Maine GayNet - Gay rights debate out of the closet

Saturday, January 3, 1998

Gay rights debate out of the closet

By Susan Kinzie, Of the NEWS Staff --

Like most people growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Lois Reckitt didn't know any gay people. "I didn't know they existed. I never met a lesbian until I was in college. Then I met one," she said. "One."

But in the '70s, she was involved in the women's movement, founding the Maine chapter of the National Organization for Women. In 1976 the state chapter seized the national platform idea of lesbian rights and made it a political priority. Reckitt, who was married, would lobby Maine legislators to protect another group from discrimination.

It was going to be a 10-year campaign, they believed: 10 years of education and "dialogue" to get the issue out into the open.

It has been 20. People are still talking.

The law passed by the Legislature last spring, and frozen by people's veto petitions pending an election on the issue Tuesday, Feb. 10, has changed little from the first bill submitted on the issue in the 1970s. But the terms of the debate have changed profoundly.

A subject many people said was almost never mentioned before the 1970s has become one of the most public and controversial debates of the two decades since. "It's come out of the closet," said Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

"There has been a sea change in attitudes," Reckitt said.

The issue has strengthened two groups that are now far-reaching and powerful, able to mobilize volunteers in small towns across Maine and bring in cash donations from all over the country. One group sees the bill as an essential civil rights issue. The other sees it as an endorsement and protection of an immoral lifestyle.

And the greatest change since the '70s - the growing voice and increasing visibility of gay people in Maine - has both strengthened gay advocates and increased the determination of their opponents, who fear fundamental changes in what is accepted by society. As one senator who voted against the first bill said at the time, "Forty-five years ago, 50 years ago when I was a youngster we never had any homosexuals around. If they just keep it quiet there is no problem."

In 1976, it took a long time just to find a sponsor. The bill, which would add protection based on sexual orientation to the Maine Human Rights Act, was considered political suicide. No other state had done it. One of the representatives who agreed to sponsor the bill was Gerald Talbot, Maine's first black representative.

The next spring, a hearing room was packed with gays and lesbians who brought a map showing people all over the state who had signed petitions supporting the bill. "We had been painstakingly collecting signatures. We wanted 30,000," Reckitt said, and laughed. "We got 900." The map was their spin on such a small number: Geographic diversity was meant to suggest widespread support. "Even that was sort of a stretch," she said.

Twenty years later, more than 60,000 signatures opposing the new law were gathered in less than three months.

But in 1977, when opponents to the bill were asked to come forward during the hearing, no one stepped up to the microphone.

"It was too good to be true," said Richard Steinman, a professor at the University of Southern Maine and one of a handful of people lobbying for the bill, scared to death but determined. "It took all the courage I had," he said, to walk up to legislators and tell them he was gay and wanted protection from discrimination in housing, credit, employment and accommodations.

Before he testified at the hearing, his son at his side, he said, "I remember watching this group of people standing against the wall, and thinking, uh huh ... uh huh ... uh huh ... This is the beginning of the opposition."

But no one said anything until Jasper Wyman, a freshman representative and a pastor, left another committee meeting to add a sentence or two of moral opposition to the record. He hadn't planned to testify.

"There were opponents there but they didn't dare say anything," Wyman said. "Remember now, 20 years ago a lot of people hadn't seen anyone gay. All of a sudden here are all these people who are kind of strange-looking. They didn't know how to react to them."

It didn't take long for opponents of the bill to get their voices back.

"The debate in the House was - pretty bad" in the late '70s and early '80s, said then-Speaker John Martin. He had to clear a class of children on a field trip out of the galleries because the language was so foul, something that became a tradition of sorts as the bill was debated each session.

One representative called gay people "creepy crawlers," and said, "They are, without doubt, the lowest scum of the earth." Speaking of a lesbian, he said, "If she ever went out with me once she would throw rocks at all her girlfriends, and if I ever took her parking she would never go to bed with another woman."

Harlan Baker, who sponsored the bill in 1979, said one opponent announced that the gay rights bill, if passed, "would mean that schools could not fire known child molesters." He remembered a representative speaking on the House floor comparing homosexuals to a goat having sex with a wheelbarrow.

Baker said that, as a heterosexual man, he was uncomfortable sponsoring the bill. Even during the formal debates, some legislators expressed disgust for people wearing lavender ribbons in support of the bill. Many people remembered that those who voted for the bills were "looked at askance, people asked questions."

