Gay rights links, pro and con
Sen. Joel Abromson, R-Portland, and the Maine Human Rights Commission have submitted bills that would expand the state's Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Gay-rights supporters, who have traditionally relied on Democrats, are encouraged by the Republican support they see in Abromson's sponsorhip.
And if the Legislature approves such a bill, Gov. Angus King will sign it, said King's spokesman, Dennis Bailey. In 1993, it was a veto by Gov. John McKernan that killed a gay-rights bill passed by the House and Senate.
''We are in a better position than we have ever been,'' said Karen Geraghty, a lobbyist for the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance. ''It's amazing that so many people care about this issue and are taking a leadership role on both sides of the aisle,'' she said, referring to Democratic and Republican legislators.
Supporters of gay rights in Maine have unsuccessfully sought a state law since the 1970s.
Maine's Human Rights Act now applies on the basis of race, color, sex, disabilities, religion, ancestry or national origin, and age. Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited only in Portland and Long Island, which have local ordinances.
Geraghty and other gay-rights supporters aren't assuming that a bill will pass easily this year.
The fact that the House and Senate passed a gay-rights bill in 1993 is irrelevant four years later, they note, particularly with the high turnover among legislators. This year, for example, 74 legislators - 40 percent of the total - are new.
''This is a whole new batch, so there are Democrats and Republicans who need to be educated about why it's important to have this kind of protection (for gay men and lesbians),'' Geraghty said.
Yet the challenge of winning allies for gay-rights legislation may not be as difficult as the number of freshmen suggests. That is because the notion of gay rights isn't as radical as it seemed in the 1970s, when Maine lawmakers first debated the issue.
''We are finding from national polling we've done that this facet of protection for gay people is considered a mainstream issue,'' said Kim Mills, spokeswoman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors and promotes gay rights in the states and nationally.
The change can be found in the business community. ''There are . . . private employers who've made nondiscrimination on the basis of sex orientation part of their policies,'' said Patricia Ryan, executive director of Maine's Human Rights Commission.
And in 1995, voters statewide indicated that opposition to gay rights has weakened. They defeated a hotly contested ballot question that would have prohibited more categories of people from being protected from discrimination by state law.
Sen. Anne Rand, D-Portland, a gay-rights supporter, said the vote gave an inkling of Mainers' stance on gay rights, and will help gay-rights bills this year. Other proponents are less sure if there will be any carryover effect.
Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, agreed that gay-rights legislation is not the hot-button issue it once was.
''One thing that can be said is, persistence has eroded opposition to gay rights in Maine over the last two decades. That's a fact,'' Heath said.
The league, which lobbies lawmakers on behalf of evangelical Christian churches and individuals, has consistently opposed gay-rights bills.
The wording of this year's bills is not yet complete. Yet Heath said his organization already has begun organizing opposition to them.
''Sexual orientation is about homosexuality. Homosexuality is a sexual practice that is, at best, morally qustionable, and from a Christian perspective, morally wrong,'' Heath said.
The league backed the 1995 ballot question, known as Question 1, that was rejected by 53.2 percent of Maine's voters, with 46.8 percent voting in favor. Heath said the vote was too close to be called a mandate for gay rights.
He also said there has been too little research and statistical evidence of discrimination to warrant statutory protection on the basis of sexual orientation.
But Ryan, the Human Rights Commission director, said there is more evidence of bias against homosexuals now than there was when gay rights got legislative approval in 1993.
The Attorney General's Office has kept hate crimes statistics since October 1992. Of the 773 incidents and complaints recorded by the end of 1996, 26 percent involved discrimination based on sexual orientation.
During the public debate over Question 1, opponents of the initiative said it would take away towns' and cities' option of passing their own gay-rights ordinances.
Carolyn Cosby, who initiated the referendum, now questions how those opponents can back a gay-rights law that would take away communities' rights to embrace, or reject, ordinances concerning sexual orientation.
''It's absolute, utter hypocrisy, that militant gay activists are proposing a statewide gay-rights bill after basing almost their entire opposition to Question 1 on alleged concern for local control,'' she said.
Cosby and the group she founded, Concerned Maine Families, expect to launch a new referendum this month to prohibit same-sex marriages. She faces a Wednesday deadline for submitting petitions to the secretary of state.
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