Those opposing civil rights for gay men and lesbians have a history of contradicting themselves just one more good reason to vote"NO" on Feb. 10
by Al Diamon
Lawrence Lockman sometimes gets so caught up in the fervor of his cause that he neglects the consistency of his arguments. Lockman, a leader of the anti-gay rights group Concerned Maine Families, is one of the state's most prolific writers of letters to the editor, op-ed pieces and columns. His opinions show up in newspapers all over Maine nearly every month, sometimes putting him in the position of arguing against himself.
Take, for instance, his op-ed commentary published July 19, 1997, in the Bangor Daily News. "Comparing opposition to gay rights with Nazi genocide," he wrote, "is a premeditated act of character assassination gay activists have committed with impunity in Maine."
This was the same writer, who on May 13, 1997, in a letter published in the Biddeford Journal Tribune, perpetrated the very crime he would soon ardently decry. The gay rights bill, said Lockman, "will cement in place with the force of state law the relentless assault on parental rights, and usher in a regime of speech codes, thought police and neighborhood tattlers more akin to a fascist dictatorship than a constitutional republic."
Nor is Lockman alone in either being confused - or attempting to confuse - the issue. For instance, opponents have never quite been able to decide whether they ought to accept or deny the fact that gay men and lesbians are regularly subjected to acts of discrimination. Sometimes the tactic is to admit the truth, but deny its relevance. During 1991 legislative debate, state Rep. Dana Hanley of Paris was quoted in the Bangor Daily News as saying, "I know there is discrimination out there, but it's not clear to me that [this bill] is the right step."
Hanley's views on anti-gay bias got support from an unlikely quarter in an April 1991 column by the Portland Press Herald's M.D. Harmon: "There's no question in my mind that such discrimination exists and I find some examples I've heard highly disturbing. What kind of person would fire a capable worker for factors unrelated to the job?
"Something inside me says, 'Yes, make that illegal.'"
But, Harmon was quick to add, such legislation was only "semijustified" because it would permit homosexuals to become teachers, and might some day lead to gay people being allowed to work in churches.
While some anti-gay rights crusaders like Harmon and Hanley are clearly on record as admitting the problem exists, others are less willing to concede the issue. At a March 1991 news conference, then-executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine Jasper Wyman announced, "The plain truth is that discrimination against gays ... is not a problem in Maine."
In a December 1992 letter to the Maine Sunday Telegram, Wyman declared, "Depicting homosexuals as an oppressed minority victimized by pervasive discrimination is one of the most ludicrous - albeit clever - deceptions ever perpetrated in the history of American civil rights."
Wyman's successor as director of the league carried on the theme when he wrote a Portland Press Herald op-ed piece in April 1997. "Is it possible that a person who is assertive about their sexual preference might not be hired or might be fired from a job in Maine?" asked Michael Heath. "The answer is obviously yes. It is legal and it is possible. Is it likely? No, it is not."
Heath had apparently forgotten - or deliberately abandoned - that contention by the time he drafted a November 1997 fundraising letter. "[W]e believe it IS appropriate to discriminate against people if they are wrong," he wrote. "We believe that is especially true for the small businessman or landlord .... If a Maine businessman or landlord wants to discriminate against a person because of their sexual orientation, they should be able to do so." For good measure, Heath goes on to add, "Homosexuality is appropriately stigmatized by civilized people. And Maine people want to maintain that appropriate moral stigma on sexual promiscuity."
These kinds of contradictory positions have been plaguing the anti-gay community for years. In the 1992 campaign over Portland's civil rights ordinance, Concerned Portland Citizens co-leader James Duran repeatedly claimed the problem of discrimination was not "widespread." Meanwhile, the group's other top spokesman, Richard Slosberg, was telling the Maine Progressive, "My religious faith calls out against homosexuals as an abomination. And if I think they're an abomination, I don't have to hire them and I don't have to rent an apartment to them .... [homosexuals] should be free of government intervention and oppression. However, private persecution and private discrimination are fine when it comes to homosexuals."
Getting it straight
As Mainers prepare for the Feb. 10 referendum on whether to reject Maine's new law granting equal rights to everyone regardless of sexual orientation, the contradictory arguments of those urging a "yes" vote are more than an amusing curiosity. The shifting positions and inconsistent statements of gay rights opponents are signs of the struggle within that movement to find a message the public will accept.
In the only other statewide vote on the issue, 1995's referendum to repeal Portland's civil rights ordinance and prevent any other municipality from passing a similar law, anti-gay forces unsuccessfully tried quasi-legal arguments in an attempt to bolster support. In a Press Herald op-ed piece published in September 1994, Concerned Maine Families founder Carolyn Cosby set the tone of her campaign. "Homosexuals are trying," Cosby wrote, "to carve a new niche in civil rights law - a unique status reserved for gays alone - unlike anything traditional minorities have ever received."