Reckitt, who had never questioned her own sexual preferences, already had started trying to persuade legislators as "the straight lobbyist" for the bill when things got complicated: She met and fell in love with a woman.

"I never knew there was something different," she said, but "then everything in my life just fell into place." Emotionally, maybe things were in place for her but, she said, "I hadn't told my husband, I hadn't told my employer, hadn't told anyone because it happened out of state. I felt very vulnerable in my job: I was working at the YW in Portland as the phys ed director. My office was off the girls locker room."

She was divorced within months, but she stayed closeted for quite a while, continuing to tell representatives she was a heterosexual supporter of the bill.

She was "outed" the next year by a representative.

The legislator, who often warned about gay teachers recruiting kids into homosexuality, was testifying in 1978 against funding for the Human Rights Commission. He said the commission had penalized his town by ruling in Reckitt's favor in a case. Reckitt had applied for a job as a swimming instructor in Westbrook in the mid-1970s, and when a man was hired who then came to her for training, she filed and won a sex discrimination case. The representative told the Legislature, "Everyone knows they didn't hire her not because she's a woman, but because she's a lesbian."

"So there it was," Reckitt said.

Years later, she added, in one of the many ironies that weave through the history of the bill, she became the swimming instructor for that legislator's daughter.

When the former legislator was asked this winter about his opposition to the bill, he was recovering from a serious illness and seemed confused. "I just don't know. ... Things have changed quite a lot since that time," he said. "I did the best I could with what was known at the time to try to make it a better world."

Things have changed quite a lot.

The 1970s was the first decade when many gays began to claim their sexual orientation as a common identity and source of pride. A 1971 article by the New York Times News Service, printed in the Bangor Daily News, began, "In defiance of taboos that have prevailed for generations, thousands of students are proclaiming their sexuality and openly organizing 'gay' groups on large and small campuses across the country."

A small group of gay men and women formed a club at the University of Maine. When they planned a conference on homosexuality in 1974, some legislators threatened to cut funding to the university. The conference went on, sparking scores of emotional letters to the editor.

"In the early '70s a lot of issues of sex and sexuality had come to the surface," said Baker, who sponsored the 1979 bill. He first heard about the gay rights issue at the 1974 Democratic convention, where it was adopted into the party platform.

Walter Hichens, a former senator and "a vehement opponent" of the bill, wasn't surprised by its appearance in Maine in 1977. "They had already started the gay parties up there at UM. They keep recruiting, so I had the idea it was going to grow in the state."

The bill kept coming back, session after session.

The third time the bill was heard, Reckitt decided to come out on her own, even though many people warned her that it was "too much of a risk" - she still wasn't out at work.

She told legislators that people knew her in many different ways. "I said, 'I'm Lois Reckitt from South Portland, founder of Maine NOW, chair of the Democratic Party in South Portland, founder of Maine Right to Choose, I'm a notary public. But I'm here today because I'm a lesbian and I've been discriminated against,"' she said, referring to the Westbrook case.

"You could've heard a pin drop," she said.

So few people were out in the early years of the bill that Gerard Conley Sr., who sponsored the bill several times, never knew any member of the Legislature or its staff who was openly homosexual.

Gay and lesbian activists "have become much more politically wise," since the 1970s, he said. "They came out of the closet by droves. That was the best thing they did."

Baker said he was naive when he sponsored the bill, thinking legislators could be persuaded by speeches on the House floor. "The work had to have been done on the grass-roots level," he said, "and that's exactly what the gay and lesbian community ended up doing. It took a long, long time. But eventually what happens is people realize we're dealing with mainstream people - neighbors, not evil freaks coming out of the woods. It took awhile ... it took awhile."

The bill, submitted every session except 1995, the year of the referendum on the issue, had enough ups and downs to make many of the people involved thoroughly tired. "It's agony," said Steinman. Opponents of the bill echoed his words. "You keep picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, starting over," he said.

But over the years legislative support has been growing slowly. Sponsors went from the very liberal legislators in the 1970s - remembered as "hippie radicals, little bomb tossers" by one former legislator - to Conley, who became Senate president in the 1980s and was an Irish Catholic father of 12 who fought many issues of discrimination during his political career.

Conley stood by the governor's side as the bill was signed last spring, and is amazed by the change in attitudes: "Today, my God, if you're not wearing the purple ribbon in the House or Senate, what's wrong with you?"

