For David Burke, growing up gay in Calais, Maine, meant never being able to be himself. To be gay decades ago in rural Maine was to endure hateful slurs. For Burke, a disabled U.S. Army veteran, that meant being isolated and uncomfortable.
“They used to make fun of me and call me gay just because of the way I looked,” said Burke, who did not come out as a gay man until many years later.
Within 30 days of his high school graduation, he joined the army. When he left the army after seven years, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he lived for 16 years before moving back to Maine in 2009.
Today, Maine is a more accepting place than it was, but Burke said members of the LGBTQ+ community still often find themselves isolated, especially in rural areas.
To help bridge that gap, Burke, a former programmer/analyst in the U.S. Army, designed OutInMaine.com, a website that helps members of the LGBTQ+ community find the people and resources that can help them feel comfortable being themselves.
“My goal from day one has been to bring the resources to the community and the community together,” said Burke.
The website launches January 1, 2019, and will include both a social calendar and a resource guide. The five categories of resources in the guide are “businesses,” “churches,” “schools,” “support organizations,” and “social groups.”
Businesses and organizations can add their information and events to the calendar now by visiting OutInMaine.com.
Beginning in January, users will be able to browse through upcoming events by date, category, location, and more. The service offers no and low-cost advertising to businesses and organizations and is free to website visitors.
The idea is to help people in a rural state find people they can talk to and to identify events and businesses where they will be accepted and comfortable.
Burke said the site is not just for the LGBTQ+ community. It is also for people who are supportive of the gay community but may not be gay themselves.
“It really is for the community. I want people…to feel comfortable in the state of Maine.”
Feeling safe and supported can be especially critical for young LGBTQ+ people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lesbian, bisexual, or gay young people were more than four times more likely to have attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to heterosexual youth.
While Maine has changed since his days as a teenager, Burke said it can still be an uncomfortable place for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Recently, when he was stopped at a stop sign, an older man in a pickup apparently noticed the “OutinMaine” sign on the outside of Burke’s vehicle and started yelling at him.
Burke waved and wished the man a good day before driving away.
In cities like Bangor and Portland, gay organizations are more prominent and young people are more comfortable being out, but he said people from Bangor are sometimes unaware of the resources in Portland and vice versa. Burke said he hopes the website will help resources in different parts of the state build connections to each other.
In rural areas where there is more stigma toward being gay and where organizations supportive of the gay community are fewer and farther between, a resource that can help LGBTQ+ people find the connections they need to feel supported and accepted is especially important.
“You need someone to validate your feelings,” said Burke.
This June, while researching the need for a way to connect people, Burke went to five Gay Pride events and received feedback from more than 800 people who answered surveys.
The results were uniformly positive.
Burke said men who were in their 50s and 60s and just coming out approached him and talked about the need for a site that helps people connect.
In addition to social events, the calendar will include phone numbers for support groups and churches who are accepting of the gay community.
Businesses that list on the site will get free advertising, including for listed special events or sales.
Burke said he will also reach out to gay tourism websites and the Maine Department of Tourism to connect with gay people from other areas who are in Maine on vacation.
The more people and businesses who use the resource, the more useful it will be. Burke said he would love to have 500 or more businesses on the site because that would send a powerful message that Maine is accepting.
Burke’s vision for the future is to expand OutInMaine to the other New England states, forming sister companies with their own “OutIn…” under a new umbrella company called “OutInNewEngland,” with each of these states having their own active social calendar.