By Dawn Gagnon
Of the NEWS Staff
AUGUSTA - Champions of human rights for Maine's gay, lesbian and bisexual residents were asked to close their eyes in the Augusta Civic Center Saturday night and visualize what their lives could be like in the year 2002.
Prompted by Betsy Sweet, one of many political activists who helped win a 20-year struggle to outlaw discrimination against the state's gay, lesbian and bisexual residents, audience members stated aloud their hopes and dreams for a Maine in which hate crimes decrease, in which gay school teachers can reveal their sexual identity without losing their jobs, in which suicides by gay teens no longer occur, and in which there are gay and lesbian proms.
A world in which Mainers throw their energy into fighting dioxin rather than homosexuals, in which gay people can marry and become parents, in which churches are more accepting of gays and lesbians.
These dreams were shared during the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance's celebration of the recent passage of LD 1116, An Act to Prevent Discrimination, which made the state the 10th in the nation to enact legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The Legislature passed the bill, and Gov. Angus King signed it last month.
Previous attempts to pass gay rights legislation in Maine had failed every two years since 1977, with the exception of 1995 when a proposed bill was withdrawn to prevent diluting the effort to defeat Question 1, a referendum seeking to exclude sexual orientation from protection under state law.
During Saturday's gala, which began with a social "hour" that lasted nearly two hours and wrapped up with a dance, the state's gay rights advocates celebrated finally having won equality in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations rights they said most Mainers have taken for granted.
For many of the MLGPA leaders who spoke during the celebration, the need for legal protection was crystallized by the death of Charlie Howard, a young gay man, in Bangor in 1984.
Howard's drowning at the hands of a gang of teenage gay bashers drove home the message that gay people in Maine weren't safe.
"It was a catalyst for all of us," recalled Harold Gordon, a former alliance president.
Dale McCormick, the group's first president and one of Maine's first openly gay lawmakers, said news of the tragedy reached as far as San Francisco, where people spoke of it when she served as a delegate to the National Democratic Convention there.
"The MLGPA grew out of that event," McCormick said.
Gordon, McCormick and other gay rights advocates recalled the lengthy legal wrangle and legislative strategy sessions that led to the bill, peppering their remarks with inside jokes their audience of mostly like-minded individuals evidently relished, given the laughter that punctuated the program.
Also on hand for the victory bash were some of the Maine legislators who helped get the gay rights bill passed, among them the bill's main sponsor, Sen. Joel Abromson, a Republican from Portland.
As he spoke of the Legislature's deliberations to that end, Abromson noted that one of his most memorable moments involved a fellow legislator who opposed gay rights legislation four years ago.
On the day Abromson's fellow lawmaker was to vote this time around, he found himself at a crossroads of sorts on the issue. He shared his burden with his children.
"Well, what's the problem?" his children asked, bringing simplicity to what, for Abromson's colleague, had been a complex, personal struggle. The legislator supported the bill.
"We can learn a lot from kids " Abromson said.
Sweet, recalling the courage of the gay men and women who risked ruin by taking up the fight in its early years, said, "We stand on the shoulders of giants." The names of the gay rights pioneers evoked murmurs of recognition from the audience. With each name that was mentioned, the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation.
But even as they gathered for their victory celebration, MLGPA members and supporters acknowledged that they are not out of the woods yet.
Sweet noted that Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League, is leading the movement for "the people's veto," which seeks to repeal the gay rights bill: He has until September to gather the more than 51,000 signatures needed to bring the issue to statewide referendum.
Sweet vowed that if Heath is successful in gathering the signatures required, members of the alliance would scrutinize every single name on the petition to make sure that all are, in fact, eligible.
In a surreal twist, the gay rights advocates shared space in the Augusta Civic Center with the crowd from Dirigere Christian Academy, which was there for an awards banquet, and the senior class from Gardiner High School, which held its commencement exercises the same night.
As the proud parents of the students milled about the lobby with cameras and camcorders, they mingled with numerous other couples for whom parenthood remains but a dream.
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