MEDWAY, Maine — When waitress Nikki York came to work at The Aerie on Monday morning, she found — for the first time in her five years working there — the pilot burner on the restaurant’s grill wouldn’t stay lit.
But that small surprise was nothing, she said, compared with her shock at the front-page news of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud’s announcement that he is gay.
“Oh my God!” York said, her eyes wide and right hand clapped over her open mouth as she stared at the Bangor Daily News.
She immediately walked across the otherwise empty dining room to her customers, retired millworkers Dick Waceken and Carla Boutaugh, who were doing all they could do in the temporarily ovenless eatery — drinking coffee.
“Guys,” she said, “did you see this?”
York’s response mirrored that of many Katahdin region residents interviewed Monday. Many said they had always known or had heard that the politician is gay, but many were surprised that he felt compelled to announce it.
It was, apparently, a sort of public secret: Something respected with silence or tact, at least publicly.
“I am glad that he finally did” come out, York said. “It’s not right that he can’t be who he is. I am glad that he doesn’t have to hold it back any more.”
Clint Linscott, chairman of East Millinocket’s Board of Selectmen, said he has known Michaud all his life and that Michaud has “not ever led a double life.”
“He’s never lied about it,” Linscott said of Michaud’s homosexuality. “He’s just not public about it.”
Word usually travels fast in East Millinocket, and several workers ending the overnight shift the new Great Northern Paper Co. LLC mill, where Michaud once worked, seemed almost indifferent to the news.
“It really does not matter to me one way or the other. I am not biased,” said Paul Robbins, a foreman at FASTCO Corp. of Lincoln who was on his way into the mill to oversee portions of the mill’s efforts to convert to natural-gas burners.
“I think it’s all politics,” said another millworker, this one on his way out for the day. The man, who declined to identify himself, said he didn’t like Michaud’s politics, describing Michaud as anti-mill and saying that Michaud “doesn’t do anything” for millworkers.
But he doubted that the announcement would have much effect on the gubernatorial race.
“People respect privacy around here,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used.
At the nearby Big Apple diner, responses to questions about Mike Michaud’s announcement were polite but sparse. People seemed to be still digesting the news. Some read with frowns on their faces.
Joey Muncey, a 25-year-old unemployed store clerk, said he was sure that some people would judge Michaud more harshly for being homosexual.
“People should not, but there are some people who do,” he said. “Maybe less people would trust him, but that’s unfair.”
The Rev. Joel Cyr, pastor of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in East Millinocket, said he knew Michaud because Michaud usually attends Mass when he is in town. Like many politicians, Michaud attends church fundraisers and funerals regularly, he said.
According to the Roman Catholic church, homosexuality, like heterosexuality and bisexuality, is not inherently a sin, but the sexual acts of homosexuality are, Cyr said.
Cyr said Michaud’s disclosure “does not change my opinion of his personhood. If I would vote for him, it would not be based on his homosexuality, but on his character,” which Cyr described as generous.
Cyr said he never discusses who he votes for.
A 70-year-old retiree from the Millinocket paper mill, Dick Waceken, drinking coffee at The Aerie, said that he respected the Michaud family as hard workers, first and foremost. Michaud’s homosexuality, while known — “if somebody’s gay, it gets around fast” — never mattered much.
“We all knew Mike was gay,” Waceken said. “They still voted for him because he is from the area. And he’s an honest man.”
“I think I am anti-gay,” Waceken added, “I think women should be with men and men should be with women, but I am still going to vote for Mike” despite, he said, having voted for Gov. Paul LePage in the last election.
LePage, he said, “fights with everybody. He fought with the unions, he fought with the Indians. Every time you turn around he’s in a fight with someone. LePage fumes and fumes and fumes but I don’t think he’s done very much.”
Michaud’s handling of his homosexuality mirrors many people Michaud’s age, Linscott said.
“He grew up in a day and age where you were condemned for being gay,” Linscott said, “so he just didn’t flaunt it. It’s his own business.”