BANGOR, Maine — Twenty-five years ago today Charles O. Howard, 23, was attacked by three teenage boys, tossed into the Kenduskeag Stream off the State Street bridge and, despite his cries that he could not swim, left to drown.
Since then, the name Charlie Howard has stirred emotions and spurred political change in Bangor and beyond. The New Hampshire native, who was killed because he was openly gay, will be remembered this week in a series of events that include religious services, concerts, workshops and the dedication of a memorial near the dark water where he drowned.
The Legislature this year passed and the governor signed a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry. The implementation of the law has been stayed pending the outcome of a people’s veto effort to repeal it.
Politicians, activists and clergy contacted for this article were reluctant to link Howard’s legacy — whatever it may be — to same-sex marriage. But the current wrangling over the issue, some said, shows how far the state has come in the past 25 years and how far it still has to go toward equality.
Howard and a companion, Roy Ogden, both of Bangor, were walking on State Street near the Kenduskeag Stream shortly before 10:30 p.m. Saturday, July 7, 1984. Three teenage boys left their car and assaulted Howard.
The three boys chased Howard, kicked him when he fell, then threw him over the rail into the stream, according to police. The teenagers returned to their car and left. Ogden pulled the firebox alarm at the corner of State and Exchange streets.
Howard’s body was recovered about 12:10 a.m. Sunday in about 3 feet of water south of the State Street Bridge. The autopsy found that he died as a result of drowning with an acute asthma attack as a contributing factor.
On July 9, 1984, Daniel Ness, 17, Shawn I. Mabry, 16, and James Francis Baines, 15, all of Bangor, were charged with murder. After spending a night in jail, they were released to their parents. That night, more than 200 people attended a vigil for Howard.
Ness, Mabry and Baines pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Oct. 1, 1984, two weeks after District Court Judge David Cox ruled they should be tried as juveniles and not as adults. They were sentenced to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland for an indeterminate stay not to exceed their 21st birthdays.
Ann Phibbs, a member of the Bangor Area Gay, Lesbian, Straight Coalition, said at the time that the group was “shocked and outraged at the lenient and irresponsible prosecution of the Charles Howard homicide. To allow the three individuals to be treated as juveniles instead of adults and to plea-bargain from murder to manslaughter lessens the severity of the crime and may fail to act as a deterrent.”
Gov. John Baldacci was serving his second term in the state Senate and working in the family restaurant in Bangor when Howard was killed.
“If you were living in Bangor in 1984, you could never forget Charlie Howard’s death,” he said in a recent e-mail. “I didn’t know Charlie Howard, but his death had a profound impact on the entire community.”
It also focused national attention on Bangor and Maine. A few weeks after Howard died, members of the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco were asked by reporters about Howard rather than the presidential race. The New York Times, Boston Globe and other U.S. newspapers published articles about the case.
“We were outraged and saddened,” Baldacci recalled.
“And the idea that three kids — teenagers — would attack a person, throw him off a bridge and let him die was unbelievable. The brutality of the attack forced Bangor to take a hard look at itself and to begin an honest discussion about gay rights, bigotry and tolerance.”
The Bangor School Committee created a tolerance subcommittee and adopted recommendations by the end of August 1984 that aimed to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation in hiring, to support teachers and staff in their rejection of intolerance, and to develop employee workshops about dealing with homophobia.
“Charlie’s death really affected people,” Baldacci said in his e-mail. “I think we came to a conclusion as a city and as a state that what happened to him should never, ever happen to anyone. Not in Bangor, Maine, or anywhere else.”
The Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, now called EqualityMaine, was founded shortly after Howard’s death. Efforts spearheaded by the statewide organization and other groups, such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union, led to the amending of the Maine Civil Rights Act, also known as the “hate crimes statute,” in the early 1990s to add “sexual orientation.”
The law now makes it illegal for any person to interfere with another’s right to engage in lawful activities through violence, property damage or threats motivated by bias based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, gender, religion, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
“It was the inclusion of sexual orientation that generated the most controversy,” Thomas Harnett, assistant attorney general for civil rights enforcement and education, said in an e-mail. “The tragic end to Charlie Howard’s life was one of the examples used to demonstrate why sexual orientation had to be included in any meaningful civil rights legislation. The ultimate inclusion of sexual orientation proved to be necessary as roughly one-third of all reported bias-motivated behaviors in Maine have been tied to sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation.”
