Thirty years ago the stage was set for Bangor to witness the tragic end of Charlie Howard’s life, a man who was thrown off the State Street bridge because he chose not to live a lie and hide the fact he was gay. He defied an uncomfortable and fearful community, and was killed for it.
Bangor has changed in the 30 years since Charlie’s death. The turnout for the recent Pride Week and the flying of rainbow flags are small examples of how far the city has come since that hate crime on July 7, 1984.
City Council Chairman Ben Sprague announced recently that July 7 will be celebrated as “Tolerance Day” in Charlie’s memory.
For years, broad acceptance was elusive. Members of Maine’s LGBT community recall the fear and uncertainty that marked their lives because the community in which they lived wouldn’t accept them.
LGBT Mainers lived in the dark out of fear of the repercussions they would face in public, at work and home.
Time has brought some healing to Maine. In 2005, legal protection was finally extended to LGBT Mainers under an amendment to the Maine Human Rights Act, after a decade-long struggle.
Then in 2012, Maine became the first state in the nation to approve same-sex marriage by voter referendum, not, of course, without a fight.
Now Maine Sen. Susan Collins has become one of four Republican senators to give vocal support to gay marriage. Previously, she along with a group of legislators, voted to extend federal protection against discrimination in the workplace to LGBT Americans.
Maine has made major progress toward guaranteeing equal rights for the LGBT community in the 30 years since Charlie’s death. But while protections have advanced through the work of state and federal lawmakers, the law can do little to change hearts full of hate and fear.
According to statistics kept by the Maine Department of Public Safety, LGBT Mainers remain a target of hate crimes. Hate crimes committed against LGBT residents are second only to hate crimes committed from a racial bias.
Since 1995, an average of 22 Mainers per year have become targets for assault, harassment, intimidation or vandalism because of a bias against the LGBT community and report the crime to police.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice found only 35 percent of hate crimes were reported between 2007 and 2011, down from years prior.
Homophobia often begins in the schoolyard, and its effects are pronounced. A 2011 study conducted by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network revealed that 85 percent of LGBT students reported hearing pejorative uses of “gay,” while 70 percent reported hearing harsher epithets daily.
The study found 64 percent of students reported feeling unsafe at school, and, ultimately, their academic achievement and hopes declined.
As a result, LGBT students suffer from poor psychological well-being and, according to a Muskie School report, they are more likely to become suicidal.
Mainers like Charlie are parishioners and clergy, business owners and workers, politicians and voters, and neighbors and family. They deserve more than mere tolerance; they deserve acceptance and the freedom to live openly.