This is a historic day for a vigorous and self-confident society. And I will tell you why. I will tell you why in a few minutes, but first I want to introduce the people who are behind me. All the way behind on the stairs are members of the 118th Legislature who passed this bill. But immediately behind me are a group of individuals who represent a 20 year continuum of commitment to an idea and an ideal. And I want to introduce them in the order in which they have been identified with this issue.
From the 108th Legislature in 1977 the first sponsor of a civil rights bill for gay and lesbian people in Maine, Representative Gerald Talbot of Portland.
Second, in the 109th Legislature in 1979, Representative Harlan Baker.
The 110th Legislature, 1981, Senator Gerry Conley, Sr.
Gerry introduced the bill again in 1983, and in 1985 in the 112th Legislature was sponsored by Senator Mary Najarian.
The only principal sponsor who is not with us today during this 20 year period was State Senator for the 113th Legislature, 1987, Tom Andrews. Tom could not be with us because he is out of the country.
Then in the 114th and 115th Legislature, 1989 and 1991, a guy with a very familiar name, Gerry Conley, Jr.
In 1995 the sponsor of the bill which went in briefly and which was withdrawn because of activities that year, but we felt that she should be recognized in this continuum, the lady who signs everybodyís checks around here, State Treasurer Dale McCormack.
And finally, the 118th Legislature, 1997, the sponsor Joel Abramson, Senator from Portland.
Before signing this bill, I want to address myself to three groups in Maine. Three groups of people. The first are those whom we just met and those whom they represent. Legislators, past and present. I want to thank them for what has been the 20 year education process for the people of Maine, for introducing, debating, discussing, arguing for, and talking about this issue. Last weekís debate in the house of representatives for those of you that werenít fortunate enough to hear it, was in the highest tradition of public policy debate in this country. If the media has a tape, video or audio, of that debate, it should be played for all the people of Maine. It should be made available for the thoughtful way that both the proponents and opponents stated their case. I would hope that it could be played across the State so that people could understand the facts of this legislation as well as its significance. And they can hear both sides. Legislative debate, whether it is in Maine, or Washington, or London or anyplace else, has high points and some times low points. Last week was a high point in Maine in the discussion of public policy. The people behind me and the people over the years who have voted for this bill have shown courage, indeed bravery, vision, and dedication. We are standing on your shoulders. We would not be here any of us in a position to make this bill the law of the land in Maine without the actions, the dedication, and the willingness to take risks that the people behind me did. It is a common place observation, but it is certainly true in this case, that anything we achieve, our ability to reach for the stars, is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. And it is so the first group I want to address and thank are the legislators who began this process, who lost some lopsided votes, but was it during the House 120 to 20 or so, but who took on an issue that they believed was right in the face of widespread public misunderstand, fear, and downright hostility.
The second group I want to address briefly is the gay and lesbian community of Maine. This for you is a day that has truly been a long time coming. For a thousand years or more gay and lesbian people have been ridiculed, hated, discriminated against, and as recently as 50 years ago, in the most civilized country in the world, in the center of Europe were systematically hunted down and murdered because of their sexual orientation. Discriminated against, ridiculed and, in some societies, murdered, not for what you chose, but for what Godís nature made you. Not for something that you had control over, but for something that you are. I am convinced, as I am convinced that we are sitting here in Augusta, Maine, that within our lifetimes medical science will determine that being gay or being a lesbian is something that occurs because of a little comma on somebodyís DNA. And once that fact is firmly established, everything else falls into place. Because there is no earthly reason to discriminate against somebody for that reason then there is for being left-handed, black, old or Irish. So this is a day of pride. Pride in yourselves as human beings. But I hope it is also a day of pride for you in your State and society. I began by saying this is a day of a self-confident and vigorous society, because indeed a self-confident society is one that can tolerate differences. And that is what this day is all about.