Of the 72 hate crimes that Maine law enforcement agencies reported to the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 2007, the last year statistics are available, 21 were based on sexual orientation.
The effort to add “sexual orientation” to the Maine Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, credit and accommodation, proved to be more controversial and more difficult. The Legislature had defeated bills twice before Howard’s death. Every two years, a bill was introduced, but it was not until 1997 that the legislation passed both the House and the Senate and was signed into law.
It was repealed the next year in a close referendum vote. “Sexual orientation” finally was added in 2004 to the Maine Human Rights Act in a statewide referendum vote. Another effort to repeal the state law was rejected by voters in 2005. Between 1998 and 2004, several municipalities, including Bangor and Bar Harbor, passed local civil rights ordinances.
The Civil Rights Teams program was created in 1996 by the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The program helps train student groups to speak out against bullying and intolerance in elementary, middle and high schools, according to Harnett, who directs the program. During the 2008-09 school year teams were active in more than 200 schools, including those in Bangor, he said.
“During these team meetings Charlie Howard’s death is very often discussed to underscore the extent to which hateful thoughts and words can escalate into irremediable violence,” Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said in a recent e-mail. “His story hits home with students of all ages, particularly because of the age of the participants and the fact that all people involved were young and that this horrible event happened right here in Maine.”
The faith community
Howard worshipped at the Unitarian Church, now the Brick Church at the corner of Union and First streets in Bangor. His faith community has been vigilant in keeping his memory alive.
The Rev. Richard Forcier was a student at Bangor Theological Seminary and serving as the part-time minister at the church when Howard was killed.
Forcier, now 55, of Barre, Vt., will return Sunday to Bangor to conduct a memorial service as he has several times over the past 25 years.
“The experience as a student minister profoundly shaped my religious convictions,” Forcier said at last year’s service. “They were a little on the shaky side before that.”
The minister said that those convictions included “keeping in mind the larger vision that God is calling us to be greater than we are. I didn’t know that back then.”
The Unitarian Church merged in 1995 with the First Universalist Church, 120 Park St. Two events associated with the Unitarian Church — free monthly bean suppers for the community and the annual Howard memorial service — were adopted by the newly formed organization, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor.
“Now we feel it is part of our heritage,” Sue McKay of Bangor, who headed the committee that planned this week’s events, said last week. “I feel very positive about how far we’ve come, but this was Bangor’s moment and how the community dealt with it was not [admirable].”
The Unitarian Church was the only one that held a vigil after Howard’s death, according to McKay. In 1998, just days after Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was slain, vigils were held at churches and on college campuses around the state and across the country.
Most members of the clergy in Maine did not speak publicly about Howard’s killing 25 years ago. This year, a coalition of ministers testified before the Legislature, held press conferences and worked behind the scenes in support of the same-sex marriage law.
“Because religion has long been associated with anti-gay sentiment, people of faith in every tradition must critique and discard those religious teachings, including skewed biblical interpretations, that are oppressive and dehumanizing,” the Rev. Marvin Ellison, professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary, said in an e-mail. “We need to repent of anti-gay ‘preaching’ and practice not in order to be ‘politically correct,’ but in order to be faithful.”
McKay, Ellison, Mills and others were reluctant to connect Howard’s death directly to passage of a same-sex marriage bill this year.
“I think it’s probably kismet,” McKay said, using a word that means fate. “It’s certainly ironic.”
Mills said that the marriage vote in Maine was more likely connected to actions in other states such as Iowa.
“The legacy of the tragic death of Charlie Howard is the ongoing dialogue about hate crimes in general and our efforts here in Maine to teach young people the value of a civil society and the need for all people to feel safe and respected,” she said.
The governor said that as tragic and sudden as it was, Howard’s death set the state and its residents on a path toward greater acceptance and understanding.
“Looking back 25 years,” Baldacci said, “it sometimes feels like progress has been slow, but no one can deny that we have come a long way. Today in Maine, we make sure that every citizen has the full protection of the law and that people are treated fairly and with respect. I’m proud of the people of Maine and their willingness to do the right thing.
“Would Maine be where it is today if Charlie Howard hadn’t been thrown into Kenduskeag Stream and allowed to die? I don’t know,” he concluded. “I’d like to think we could have advanced our thinking without a tragedy like his death. But I also believe the events of July 7, 1984, forced us to confront hate and started us along the path toward becoming a more tolerant and open community.”