As a call to arms, Cosby's argument was something less than ringing, particularly since she had difficulty articulating exactly what the "unique status" gays were allegedly seeking actually was. Often her attempts almost made up in originality what they lacked in accuracy. "[E]ven forced indoctrination of the homosexual lifestyle is planned within the curriculum of our schools in direct violation to parental authority," Cosby wrote in an October 1995 news release. "Cleverly concealed wording will allow these benefits to be added to gays at any time after a statewide gay rights bill is passed."
All of this concern about "special gay rights" was particularly ironic given Cosby's leading role in outlawing same-sex marriage in Maine. She and Lockman had always claimed homosexuals already had the same rights as everybody else, but were actively trying to deny gay men and lesbians the opportunity to do what everybody else could already do - marry whomever they choose. Not surprisingly, their attempts to justify this approach were a little hard to follow. In February 1997, Lockman told the Associated Press that gay rights and same-sex marriage "are at root the very same issues, because they are based on the same legal premise .... Do gays and lesbians qualify as a group that gets protected group status?"
After the Legislature outlawed same-sex marriage the following month, Cosby told the Bangor Daily News, "The people of Maine ... have wisely moved to protect the institution of marriage from the marauding of opportunistic gay activists." For the record, the only activists, marauding or otherwise, who had actually attempted to change the state's marriage laws were Cosby and Lockman.
When the Legislature approved the gay rights bill in May 1997, Cosby was quoted in the Bangor Daily News as saying, "Gays and lesbians are now demanding protections that the state law does not extend to the disabled. If this new law is passed, it is clear that gays will be more equal than others, particularly the truly disadvantaged."
That none of this had any basis in fact did not seem to matter to Cosby, but it did concern two other groups: voters and activists on the religious right. The former had reacted by rejecting Cosby's 1995 referendum, the latter by wresting control of the anti-gay fight from her hands. Much to the chagrin of Cosby and Lockman, their confusing arguments ("The gay rights debate isn't about sodomy," wrote Lockman in a July 1997 column in the Bangor Daily News. "It's about civil rights fraud.") were tossed aside, to be replaced by a simpler concept ("This is about morality," Heath told the Press Herald the same month).
The most important figures in the virtue vanguard were Heath of the Christian Civic League, Paul Volle of the Christian Coalition and Paul Madore, a Lewiston activist who has formed numerous groups, ranging from the Coalition to End Special Rights to the Maine Grassroots Coalition. Volle's inclusion in an alliance espousing moral values was somewhat ironic, since the former Republican Party activist was a convicted shoplifter and had achieved considerable notoriety for refusing to testify before the state ethics commission concerning a 1990 smear campaign against a gay legislative candidate. In asserting his refusal to cooperate, Volle had claimed constitutional authority as a "White Sovereign Male."
The tone of the moral crusaders was set early. During the January 1993 Lewiston City Council debate on a city civil rights ordinance, Councilor Paul Grenier announced, "If the homosexuals feel discriminated against, it's because of the deviant lifestyle they have chosen."
Madore told the Sunday Telegram, "If we as a Christian society allow government to legitimize homosexual orientation ... we will be compelled simultaneously to allow its behavior in our schools and society."
But even the moralists had trouble keeping their messages from becoming entangled. While Grenier and Heath were proclaiming the virtues of discriminating against individual gay men and lesbians, Madore kept saying things that didn't quite fit. In September 1995, he told the Bangor Daily News, "It is not the person as an individual that we are opposed to. I want to stress that."
Compare that to what Heath wrote in the Lincoln County Weekly in October 1997: "Many Maine people expressed a healthy abhorrence for homosexuality as we circulated petitions this summer. They may have done so in less than polite ways, but nonetheless they told our circulators that they believe homosexuality is wrong."
Hating is no crime
Anti-gay activists seem to have a problem deciding how far to allow this "less than polite" business to go. Few of them were unduly bothered in 1988, when a man convicted of beating up gays outside a Portland bar while calling them "faggot" was asked by the Press Herald if he had learned anything. "Not really," he said. "Just not to do it again."
There didn't seem to be any outcry in April 1991, when the Lewiston Sun Journal quoted a man observing a gay rights demonstration in Farmington at which some participants hugged and kissed. "Every one of them ought to be shot," he said. "If they want to do that stuff, why don't they hide and do it?"
