BANGOR, Maine ― It was her 52nd birthday, but Alice Nadeau was at the Bangor Pride Festival celebrating her 20-year-old son, Sean West, on Saturday.
Nadeau waved a “My Son is Gay!” sign as the parade honoring Maine’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and their allies marched past them near Main Street.
The 6-foot-11 West came out two years ago, Nadeau said, and they attended the parade to celebrate his decision as well as others’.
“I am proud of my son,” Nadeau said Saturday. “You hear stories about parents not supporting their children’s decisions, but I am not one of them.”
“To me this means a lot because I am out to celebrate with my fellow gay community members,” West said. “This is the first event like this that I’ve come to, and to see so many people out here being supportive is just great.”
About 150 people marched in the parade, which formed at the Bangor Waterfront and ended at Pickering Square, the scene of a daylong celebration with live bands, booths, food and art exhibitions.
The annual festival continued Saturday night into early Sunday morning with the Bangor Pride After Party at Tantrum nightclub on Broad Street.
The five-day festival featured an outreach event for LGBT seniors, a lesbian short-film festival, the event’s first LGBTQ choir and an art walk. It ended Sunday with an Organic Dance at the Bangor YMCA and several Welcoming Pride services at various churches around the area, organizers said.
The event caps what was a pretty good week for gay marriage activists.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, indicated publicly her support of gay marriage Wednesday. Her spokesman said the senator hasn’t spoken publicly on the issue previously because she believes voters of each state should decide whether to support marriage equality.
Collins is the fourth U.S. Senate Republican to publicly affirm marriage equality. Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska preceded her.
Also Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 that Utah had no right to ban gay marriage. The court placed its ruling on hold pending expected legal challenges. Challenges continue in Florida, Indiana and Louisiana, where the gay marriage remains banned.
Glendon Yule of Holden applauded Collins’ decision.
“I think that if there were more socially liberal Republicans around, maybe they would not have such a bad rap,” Yule said. “I think they get a bad rap because of their social conservatism.”
Karl McDougal of Bangor said he thought Collins’ support was another sign of the erosion of the anti-gay marriage movement. More churches and religious organizations are opening themselves to gay, lesbian and transgender people, he said.
“It’s a great turning point for her,” Jason Richardson of Bangor said. “I know that a lot of Republicans do not support the gay community. I am not sure what effect it will have. I am hopeful that [Collins' public declaration of support] will be contagious among Republicans.”
Kristen Michelle Brown of Orono, who held hands with girlfriend Sarah Brasslett as they walked in the parade, said Collins’ stance represented “more of an evolution than a revolution” among leaders and regular folks.
“I think that more and more politicians are realizing that [gay marriage] is a matter of equality,” the 33-year-old Brown said.
Several participants saw the festival as a sign of Bangor’s acceptance of them.
“It’s like a gathering of family,” said 35-year-old T.J. Bissell of Belmont, who is gay. “I have spent so much of my life hiding. This is really awesome.”
“I have been really impressed with how many members of the community have come out in support of this event,” Brown said. “This is not a huge turnout, but it is support of the many changes that have occurred over time.”
Bangor’s transition to a more open community has been marked by tragedy. Charlie Howard, a 23-year-old openly gay man, was thrown to his death off State Street bridge by three teens after they accosted him July 7, 1984. A memorial to his death was dedicated in 2009.
Bangor City Council Chairman Ben Sprague told Howard’s story during a speech he gave about 45 minutes after Saturday’s parade and announced a City Council proclamation naming July 7 Tolerance Day in Bangor. He said he wanted to remind younger residents of the tragedy and illustrate how much Bangor has changed.
“Bangor has come a long way in the last 30 years,” Sprague said. “I like to think we have become the kind of community that Charlie Howard would feel comfortable in.”
Sprague, Sen. Emily Cain of Orono, a 2nd U.S. Congressional District candidate, and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows gave speeches in support of Pride Day. City Councilors Josh Plourde and Gibran Graham were among the political leaders who attended.
“It is so wonderful to celebrate the pride in Bangor,” Cain said she told the crowd.
Bangor’s City Council has held to a relatively progressive stance consistently over the past several years, Sprague said. Besides supporting Pride Day, councilors issued an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 supporting the overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act, he said.
But several prejudices continue to linger. West said several of the friends he lost threatened him physically when he told them of his orientation, which contributed to him spiraling into depression. Several other friends came out as gay and had similar experiences, he said.
McDougal didn’t suffer any ostracism, he said, thanks to Nokomis Regional High School having a very strong gay-straight alliance group.
“In high school, I never had to come out,” McDougal said. “It was just accepted.”
A friend of Bissell’s, who accompanied him to the festival, said she didn’t want to give her name because she feared the knowledge of her attending the festival might threaten her job at a local bank.
“I should have brought my son,” she said. “He is 5 years old.”
“I think events like this are very necessary in our area,” said Yule, 33, who is vice president of the Bangor Community Chorus. “They provide a format for issues that need to be brought to [public] attention.”
BDN writers Dawn Gagnon and Mario Moretto contributed to this report.