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Maine Dems intensify same-sex marriage advocacy at Portland fundraiser

Posted June 10, 2012, at 5:25 p.m.
Last modified June 10, 2012, at 6:04 p.m.
More than 100 people turned out in Portland on Sunday, June 10, 2012, for the fifth annual Maine Dems Have Pride celebration.
More than 100 people turned out in Portland on Sunday, June 10, 2012, for the fifth annual Maine Dems Have Pride celebration. Buy Photo
Ira Bittues (left) and Tom Reynolds of Lewiston were honored Sunday, June 10, 2012, with the Maine Democratic Party's &quotPartner in Pride Award" for their work to promote equality in Maine.
Ira Bittues (left) and Tom Reynolds of Lewiston were honored Sunday, June 10, 2012, with the Maine Democratic Party's "Partner in Pride Award" for their work to promote equality in Maine. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The feeling that public opinion is swinging their way permeated an event Sunday where Democrats and gay rights advocates gathered to support a marriage equality referendum question that will face Maine voters in November.

Gay couples in Maine have been close to having marriage rights in Maine before — the Legislature approved them in 2009, only to have the law repealed in a citizen-initiated referendum later that year — but this time things are different, according to Sarah Holmes and Anna Schwartz, a couple from Portland. The repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” guideline in the military and President Barack Obama’s declaration that he now supports marriage equality are two examples of growing support for the gay community, but Holmes and Schwartz said they can also see it in their day-to-day lives.

“I think hearts and minds are slowly changing,” said Holmes. “More Maine people and people across the country are starting to realize it’s not a threat to anybody.”

Sunday’s 5th annual Maine Dems Have Pride celebration at Restaurant Grace in downtown Portland attracted well more than 100 people who paid at least $35 each for the brunch event. Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said the proceeds would support the party’s operations, including advocacy for the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum.

Maine Democrats used the event to release a short “It Gets Better” video aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth who are struggling with thoughts of depression or suicide. The It Gets Better Project, which was created in 2010 by author Dan Savage, has become a worldwide movement that has resulted in the production of more than 50,000 videos that have been viewed online more than 50 million times. Grant said the Maine Democratic Party’s submission is only the second that has ever been produced by a state political party.

“[The video has] a great message, especially for young people who are feeling bullied or alone, to show them that they have support and to give them a couple of resources to turn to if they think they are in need,” said Grant. “Every year there’s more and more enthusiasm for expanding the rights of gay people and the Democratic Party stands shoulder to shoulder with that effort.”

The video suggested that anyone suffering abuse or loneliness because they are gay contact the Trevor Project by calling 866-488-7386, or by visiting www.trevorproject.org.

With the referendum still months away, the groundwork is being laid for another intense campaign, though a political action committee called Mainers United for Marriage has raised far more money than Protect Marriage Maine, which leads the opposition. The Bangor Daily News reported earlier this month that the pro-gay marriage group far outpaced Protect Marriage Maine in early fundraising efforts, tallying $359,000 compared with about $10,000.

Carroll Conley of Protect Maine Marriage has said that fundraising for the opposition would begin in earnest on Father’s Day weekend when more than 150 Maine churches will take special collections for the campaign.

“We know from the last campaign that we aren’t going to be able to raise as much money as the other side will,” he said, according to the BDN’s archives. “If we are able to raise $1 million in this state, that would be tremendous.”

The Maine Democrats also named Tom Reynolds and Ira Bittues of Lewiston the 2012 Partner in Pride Award recipients. Reynolds and Bittues, who are a couple, are active in the state party, the Androscoggin County Dems and Equality Maine.

“A lot of people have done just as much as work as we have and also deserve this award,” said Reynolds. “We’re slowly changing hearts and minds. It’s about people realizing that marriage for same-sex couple is the same as it is for everyone else. It’s not a special right.”

Other nominees for this year’s award were Elizabeth Allen, a field organizer for Equality Maine; Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono; Lis Clark, leader of a group called “Out As I Want To Be”; Democratic activist Jesse Connolly; Equality Maine board member Timothy Diehl; gay rights activist in Maine and North Carolina Jeremy Kennedy; MaKayla Reed, a volunteer for the Hancock County Democrats and Equality Maine; and Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.

Among the featured speakers at Sunday’s rally was U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who praised President Barack Obama for his historic announcement in support of gay marriage earlier this year — which marked the first time a sitting U.S. president has done so.

“There’s probably no more important thing that we do this year to advance the cause of equality than to elect pro-equality legislators,” she said.

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