Thirty-two years ago, in the late 1970s, Maine was a very different place. People who were minorities in this state, whether based on race or religion, had only recently received the protections of the Maine Human Rights Act. Maine was a place where Jews had typically been excluded from private clubs, until the laws were finally changed to make that illegal.
It was against this backdrop, and on an anniversary marked this week, that two members of the Legislature took a very bold step, bringing forward the first bill that would end discrimination against gays and lesbians in this state. It was March 31, 1977, and our friend, brother and former president of the NAACP Portland Branch Rep. Gerald E. Talbot, sponsored a bill to advance human rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation.
The NAACP branches in Maine were solidly behind this legislation, which did not pass. It took almost 30 more years to finally pass legislation in 2005 to add sexual orientation to the Maine Human Rights Act, and then to successfully defend it against a referendum sponsored by the Maine Christian Civic League.
Now we are engaged in another important struggle to remove the last vestiges of discrimination against the state’s gay and lesbian population in the area of civil marriage. The NAACP branches of Bangor and Portland are fully behind this crucial effort to allow a segment of our state’s residents to join in one of the most important institutions of civil society — marriage.
The NAACP will be proud to add its voice to the Maine Freedom to Marry Coalition and other marriage supporters at the public hearing in Augusta on April 24. We support LD 1020, introduced by Sen. Dennis Damon, for several reasons. As an organization that has fought for 100 years nationally to end discrimination on the basis of race, we will not stand idly by when other minorities are discriminated against. To deny access to the personal, social and economic benefits of marriage to a whole group of our residents is repugnant to us.
We are certain that allowing gay and lesbian couples in Maine to join in marriage will provide the best social and economic security for those families.
We know many children of gay and lesbian couples in Maine suffer from the lack of access to health insurance and all the other social and legal benefits that automatically accrue to married parents. This must end. Children in Maine must not be disadvantaged because they are growing up in a family led by two parents in a committed relationship, who happen to be gay or lesbian.
We have already heard from those who suggest adding a referendum to this bill to send the proposed law to the people for a vote. The NAACP believes strongly that basic civil and human rights of people should never be put out to a vote. If the landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s had been put out to vote, it might well have failed. If the question of interracial marriage had been subject to popular vote before Loving v. Virginia ended such bans in 1967, it might well have failed.
Legislators swear to uphold the Constitution when they take the oath of office. We elect them to take leadership in protecting everyone’s rights. They should not abdicate their responsibility to the Constitution and their constituents by sending a civil rights bill out for popular vote.
Others in the Legislature may say that we are moving too fast, that gays and lesbians should be content with civil unions, rather than marriage. The NAACP can attest that separate institutions for minority groups are never equal. Indeed, the experience of Vermont and New Jersey with civil unions demonstrates they do not provide the same protections.
The arguments for and against marriage equality for all people are not new. On this important anniversary as we commemorate the leadership of Gerald E. Talbot, the late Laurence Connolly who co-sponsored the original legislation and so many others who advocated early on for civil rights, we look to a future where all people enjoy equal protection under the law as promised in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Robert Talbot of Bangor was the first director of the Maine Human Rights Commission. He is Gerald E. Talbot’s brother. Sallie Chandler is a former
president of the Bangor branch of the NAACP.