine this year over the civil rights of homosexuals.

The legal battle

From her plush quarters in the Portland law offices of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer and Nelson, Patricia Peard has been directing the legal attack on Carolyn Cosby's anti-gay rights referendum.

The challenge in Kennebec County Superior Court questions the wording of what is scheduled to appear on November's referendum ballot. The question states that voters will be limiting protected classes in "future state and local laws" to those classifications already listed in the Maine Human Rights Act.

"We want to have the court declare (that) the referendum violates the Maine State Constitution and should not be on the ballot," said Peard, who is president of the Maine Civil Liberties Union and on the board of Maine Won't Discriminate.

"This is just a disguised attempt by Concerned Maine Families to amend the Constitution. It says in the question they are going to bind future laws. "

Cosby's group maintains that since the body of the text of the proposed law does not refer to "future state and local laws," then the group is not trying to bind future legislatures.

Cosby also argues that Peard and her allies are trying to prevent the referendum from ever getting to voters.

"She's trying to portray us as anti-democratic," said Peard.

"But I'm categorically not afraid to have this go to the people. I think the people will vote this down. "

Later, she said, "This is a horribly divisive question. This is a minority group that's struggling to have basic civil rights, not special rights. " In Portland, which has had a gay rights ordinance since 1992, there have been only a handful of complaints filed, all of which were resolved through out-of-court settlements.

But Peard sees a positive benefit to Portland's ordinance.

"There's a real feeling of safety," she said. "You don't have to be afraid of coming forward. People are aware of the fact that it (discrimination) is not permitted. I think it has had an impact. "

Fund raising under way

Maine Won't Discriminate is so far winning the fund-raising war in the referendum campaign with Concerned Maine Families.

Reports on file at the state ethics commission show that through Jan. 5, Maine Won't Discriminate had raised a total of $ 62,206 while Concerned Maine Families had raised a total of $ 18,717.

On Jan. 5, Maine Won't Discriminate had a balance of $ 41,197 while Concerned Maine Families had a balance of $ 157.

Both sides fear the opposing side will call in big infusions of out-of-state money from national organizations.

"We'll probably be spending $ 150,000," said Cosby. "This is a grass-roots effort. "

Jonathan Lee, fund-raising coordinator for Maine Won't Discriminate, said, "We're in the early stages of organizing a full-time campaign. We think we're going to need $ 1 million. We're only now beginning to raise money. "

Maine Won't Discriminate has organized 13 local chapters around the state.

"Maine now is the only state in the country that is having a state wide anti-gay initiative," said Lee. "That attracts right-wing groups from outside the state. There will be a lot of strong feeling and a lot of nastiness from the other side. " Referendum opponents have begun promoting the idea that if the referendum passes, Maine could be subjected to the same kind of economic boycott that hit Colorado when that state adopted an anti-gay rights initiative.

Legislature not a sure thing

Passage of gay rights in the Legislature is not a sure thing just because it passed two years ago. Some think the new Legislature is more conservative. There are more Republicans and nearly half the membership is new to Augusta.

A poll by The Portland Newspapers that was taken before the November 1994 elections, despite a large number of non respondents, showed that sentiment on gay rights is still close.

In the House, it was 48-41 against gay rights, with 60 who didn't respond. The Senate registered 15-11 in support with nine not responding.

Karen Geraghty, president of the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance, said of the Legislature, "There's so many new people we're still meeting. I don't have any real sense that the Legislature is more conservative. We've been doing this for 18 years, and there is a sense that now is the time.

"It totally depends on how successful we are in educating people," she said.

Sen. Dale McCormick, D-Monmouth, will be the prime sponsor for this year's gay rights bill.

"We start in the Senate with 23 votes, more than we've ever had," said McCormick. "We're also further ahead in the House than we've ever been. It's an action Legislature, and it's an impatient Legislature, and many people may say, 'Let's get on with it, let's pass it. '

"I believe Maine people are looking to the Legislature for some guidance and this bill is the first guidance," she said.

In 1989, a poll of 422 Maine voters by Capitol News Service found 77.3 percent of them in favor of gay rights, though some said the high percentage was the result of the way the question was worded.

There have been few other polls of how the public feels about gay rights.

Sen. S. Peter Mills, R-Skowhegan, Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said his panel may conduct a combined public hearing on the referendum and the gay rights bill, probably at the Augusta Civic Center. No date has been set for the hearings, but Mills said it may be scheduled a month from now.

He acknowledged there are questions surrounding both measures.

"When this thing hits our committee, the 13 of us are going to read it carefully," Mills said.

Nothing personal against gays

Cosby and her allies insist they have nothing personal, no moral outrage against gays. They couch their arguments in statements that homosexuals don't qualify as an oppressed minority, or even a verifiable minority, as do blacks and Jews and other groups.

"Perhaps they could be denied a job or housing, but the next door won't be closed to them," said Cosby. "Isolated incidents of societal oppression do not demonstrate the need for a group to be recognized as a legal minority. Is there a generalized disenfranchisement from society? If that isn't the case, then there isn't a need to write a new law.

"I've always opposed bullies seizing special advantages. This is nothing more than civil rights fraud," she said.

Jonathan Malmude, a history professor at St. Joseph's College in Windham and an adviser to Concerned Maine Families, voiced similar objections to the effort by gays to be recognized as a minority deserving protection from discrimination.

Malmude believes three criteria are needed to claim minority status: the group should be economically needy, politically powerless and identifiable.

"Proposals for gay rights don't meet any of those criteria," he said. "I am concerned the civil rights system is being hijacked by this group and could be by others.

"The concept of sexual orientation is basically unverifiable.

Many of the homosexuals who are seeking special protection are yuppies who happen to be gay," he said.

Members of Concerned Maine Families believe Maine's homosexuals are an affluent, well-heeled group who don't need legal protection.

But gay activists say homosexuals' income is about the same as that of heterosexuals.

An uphill battle for civil rights

Maine's gay activists have been waging an uphill battle for civil rights for the last 18 years.

Opponents say gays want special rights. But gays argue all they want is the right not to be fired or evicted or refused a seat in a restaurant or denied a bank loan merely because they are gay.

With the backing of the Maine Human Rights Commission, a gay rights bill has been filed with the Legislature, and hotly debated, every two years.

Two years ago, gays and their supporters achieved their greatest success, but still did not come away with a civil rights law based on sexual orientation.

The House voted for gay rights 72-60 and the Senate followed through with a 21-14 vote for gay rights. It was the first time in Maine history that both houses of the Legislature voted for gay rights. But Republican Gov. John R. McKernan put an end to that by vetoing the bill.

This year, independent Gov. Angus S. King is solidly in favor of gay rights.

"I will support it and I will sign it," he said Friday. "My view is the Legislature ought to go forward and pass it and put it in place. "

As for the referendum to quash gay rights, King said, "I'm against it. I think it will divide the state. It violates the principle of local control. I regret that it is going to be a battle this fall. "

According to a spokesman for Maine Won't Discriminate, the group organized to fight the referendum, King and his wife, Mary Herman, have donated $ 1,100 to the anti-referendum campaign.

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