BANGOR, Maine — Bangor was a scary place for gays three decades ago. But the death of Charlie Howard, a gay man killed by three local boys, opened people’s eyes to the abuse that was happening, and things started to change, the Rev. Bill Walsh said Sunday.
“I remember walking the streets here in Bangor and not feeling safe,” recalled Walsh, who is gay, while standing on the State Street bridge where Howard was killed. “I’m here to remember Charlie and remember the fear that is still there, just underneath the skin, 30 years later.”
Walsh, who is the pastor of the Hampden Congregational United Church of Christ, joined about 35 members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor who marched from the Park Street church to the downtown bridge over the Kenduskeag Stream where Howard was thrown to his death on July 7, 1984.
Local boys James Baines, 15, Shawn Mabry, 16, and Daniel Ness 17, who are now ages 45, 46 and 47, respectively, had been drinking and were out on a beer run when they spotted Howard and his friend Roy Ogden walking downtown. Howard tripped, and the three boys caught and beat him. Then the three threw Howard off the bridge, prying his fingers from the ledge to do so, after Howard told them he couldn’t swim.
Ogden ran up the street and pulled the fire alarm at the corner of State and Exchange streets, but rescue crews arrived too late. Divers pulled Howard’s body from the stream several hours later. His autopsy showed that he drowned while having an asthma attack.
“We still have ignorance and intolerance, which is a breeder for this type of action,” said worship associate Laurie Cartier from the pulpit during the service.
Howard was a member of the Unitarian Church that merged in 1995 with the Universalist Church on Park Street. The UU church has “pledged to never forget,” Cartier said.
A special service is held every year around the anniversary of Howard’s death that focuses on “issues we know he would have been involved with — respect, bullying, transgender [rights],” Cartier said after the service.
This year the group talked about creating a restorative justice project, designed to help reconnect wronged individuals with their communities.
Many in the group sang songs as they made their way to the spot of Howard’s death. Church member Lee Giles dropped a symbolic white flower into the water, a request made at the first anniversary of his death by Howard’s mother, who has vowed never to return to Bangor.
“I was here at that time and remember the church turned out the night after he was killed,” said Giles, a Veazie resident. “Everybody came out. We had parents with kids in strollers and a large segment of the gay community. And we gathered and walked down here and then to the police station by candlelight — silently.”
The Bangor Area Gay, Lesbian, Straight Coalition was started shortly afterward, she said.
“We divided up into committees to deal with what needed to be done — some covered the trial, some worked with the schools,” Giles said. “Something had to be done, so we did something. It was a little dangerous. It was like lancing a boil, but it got it out into public awareness.”
A survey of students was done and “they found out gay-bashing was a common Saturday night event if you were bored,” she said. “None of us had any idea.”
The boys who committed the crime said they did not intend to kill Howard, but just wanted to beat up a “faggot,” which is something they said they had done before.
All three were charged with murder on July 9, 1984, and all three pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Oct. 1, 1984, and were sentenced to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland for an indeterminate stay not to exceed their 21st birthdays.
One of the first positive things to happen after Howard’s death was in the schools, Giles said. Two public hearings were held about enacting 10 new school rules regarding bullying, and the school board voted them into place.
“It was a courageous stand on the part of the school department,” Giles said.
Since then, there have been major changes in gay rights, including added legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transexuals under an amendment to the Maine Human Rights Act, legalization of same-sex marriage in Maine — the first state in the nation to do so by voter referendum — and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
And Bangor recently designated July 7 as “Tolerance Day,” in Howard’s memory.
Those are great steps, but there is always room for improvement, Walsh said.
Walsh said he now lives in downtown Bangor, and much of the fear about being hurt because of his sexual orientation has left him — but not all of it.
“There are moments,” he said. “But that fear is what drives me to bring that message of love and inclusion to people.”
A previous version of this story erroneously said Rev. Bill Walsh was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. Walsh joined in the march, but is not a member.