There will be tests to come, this journey is not over, it does not end here today, just as it did not end with Gerry Talbotís failure to get a majority in 1977. There may be a test this summer and fall. To the gay and lesbian community of Maine, I counsel perseverance, I counsel good heart, and I counsel not to meet hate with hate. But to meet hate with love, to meet ignorance with education, and to understand that the law ultimately to be successful must rest upon the consent and the consensus of the hearts of the people. So the passage of this law does not mark the end of the journey, but it marks an important milestone in that journey which only will end when the hearts of people are turned to tolerance and understanding.
There is a very, very important third group that I want to address. That group is the people who are opposed to what we do here today. Some of whom are opposed violently, who believe deeply that it is wrong, that it is immoral, and that it is sinful. But there are also people who are uneasy, who donít understand, and who think we are making a mistake. It is those people that I want to address particularly. Fear of differentness is as basic as the human race. I once met a friend in college who grew up in a small town in Minnesota and she told me in conversation that she had never seen a black person or a jew in her entire life until she got to college. My question was who in your town did everyone discriminate against? Without a momentís hesitation she said oh, the Swedes. The town was 51% Norwegian stock. Fear of differentness is basic. We have to understand it, we canít wish it away. The only answer to it is education and example. And my friends love and sex are the most deep and mysterious aspects of human life. So we need to talk about what this bill is to my friends who are uneasy about it and who have severe and deep doubts about what is happening here today.
This bill simply adds two words in the list of the Maine Human Rights Act. Right now it is illegal to discriminate against somebody in housing, in credit or in employment because they are old. Or because they are black. Or because of their religion. Or because of their national background. All that is happening here today is two words, sexual orientation, are being added to that list. Housing, work and credit. What is this bill not? It is not special rights. What we are talking about here are the most basic rights that all of us take for granted. When I go in for a loan I expect the bank to decide on whether or not I get it as to whether or not I can pay it back. Not what my sexual practices are and not what my color is. That is what the bill is all about. There are no quotas in this bill. There is no affirmative action in this bill. There is nothing involving children in this bill. We are talking about basic human rights for adults in Maine.
To my friends who have doubts and who think we are wrong, we are talking here about people. We are talking about your friends and your relatives, whether you know it or not. We are talking about people who want to live and love and work and play just like everyone else. We are talking about people who for thousands of years have endured a silent hell that we can only imagine. We are talking about friends and neighbors. We have enemies in Maine. They are poverty, disease, ignorance. They are not gay people.
In 1963 in August I spent the night on the floor in a church in Washington, D.C. St. Stevens and the Incarnation. I donít know why I still remember that. And the next morning I got out of the sleeping bag and joined the 50 or so people who had been in the basement of that church and we walked out in the street and walked down, I think it was 16th Street, toward the mall in Washington. And there were people walking down streets all over Washington that day and it was like little tributaries flowing into a great river and the river ended up in a great bay of humanity on the Washington Mall where between 250,000 and 300,000 people stood to hear Martin Luther King. I remember walking from the Washington Monument toward the Lincoln Memorial where King was to speak and standing in an enormous crowd of people, shoulder to shoulder, no one could see, and I heard a voice literally from above. And the voice said, do you want a better view bro? And I looked up and in a tree above me was a young black man who reached down and pulled me up next to him. I had a great view of Dr. King that day. None of us knew at the time we were hearing one of the great speeches of all recorded history. You donít know that when you hear it. But we knew that something important was being said. And I canít match the rhetoric of Dr. King or the poetry of his cadences. But I would like to conclude with the key thought that he expressed that day. When he enunciated his dream for the American people and for his people. The key thought that he said was that he dreamed of the day when we would judge people by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin. And today marks a continuation of the always unfinished odyssey in search of a dream. An ideal that is embodied in the most basic principles of this country. That dream and those principles involve the ability of the individual on their own merits without reference to who their parents are, what color they are, or where they are from, or what their orientation is in that mysterious area of love and sex. To achieve their fulfillment in this society. I dream of a day when we judge people in Maine purely on the basis of their character and not extraneous things over which they have no control.
And so, again to those who are worried, who are uneasy, look into your hearts, talk to your neighbors, search for understanding and love, and join us in making Maine the best society we together can create.