BANGOR — Though it happened 25 years ago, the death of a young gay man named Charlie Howard continues to reverberate.
Howard’s July 7, 1984, death at the hands of three Bangor teenagers arguably was one of Bangor’s most infamous hate crimes. The events that led to his death and the aftermath were the focus of a vespers service Tuesday night at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Park Street, which was followed by the dedication of a monument near the State Street Bridge.
The monument there consists of a gray granite bench and a rectangular slab upon which a stone flower urn sits. It overlooks the spot where Howard drowned after he was chased, beaten and thrown into the Kenduskeag Stream because he was gay.
Though Howard’s mother was unable to attend the dedication, she asked that a simple floral arrangement — a white rose, baby’s breath and greenery tied together with a length of lavender ribbon — be among the flowers tossed into the stream at the event’s end.
Led by The Rev. Sue Davies of the Bangor Theological Seminary, Tuesday’s prayer service and dedication ceremony marked the start of nearly a week’s worth of commemorative activities that have been two years in the making, according to organizers.
“To my way of thinking, our recognition of the 25th anniversary of Charlie Howard’s death is important because it allows us to look back and look ahead at the same time — even as we stand in our present,” the Rev. Mark Doty of the Hammond Street Church said
The service drew at least 130 people, gay, straight, young and old.
Among them was a 40-year-old Columbus, Ohio, man, who took a Greyhound bus to Bangor this week so he could attend Tuesday’s events.
“I’ve been reading about Charlie Howard for many years, actually,” said Robbie Yahn.
“I thought, I’m going to come all the way out here because I care about what happened,” he said, adding that he arrived in Bangor about an hour before the prayer service began and planned to leave today in order to make it back to work on Saturday, when his week-long vacation ends. Yahn was warmly welcomed by those in attendance, including City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer, who shook his hand and welcomed him to Bangor, which proclaimed Tuesday as Diversity Day.
During the service, Doty, one of several area clergy who participated in the service, said he was tapped to lead the Bangor United Church of Christ congregation eight years ago after being forced to resign his position at a south Texas church after he was outed.
Doty is among those who say it is important to remember what transpired here 25 years ago.
“Bangor 25 years ago is not the Bangor of today and thank God for it,” he said.
“Charlie Howard Remembered gives us kind of a measure stick to compare life on a dark day in Bangor 25 years ago” to life here today, he said.
“When you and I do that, we can see that attitudes in Maine are changing,” he said. The state now has a law aimed at preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The state also has enacted a law legalizing same-sex marriage, though the law is being challenged via the citizen initiation petition process.
Despite those advances, however, Doty noted that to be a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person) in American society in 2009 “is to know that homophobia has not ended,” he said.
The fact is, he said, that members of the GLBT community continue to receive hateful telephone calls and lose their jobs. Sometimes they are forced to move, he said. Meanwhile, gay youths continue to endure bullying and teasing.
Deborah Carney of Milford, who was a student at Bangor Theological Seminary the summer Charlie Howard was murdered, presented an address titled, “Who was Charlie Howard?” She recalled the 23-year-old Portsmouth, N.H. native as an openly gay young man who was not ashamed of who he was and not afraid to express it, which she said drew some to him and repulsed others.
“But none of us could have imaged that such a senseless action could happen here in Bangor, Maine,” she said. “Charlie is not a martyr. He did not die for a cause. He was a victim of hate, bigotry and complacency. He was the object of ridicule and people turned the other way from the constant teasing” Howard endured.
“Dying for a cause is one thing. Dying because you were walking down the street with a friend at night is a totally different issue,” she said.
“We need to make sure that this kind of senseless act never happens again in Bangor, Maine, or anywhere else in this country or in the world,” Carney said, urging those in attendance to “unite so we can be a force to be reckoned with by those who are misinformed, by those who don’t understand and those who think they have power and want to keep things the way they are.”