Hichens, who opposed it as a senator years ago and says, at age 80, he may go door to door to get out the vote in February, said the support the bill has received in the Legislature doesn't reflect the state as a whole. "They're getting stronger all the time, recruiting, electing more legislators that are sympathetic to the issue."

Gay rights advocates were able to raise 10 times more money than their opponents to fund their campaign during the 1995 referendum, a ballot question that was a response to two local ordinances protecting gays from discrimination. The final tally was close, 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent.

While gay and lesbian networks were strengthening in certain parts of the state - Portland, Camden, Augusta, Belfast - conservative opposition was strengthening, too. "In 1977 there was very little [vocal public] opposition," Baker said. "But in '79 there was all this opposition," with primarily Baptist ministers bringing lots of people to speak out.

During a recent interview, the Rev. George Atkinson of Newcastle said, "I've followed it right along since it started. The forces of evil are always at work. I've testified before legislative committees for years. I would quote from Romans Chapter 1 where it says we love the sinner but we hate the sin. Homosexuality is a sin just like any other sin; it can be forgiven and the person can be changed."

Atkinson, 81, collected 230 signatures last summer to oppose the law. "If this law goes into effect it will be disastrous for the state of Maine and its people. I've seen the progression of this thing all my life. Young people, boys and girls whose lives were ruined because of homosexual activity. All of my life it's something that has gotten worse and worse and worse. When more people are being converted by the people that are already doing it, more people will turn that way."

Paul Volle, the executive director of the Christian Coalition in Maine, says Maine should learn from San Fransisco. He has distributed a videotape called "Gay Power, Gay Rights." "It's about how they got control, the laws that were passed, the health issues that went on," he said.

The network of Christian activists is getting stronger all the time, Volle said, pointing to their ability to get more than 1,700 people knocking on doors and setting up booths at fairs to collect signatures last summer.

But while organized opposition is strong, many who have fought the bill for years worry their base of support is becoming more intense but more narrow. While gay rights advocates see society as becoming more tolerant and accepting, some of the law's detractors see a fundamental breakdown of morality.

Others, such as Heath of the Christian Civic League, believe it is not so much a change in attitudes as a change in what is perceived as the central issue.

"To the extent that people perceive that they're being asked to accept something they think is wrong or morally questionable, then [gay rights advocates] lose," but they could win if it is perceived as a question of whether to "live and let live," he said.

Volle said, "The media's provided a big boost for homosexuals. Twenty years ago you'd never see them on television. ... They've done very effective public relations. There's been a redefinition of terms. The term sodomy was used, homosexuals were called sodomites. They turn it around and call it 'gay' - it doesn't have the stigma that their sexual behavior calls up in people's minds. A happy lifestyle, a happy community. It's had quite an impact on the younger generation."

Volle and Heath, the most outspoken opponents of the law, don't talk to legislators about sodomites now. Wyman takes credit for that change; he said when people read the Bible at hearings, "legislators would turn around in their chairs and read the newspaper ... I asked people to appeal to a broad moral sense, not a narrow sectarian sense."

Heath said, "The essential point about homosexuality hasn't changed for a few millenia, back to the depictions of appropriate and inappropriate sexual activity in the early books of the Bible. But the points we're making publicly are not as strong, as pointed, as the condemnation that rings in some of the biblical passages. We're not backing away from that, but we want to make the points in a way that is sensitive and accurate."

Martin said that as speaker of the House he saw the debate change over the years until "it was a debate over the issues, not over the slurs."

Both sides have changed the way they speak about what is at stake; spokesmen for both sides choose their words carefully. Steinman said that as more heterosexual people became actively involved in the campaign, "there was a good deal of grumbling in the gay world about straights taking over the agenda. With Maine Won't Discriminate [a coalition of groups organized to fight the 1995 referendum], they didn't want anything to be inflammatory."

Reckitt said, "It has become substantially more civilized over the years. There are huge numbers of straight people who understand that this battle is for all of us. Almost everyone [knows] someone who is gay now that more and more are out."

It's that idea that motivates supporters of the law and frightens its opponents, even as people on both sides feel weary and disgusted with the years of debate.

Volle, the head of the Christian Coalition, said, "It's the old therapy trick: Keep repeating something till you get desensitized to it. It becomes commonplace, then you can move forward with your political agenda."

Reckitt went to a family reunion recently. With more than 40 cousins on her father's side alone, as she stood among the group of conservative Irish Catholics she thought, " 'There are gay people in this crowd, I just know there are.' There were two - they both came with their partners," she said. "And no one paid any attention."

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