BANGOR — Ron King threw his arms around one man after another Saturday afternoon in West Market Square, and nobody batted an eye.
The 65-year-old Penobscot artist, activist and farmer greeted friends outside the Charles Inn where his art was on display in an exhibit that was part of the Gay Pride Festival sponsored by the Bridge Alliance.
Organizers estimated that as many as 1,200 people attended Saturday’s events.
“It’s important to be out there to show people that there are people like us,” said King, who worked for the Down East AIDS Network for many years. “I came out at a time when making love to the person I loved would have put me in jail for 20 years. For 10,000 years, they’ve been killing us; maybe it’s time they stopped doing that.”
Next month the Bridge Alliance will join other organizations to sponsor events to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Charlie Howard. Openly gay, Howard was attacked by three teens on July 7, 1984, and thrown off the State Street bridge into Kenduskeag Stream. He drowned at the age of 23.
The Bridge Alliance sponsored the Gay Pride Festival this week to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, considered the beginning of the gay liberation movement.
The riots took place on June 28, 1969, when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, and tried to arrest patrons. A series of riots ensued that lasted five nights and sparked the homosexual rights movement.
In addition to music and speakers, supporters of same-sex marriage urged people attending the festival to get involved in the campaign to defeat an effort to repeal the law that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in Maine. The Legislature passed the bill and Gov. John Baldacci signed it in May.
Supporters of traditional marriage are gathering signatures for a people’s veto referendum to repeal it. The implementation of the law, which would go into effect in mid-September, will be stayed until the outcome of the repeal effort is known.
Although the festival drew a modest crowd Saturday afternoon, seasoned activists joined local politicians. Teenagers and young adults, some of whom traveled a considerable distance to attend the event, mingled with residents of downtown.
Rep. James Martin, D-Bangor, in 1992 organized the city’s first gay pride parade as a project for a class on community organizing when he was a senior at the University of Maine. He was looking tired Saturday after a late-night legislative session in Augusta but said he was happy to be able to attend the festival.
“Visibility is always the key to making change,” he said. “At this kind of event, there’s a sense of community that brings people together.”
The Bridge Alliance was founded two years ago to do just that, according to Gene Beck, 44, of Bangor who coordinated the festival.
“I thought it went very well and was pretty well-attended given that this is the first time we’ve done it and the fact that we had limited advertising and media coverage before the festival,” Beck said Sunday. “All in all, everyone I talked to who attended said they had a fantastic time.”
Beck estimated that 1,000 to 1,200 people came to events throughout the afternoon and evening. About 40 teenagers attended the youth party, he said, and 200 to 300 people were at the adult dance.
He said the Bridge Alliance plans to make the festival an annual event.
The organization grew out of Northern Maine Pride, which was formed to continue the gay pride parade after Martin earned his degree.
One of the goals of the young organization is to have allies, or straight people such as Beck and his wife, Karen Foley, 44, of Bangor work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“We want discrimination against gays to end,” Beck said Saturday afternoon. “We want everybody to get along and live in harmony.”
“None of us are free until all of us are free,” Foley added.
Moriah Estabrook, 17, of Hancock and Leila Saad, 17, of Steuben belong to the Gay Straight Alliance at Sumner Memorial High School. They drove more than an hour to attend the festival.
“An event like this opens people up to the ideas of different perspectives,” Estabrook said when asked why she and her classmate came to Bangor for the event.
“Besides, this is the most important civil rights movement of our generation,” Saad added.
Estabrook finished that thought.
“To be a part of it is just really cool.”