Legislature considers civil rights for homosexuals and lesbians -- The Maine Archive on the Queer Resources Directory

A s s o c i a t e d - P r e s s

Tuesday April 8, 1997

Legislature considers civil rights for homosexuals and lesbians

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - With a sitting governor backing their fight this time, gay rights activists argued Tuesday for a law that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the bill sponsored by Sen. Joel Abromson. Four years ago, a similar bill passed both the House and Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. John McKernan.

Gov. Angus King supports the legislation, which would extend to all citizens, no matter their sexual orientation, the same civil rights guaranteed regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin and physical or mental handicap.

Discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations and credit would be prohibited.

Testifying before the committee as a crowd of about 500 looked on, Abromson recalled his own personal experiences as a Jewish man growing up in Maine, and how he was called a ``dirty Jew'' and a ``Christ killer.''

As a student at Bowdoin College in the late 1950s, the Portland Republican said he saw fraternities deny invitations to Jews and blacks. Later, during a tour of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, Abromson said he learned the Nazis tried to exterminate not only Jews, but gays, Gypsies and Slavs, as well.

Abromson said his bill ``ends forever any similarity between the Nuremberg laws (legitimizing anti-semitism) of 1930s Germany and state laws of 1990s Maine. This bill is that important.''

The bill's most vocal foe is Concerned Maine Families, an anti-gay rights group which calls the proposal a ``jobs bill for gays.'' The organization's leader, Carolyn Cosby, has warned the legislation could raise the cost of doing business in Maine and trigger lawsuits by ``gay militants'' against small businesses.

Many at the hearing held signs that said, ``Stop the Special Jobs Bill for Gays'' and ``Equality for ME. The way life should be.''

``The effects of this mandate on small business will be burdensome, unjust, unenforceable and will heighten the unfriendly business climate that we must already tolerate in the state of Maine,'' said Randall Clark of Cape Elizabeth, president of Small Business Benefits Inc. and leader of the 1,200-member Business Advisory Board.

Rod Smith of Buxton told the committee he was fired from his job as a nursing assistant in Lewiston last January because he was gay. Another gay man, Guy Riddick of South Portland, said several landlords in Gorham, Westbrook and Scarboro told him and his male partner last year they did not rent to homosexuals.

A landlord in Portland also refused, but because that city has an ordinance protecting homosexuals from housing discrimination, the couple was able to sue, Riddick said.

In 1995, Maine voters rejected a ballot question to restrict gay rights. The measure initiated by Concerned Maine Families was turned back, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Gay rights advocates are coming off a recent loss over same-sex marriages. The Legislature last month approved a ban on gay marriages, making Maine the 18th state to do so.

King let the measure become law without his signature.

Several legislators said they voted for the ban only to avoid sending the issue to a statewide referendum, where they feared a negative campaign could hurt the drive for gay rights.

So far this year, about 17 bills favoring civil rights for lesbians and homosexuals have been introduced in at least 14 states, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The New Hampshire House last month voted to bar discrimination against homosexuals in housing, jobs and public places like hotels and restaurants. The bill was sent to the Senate.

Vermont passed a gay civil rights law earlier this decade.

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