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Maine LGBTQ+ leaders reflect on legacy of progress, lessons to guide fight ahead

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Maine LGBTQ+ leaders reflect on legacy of progress, lessons to guide fight ahead

Jun 13, 2024 | 4:43 am ET
By Emma Davis
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Maine LGBTQ leaders reflect on legacy of progress, lessons to guide fight ahead
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Dale McCormick, founding president of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, now EqualityMaine, (center) talks about strategies for successful organizing at the Equality Community Center in Portland on June 11. (Emma Davis/ Maine Morning Star)

In September 1973, eight students gathered inside the Memorial Union at the University of Maine Orono to start what would become the Wilde-Stein Club. The club, named after gay literary figures Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, was the first LGBTQ+ student group officially recognized in Maine. 

The Wilde-Stein Club established another first, the Maine Gay Symposium, a statewide conference launched in 1974 that brought together LGBTQ+ Mainers and seasoned activists from around the country who saw Maine as a battleground state nationally.

“What had been an atomized population here in Maine was being organized,” said Steven Bull, co-founder of the club and Symposium.

As organizers today continue efforts to create a more just Maine for the LGBTQ+ community, Bull and other early movement pioneers gathered Tuesday evening at the Equality Community Center in Portland to share lessons learned from past activism to help guide future progress. 

In many ways, Maine led the country in protections for LGBTQ+ people. 

Within a few weeks of the first Symposium, the Maine Democratic Party passed a gay rights plank during the state convention—only the second in the country. In 2005, when the majority of states lacked discrimination protections, lawmakers added protections for the LGBTQ+ community to the Maine Human Rights Act. Maine was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage by a statewide referendum in 2012 — three years before the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court decision made marriage equality a reality nationwide. 

However, before many of these advancements toward equal protections came numerous failed attempts — and changing laws did not mean attacks and discrimination ceased. 

Lesson 1: ‘Meeting people where they are’

The campaign for marriage equality in Maine took seven years — and a shift in messaging. 

Betsy Smith, who served as executive director of EqualityMaine at the time, said she and other organizers heading the initial effort centered messaging around fairness and equality, knowing that the state had just approved non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people. 

“We felt like Mainers who were voting on this ultimately, and legislators, would be moved if we said, ‘We just want the same rights and protections,’” Smith explained, such as jointly filing taxes and inheritance rights. 

Maine LGBTQ leaders reflect on legacy of progress, lessons to guide fight ahead
Betsy Smith, former executive director of EqualityMaine, talks about her work on the campaign for marriage equality at the Equality Community Center in Portland on June 11. (Emma Davis/ Maine Morning Star)

But, Mainers did not back that effort. Organizers began questioning why that framing didn’t resonate, seeking answers through nationwide polling. What they found: most people felt same-sex couples should have those rights, but marriage for most people was not about rights. It was about love and commitment.

Betsy explained that when organizers went out to have conversations with Mainers during the second, ultimately successful, campaign, “instead of starting out with why we think they should support marriage, we started out by asking them, ‘So, are you married?’”

It was in finding common ground — a shared desire to spend their lives or raise a family with the person they loved — that the campaign finally saw success. And, Smith said, then “we would say, ‘So do we.’”

The campaign shifted from “Maine won’t discriminate” to “Mainers united for marriage.”

“We finally started to learn this lesson about meeting people where they are,” Smith said.

Lesson 2: ‘Separated, we fall back’

When Bull, co-founder of Symposium, began organizing 50 years ago, he and other LGBTQ+ people were in many ways alone, ostracized from society or deemed threats, “so it was by necessity and survival that we had to develop as many allies as possible,” Bull said. 

While societal attitudes have shifted some, Bull continues to find allyship to be pivotal in the fight for equal protections. The safety found in establishing community with those who share an identity offers power, too, he explained. 

For 25 years, the Symposium series provided this, “a safe space for networking and addressing whatever challenges the growing movement faced,” Bull said. A monthly newsletter developed by a coalition of LGBTQ+ groups, the Maine Gay Task Force, also helped serve as a way to organize in a geographically expansive state.

Maine LGBTQ leaders reflect on legacy of progress, lessons to guide fight ahead
Maine Gay Task Force Newsletter from December 1974, as archived by the University of Southern Maine Digital Commons.

At the event in Portland, Bull and other early leaders highlighted the role of intersectionality in sustained success, noting the need to combine LGBTQ+ activism with efforts for economic and racial justice. 

“My point here is that democratic rights are indivisible,” Bull said. “That separated, we fall back, but united, we can go forward. Allies are crucial.” 

Lesson 3: ‘Dance with the person that brought you’

Another lesson came in the wake of the 1986 gubernatorial election. The Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, now known as EqualityMaine, had formed two years prior and was ready to start endorsing candidates, explained Dale McCormick, who helped found the group and became the first openly gay member of the Maine Legislature in 1990. 

MLGPA decided not to back either of the major parties’ candidates but instead threw support behind independent Sherry Huber because she was pro-choice

After the endorsement, McCormick recalled, “all hell broke loose.” 

For several years prior, MLGPA lobbied Democratic lawmakers to vote “yes” on the Civil Rights Bill. “They had put themselves out on a limb,” McCormick said, of the party’s eventual support for the bill. 

Ultimately, McCormick decided the endorsement was a mistake. “Not that Sherry Huber isn’t wonderful and was good on our issues,” McCormick clarified, “but we had forgotten this even bigger moral truth, which is that you should say, ‘Thank you.’ That you should dance with the person that brought you.”

It took years for MLGPA to recover from that politically, she said.  

Lesson 4: ‘Being true’

After being diagnosed with AIDS, Tom Antonik moved back to Maine from New York City in 1987 thinking he would live out his final years in the state in which he grew up. He also began working with AIDS and HIV service and advocacy organizations and pushing for LGBTQ+ causes, which he has continued to do for the nearly 40 years since. 

Antonik recalled the first time he spoke at a public event about his experience living with AIDS. 

“I got up to share my personal story and, when I did, there was a silence in the room that I just did not expect,” Antonik said. “They listened to every word I had to say, and it was that revelation to me that just by telling my story, by being true, by being honest, that I can make a difference.”

Being honest about who he is has since been a guiding principle for him and has also helped define his identity amid an often unkind world. When marching in a Pride parade in New York City years ago, he recalled protesters chanting outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

“I’m listening to all these slurs and really horrific things and something shifted,” Antonik explained. “None of it landed.” That wasn’t me, he said, “they were just using me as a symbol.” 

However, Antonik cautioned that the solution is never as simple as not internalizing hate — given the potential for danger that can accompany such aggression. For example, he said he thought twice about wearing the pearl necklace he had on when walking to the Equality Community Center for the event, despite understanding Portland to be a safe and welcoming city. 

Part of the reason he has advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, he said, is “because people went ahead of me in times that were much more difficult to make it safe so that I could do what I could do to make it a little bit safer for who came along next.”

As one young participant shared at the center Tuesday evening, “I can’t wait to be shown how much more is possible.”