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Ryan Fecteau is the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
I came out to my close friends during my senior year at Biddeford High. It would take another two years for me to come out to my family. I would gear up to do it and then get flustered by all the disastrous scenarios I imagined. Finally, I knew it was time. I was terrified, but after, I felt immense relief.
At the time, I was in college at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., advocating for our LGBTQ student group to be officially recognized. It had been operating underground ever since the university removed its official status at the turn of the century. I developed a good relationship with a school administrator who showed real interest in making our campus more welcoming for LGBTQ students.
However, on a day that I will never forget, this adult I had come to trust questioned whether I had a life outside of being gay and suggested I consider reading a book written by a self-proclaimed “ex-gay” author. I looked up the title. It was about the benefits of conversion therapy. My heart sank as I realized he was suggesting a so-called “therapy” I knew to be harmful.
It was painful for someone who knew me to suggest I needed to be fixed. I was confident and proud. I was someone my peers turned to as a leader. But this shook my confidence. For the first time in my life, I experienced suicidal ideation.
Thanks to my friends, family and the chosen family I met through activism, I was surrounded by love not bound to any one political party, ideology, or creed. They showed me that people from all walks of life were in the fight for fair treatment for LGBTQ people. I persevered through the difficult time and, in part, the experience inspired me to run for office. I ran to represent my neighbors in my hometown of Biddeford, determined to make sure no Mainer would face the abuse prescribed by so-called conversion therapy.
I knocked on thousands of doors, listened to voters about what they wanted to see from their elected leaders, and I won.
During my first terms in the Legislature, Paul LePage was governor. Young people were leaving our state for better opportunities elsewhere. Maine needed a leader with a vision for building a more diversified economy; someone willing to fight for investments in infrastructure like broadband and workforce housing. LePage proved to be a divider rather than a leader. He sought to dismantle government and bring its functions to a halt, rather than do the hard work of creating solutions to make our state a better place to live, work and raise a family.
To make Maine a safer place for LGBTQ youth, I worked on a bill to ban the harmful practice of so-called conversion therapy on LGBTQ children. I’ll never forget the moment it passed in the House and Senate with bipartisan support. But we hit a dead end when the bill reached LePage.
Though Republican and Democratic governors were signing similar bills into law in other states, including New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, LePage chose to veto the ban, making him the first governor to veto such legislation in the United States.
Since he’s been out of office, Maine has turned a corner on LGBTQ rights.
Under Gov. Janet Mills’ leadership, we’ve finally banned so-called conversion therapy, making Maine the 17th state to do so. I have a photo of that bill signing over my desk. It remains the proudest moment during my time in office.
We celebrate National Coming Out Day this week. Many of us come out again and again in our lives. Along with my colleagues in the Legislature, I share a responsibility to ensure all LGBTQ Mainers can be proud to be true to themselves. We cannot go back to the days of LePage who consistently blocked advancement of LGBTQ equality. Maine deserves better than intolerance. LGBTQ people deserve better.
Coming out can be scary, but it is so worth it. When you’re ready, state leaders like me, Senate President Troy Jackson, and Gov. Mills are here for you, no matter who might not be.