While Cosby showed up in March 1996 to support some high school students in Skowhegan who walked out of a class on AIDS prevention ("I'm sick of it," one of them told the Central Maine Morning Sentinel. "It's against my religion to promote any homosexual behavior"), she was nowhere to be seen around Oxford Hills High School in late '96 and early '97, when a wave of violence against students perceived to be gay swept through the area.
Wyman and the civic league were early supporters of the state hate-crimes law, which took effect in 1992. The act allowed the attorney general's office to seek civil injunctions against people accused of crimes that involved bias because of race, color, disability, sexual orientation or other factors. But Wyman sometimes blamed the victims for bringing the violence upon themselves. In April 1989, he told the Bangor Daily News, "The answer for homosexual people is to continue to demonstrate to society at large that they are human beings who are non-threatening ... if anything, the push for [civil rights] has reinforced the hostility and antagonism."
Wyman wasn't alone in this belief. In April 1993, Hanley, now a state senator, argued during debate on a gay rights bill, "I believe this will create a wider rift. If this passes, discrimination will still exist and, in fact, I would argue it will be more pronounced."
Cosby and her Concerned Maine Families were even less concerned about documented cases of violence against gays. In 1993, she opposed efforts to strengthen the hate-crimes law, claiming they were "a back-door short-cut to granting special legal protections to homosexuals." Cosby and co-author Jonathan Malmude went further in an op-ed column in the Bangor Daily News in October 1994. "[V]iolence against gays may be better explained by their affluence than by their sexual orientation," they wrote. But by the following year, Cosby wasn't even willing to concede that much. Hate crimes are a "non-problem," she told Maine Times. "There's very little homophobic violence."
In 1995, Heath reversed the Christian Civic League's earlier support of hate- crimes legislation. In a letter to the attorney general, he tried to explain the organization's new stand. "Is it reasonable for even one Maine citizen to be at risk of violating the civil rights act in the case of homosexuality?" he wrote. "I think not, since there is a difference between making a moral distinction and practicing discrimination."
Three months after Heath wrote that letter, three men attacked a gay man outside a Portland bar, punching and kicking him until his cheekbone was fractured and his nose was broken. During the attack, they kept yelling, "Fag, how does this feel?" It's not clear if they were "making a moral distinction" or simply practicing hate.
Hate is good for business
Cosby's assertion that homosexuals bring violence upon themselves because they have more money than the average person (a claim for which there is little supporting evidence) is eerily reminiscent of the arguments used to justify anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany. Nor is it the only economic argument that's been raised against granting gay men and lesbians civil rights protections.
In its fight to overturn Portland's law, Concerned Portland Citizens put out a brochure in 1992 that claimed, "The ordinance will create a business and housing climate where citizens must fear making proper decisions under the intimidation of threatening lawsuits. Employees who should be fired based on performance may hide under the umbrella of 'sexual orientation.' Similarly, abusive tenants may hold landlords hostage."
Group member Robert Hains, a frequent unsuccessful candidate for the City Council, warned the law would prompt businesses to leave Portland. Slosberg, an attorney, complained the legislation would force him to accept gay clients. Duran, the leader of the anti-gay rights fight, told the Press Herald shortly before the November vote, "I think small businesspeople recognize the dangers of this ordinance."
In the more than five years since the ordinance took effect, Portland's economy has enjoyed a major upturn in nearly every sector. The law is supported by most major business groups, including state and local chambers of commerce, and by labor unions. The predicted legal quagmire has never developed, and the few cases that have been filed have been settled without a trial. Still, most businesspeople would prefer a state law to the local ordinance, because the Portland law requires cases to go directly to court, an often expensive and time-consuming process. State legislation would refer cases to the Maine Human Rights Commission, a method that has proved to be a far quicker and cheaper way to settle most complaints about discrimination.
Still the argument the law will be bad for business just won't go away. In an April 1997 op-ed piece for the Sun Journal, Lockman revived all the discredited claims. "For the first time in Maine history," he wrote, "small business owners would be subjected to the threat of state-sponsored lawsuits based on nothing more than a disgruntled employee's claim to be gay or perceived as gay. Even an unwarranted or frivolous complaint will trigger an investigation by agents of the [Maine] Human Rights Commission and force the accused to hire an attorney."
Ironically, the only real threat to business associated with granting equal rights to gay men and lesbians has come from anti-gay rights forces. The religious right's decision to boycott Disney over its gay-friendly policies got lots of publicity, but little results. Likewise, Heath went nowhere with his thinly veiled threat to boycott companies, such as Guy Gannett Communications and Key Bank, that supported Maine Won't Discriminate in the 1995 campaign to defeat Cosby's referendum. More irony: The anti-gay rights crusaders have often argued that the decision on whether to discriminate should be made without government intervention. But when companies have exercised that option by instituting non-discrimination policies, it's often resulted in outrage from the very group that urged the private sector to act in the first place.
