PORTLAND, Maine — When Betsy Smith closes her eyes, she easily can conjure up election night in 2012. It was the culmination of years of work, setbacks and hope for the longtime Equality Maine leader and gay rights activist who is stepping down after 14 years on the job.
The 53-year-old Portland resident spent that night at the Holiday Inn By The Bay in Portland, bouncing between the ballroom, where 1,000 people were anxiously awaiting the results of the same-sex marriage ballot initiative, and an upstairs room serving as campaign headquarters.
“When we decided we really had won this and we were going to call it, we went downstairs and made our way to the stage. People had their arms up. People were screaming, making so much noise. Everybody was cheering,” Smith said this week. “I took a mental picture of it. I can still see it today. I am never going to forget this. It really was the culminating highlight of my time at Equality Maine.”
Ali Vander Zanden, a current staff member of the state’s oldest, largest advocacy group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, will step in as interim director while the organization searches for a new executive director.
Smith’s shoes will be hard to fill, many said, including Shenna Bellows, the executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. During the last 30 years — and certainly over Smith’s tenure at Equality Maine — there has been a sea change for the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“I think she’s remarkable,” Bellows said Friday. “Betsy has led a transformation in Maine for LGBT equality over the last decade. She has passion and determination, and she saw from the very beginning, before most people did, that the freedom to marry was possible in Maine. She had a focus and a determination and a vision about what was possible in terms of freedom to marry that carried us through seven long years of planning and execution to finally achieve marriage equality.”
Although seven years seems like a long time to fight for same-sex marriage, Smith and others said that it’s necessary to look at the effort as part of a longer civil rights campaign. Just 30 years ago people in Maine usually didn’t even acknowledge there was a gay community at all, said state Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who served three terms as Cumberland County sheriff.
“People led a double life. They felt compelled to hide themselves from the rest of us,” he said, adding that when they were victims of crimes, they felt many pressures to not seek justice.
Back then, people had no recourse against hate crimes because of sexual orientation, he said. There were no adoptive rights for same-sex couples and no rights recourse against getting fired from a job or evicted from an apartment because of their sexual orientation. And of course, there was no same-sex marriage.
“Betsy helped change the landscape for the entire state,” Dion said. “There were times I didn’t envy her. She had to build a coalition, and keep focused on the strategy to win over one person or one family at a time, to acknowledge that everyone deserves to be treated like everybody else.”
He said that Smith’s true reward for years of labor is that Maine children can grow up knowing that they’ll be valued for who they are and won’t face legal discrimination because of sexual orientation.
“Those kids won’t even know — and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “People like Betsy Smith don’t do it for the accolades. They do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Smith said that her career as an activist really began after she went to graduate school in the late 1980s, and that Equality Maine really cut its teeth on the 1995 “Maine Won’t Discriminate” ballot measure. That successful measure was part of a long effort to amend the Human Rights Act to include same-sex discrimination. Work began on that in 1977 and didn’t succeed until 2005, and included a gubernatorial veto and a people’s veto before the amendment ultimately passed. She described the work as “two steps forward and one step back.”
“It’s a civil rights movement, and civil rights movements are long, long-term efforts that build,” Smith said. “We knew we had to keep going … for some younger people who weren’t around earlier or people who just moved to Maine, the marriage effort felt long. But for those of us who were here before, we won marriage exceedingly fast.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage and same-sex rights have changed over the years but will never go away, Smith said, meaning that gay rights activists must remain vigilant. In July, Carroll Conley Jr., executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said that his organization fundamentally does not believe in redefinitions of marriage and gender.
“We believe it is important to respectfully advocate for traditional family values,” he said.
However, time is on the side of gay-rights advocates, Smith said.
“It’s a generational issue. More and more young people don’t see the big deal,” she said. “It’s about people loving each other. What does it matter if it’s a man and a woman, two women, people of color? It’s love.”