SAME DEBATE, LARGER SCALE FOR GAY RIGHTS
By Tess NacelewiczIn November 1992, a historic event took place: Portland voters approved the first gay rights law in Maine.
©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
But the vote was preceded by months of debate that threatened to divide the city.
Proponents of the law said it was necessary because gays and lesbians were being fired from jobs, denied apartments and refused bank loans on the basis of their sexual orientation. The law protects gays and lesbians from discrimination in jobs, housing, credit and public accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels.
Opponents said the law would force people to associate with homosexuals against their will by making businesses and landlords unable to choose who they wanted to hire or rent to. They warned that a spate of lawsuits would drive businesses out of town. The differing opinions led to public shouting matches.
Flash forward to February 1998.
The arguments on both sides are the same and growing increasingly heated as Mainers prepare to vote Tuesday on whether to repeal a statewide gay rights law which is similar to Portland's.
To evaluate the actual impact of a gay rights law in Maine, the Press Herald questioned some Portlanders about the effect of Portland's law during its nearly six years.
Both gay rights supporters and opponents agree on one thing: Portland's law has not resulted in the court action that some feared. While no agency has kept specific statistics, both sides say they believe there have been only a handful of legal challenges and they all appear to have been resolved out of court.
''They said the court system would be inundated, that this would tie up landlords, that this would ruin the city. That has never proved true,'' said Peter O'Donnell, the former city councilor who sponsored the ordinance. ''All that hate that they were spouting never amounted to anything.''
And Joel Russ, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of the Greater Portland Area, which represents 1,100 businesses, said: ''We haven't had one complaint from a business about the ordinance since it was enacted. Not one.''
Richard Slosberg, a Portland lawyer who was a vocal opponent of the ordinance, agrees the law seems to have prompted little court action. ''I just don't think it has really been something that has shown itself to be a serious generator of litigation,'' he said.
Basic disagreementsBut supporters and opponents continue to disagree on some basic issues when it comes to Portland's law.
Slosberg, for example, believes that the reason there hasn't been much litigation in Portland is because ''the perceived discrimination is probably overblown.''
Slosberg continues to oppose Portland's law and says he supports the referendum question Tuesday seeking to overturn the state law. The Legislature passed the law last spring and Gov. Angus King signed it, but two conservative religious groups gathered enough signatures last summer to get it on the ballot Tuesday. Voters will decide whether they want to say ''yes'' to a referendum question to ''veto'' the law, or vote ''no'' and let the law take effect.
Slosberg, who equates homosexuality to humans having sex with animals, claimed during the Portland campaign that the ordinance would force him to take on homosexual clients he doesn't want. He admitted that hasn't happened.
In fact, Slosberg said he accepted a gay man as a client and was considering using the Portland law to argue his client was unlawfully fired from his job based on his sexual orientation. However, Slosberg said he dropped the argument when it turned out the man had worked in South Portland, where Portland's law doesn't apply.
Slosberg said lawyers often take on cases that don't mesh with their personal beliefs ''if we think there's a claim and we can make a fee.'' But he stressed that he wants to remain free to reject clients.
Slosberg said he doesn't think the ordinance serves as a good test case of a statewide gay rights law because Portland is larger and more liberal than most Maine municipalities. He believes there might be more litigation elsewhere if the state law takes effect.
Trendsetting cityO'Donnell takes a different view. He believes the success of the ordinance paved the way for the passage of the state law.
Supporters of the Portland law say it has given gays and lesbians a safety net to challenge illegal situations even if they don't end up in court.
''It gives me a sense of confidence that if I'm doing a good job, that I don't have to have any fear that my next boss or the next owner of the company is going to let me go because I'm gay,'' said City Councilor Karen Geraghty, who also is campaign manager for Maine Won't Discriminate, the group spearheading the fight against Tuesday's referendum.
She and O'Donnell say the law has had a significant impact outside of the court system, making gays and lesbians feel more accepted.
''People feeling that this community is a safer community and one that's more accepting - that's far more important than some of the cases of outright discrimination,'' O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell used himself as an example of someone who has benefited from the law. He disclosed that he was gay in the Maine Sunday Telegram in 1994. O'Donnell said his sexual orientation was something he previously kept hidden even from family and friends until the 1992 ordinance vote gave him the courage to talk about it.
''I can personally say that I could never imagine being able to come to terms with this deep, dark secret I had all my life until the ordinance passed in the city of Portland told me that my community was accepting of people no matter who they are,'' said O'Donnell, a lifelong Portland resident.
Suppressing speech?But Stephen Whiting, another Portland lawyer, claims that the Portland law has the potential of silencing employers and employees who believe that homosexuality is morally wrong. Speaking at an anti-gay rights rally this week, Whiting said that happened to a client of his who works at Barber Foods in Portland.
Whiting said the company recently reprimanded Ene Kiidli twice for telling a lesbian employee that homosexuality is a sin. Kiidli says the woman baited her by talking about her sexual orientation. Kiidli claims her supervisor threatened her job if she makes negative comments about homosexuality again.
But Peter Bickford, director of human resources for the company, said, ''It is blatantly not true that this lady's job was threatened or her livelihood, nor was she disciplined for her views.''
Instead, Bickford said, Kiidli was ''counseled'' on two occasions ''about disruptive behavior, about yelling at co-workers. That was what she was counseled for, not her content or her views, simply in the way her content was expressed.''
Bickford said company workers ''are entitled to their opinions on all topics.''
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