It's almost enough to make one think the real motivation behind defeating gay rights legislation isn't to limit government intervention or protect morality. It's almost enough to make one think it's really about promoting bigotry.
Rights, special and otherwise
Perhaps the most remarkable argument advanced by the anti-gay rights crowd is the claim that extending civil rights protection to cover sexual orientation sets some sort of legal precedent.
"[T]he law is an entirely new step," wrote Old Town physician Christopher Ritter in the Jan. 20, 1998 Press Herald. "Except for religion, which is specifically protected in the Constitution, our government has never felt it necessary to intervene on behalf of behavior that people undertake of their own free will."
It could be argued that since the government has already chosen to make an exception for religion, there's no valid reason not to consider other behaviors as also worthy of legal protection. But that argument was actually settled more than 200 years ago, when the Founding Fathers deemed such matters of choice as free speech, peaceable assembly, the petitioning of government to settle grievances and the bearing of arms worthy of protection.
The drafters of the Constitution also wisely decided that those might not be the only behavior-based activities that would ever need a legal shield. In the Ninth Amendment, they wrote, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
Al Diamon is CBW's political columnist.
FIGHT FOR CIVIL
State Rep. Gerald Talbot of Portland introduces the first bill to add "sexual or affectional orientation" as a protected category under the Maine Human Rights Act. The measure is defeated 21-10 in the Senate and 88-54 in the House.
The Legislature again rejects the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Harlan Baker of Portland, this time by margins of 20-8 in the Senate and 103-35 in the House, both historic low points.
State Sen. Gerard Conley Sr. of Portland becomes the chief sponsor, but the results don't change. The Senate rejects the measure 16-13. The House turns it down 99-39.
Conley is back with more support. The bill passes the Senate for the first time, 18-12, but dies in the House 101-37.
Charlie Howard of Bangor is attacked by three young men because he was gay. After being chased and beaten, Howard is thrown off a bridge into Kenduskeag Stream, where he drowns.
State Sen. Mary Najarian of Portland, the bill's latest sponsor, manages to win Senate approval 17-11, but fails to sway the House, where the measure goes down to defeat 98-41.
This time it's Portland state Sen. Tom Andrews' turn as sponsor. The bill loses in both the Senate (23-12) and House (88-45).
Barbara Wood becomes the first openly homosexual elected official in Maine when she is elected to the Portland City Council. Her sexual orientation is not an issue in the race.
State Rep. Gerard Conley Jr. of Portland carries on his father's work, but with no more success. The House approves the bill for the first time 71-69, but the Senate balks 21-14.
Dale McCormick of Monmouth wins a state Senate seat to become the first openly homosexual legislator. Her sexual orientation is a major issue in the race.
Conley tries again. The Senate gives its OK, 14-13, but the House falters 74-68, after Gov. John McKernan threatens to veto the bill if it's not sent out to referendum.
The Portland City Council bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in city employment, the first municipality in Maine to do so.
A state hate crimes law takes effect. It allows the attorney general's office to seek quick civil injunctions against those accused of violating civil rights laws.
The Portland City Council approves by a 7-1 vote a civil rights ordinance protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, credit and public accommodation. A petition drive forces a referendum on the issue, but the ordinance is upheld by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin.
The Lewiston City Council votes 5-2 for a similar ordinance, but opponents gather enough signatures to force it out to referendum. The measure is repealed by a 2-1 margin.
Between the Council vote and the public balloting, the Legislature again considers a statewide bill. Conley, now a senator, gains legislative passage (Senate 21-14, House 72-60) for the first time, but McKernan vetoes the measure.
Independent Angus King, a gay rights supporter, wins the governorship. But many candidates opposed to the bill win House seats.
Concerned Maine Families collects enough signatures to force a statewide referendum to repeal Portland's ordinance, prevent other towns from passing a similar law and limit protected categories under the Maine Human Rights Act to those already listed. Voters reject that proposal 53 percent to 47 percent.
Concerned Maine Families launches a petition drive to outlaw same-sex marriage in Maine. Enough signatures are collected to put the issue on the 1997 ballot.
The Legislature heads off a referendum on same-sex marriage by passing the initiated bill banning the practice. State Sen. Joel Abromson of Portland sponsors the civil rights bill. This time it passes the Senate 28-5 and the House 82-62, and is signed by the governor. But the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition gather enough signatures to keep the bill from taking effect. A referendum on whether it should be rejected is scheduled for Feb. 10, 1998.
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