©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
AUGUSTA - His hands shook - and not just because it takes a lot of nerve to stand up before the entire Maine House of Representatives and announce that you're gay.
His hands shook because Rep. Michael Quint knew that on this night, if people would only listen, history could be made.
''I was very apprehensive,'' said Quint, who only five years ago was afraid to let anyone know he is gay, let alone the entire state. But there he was Thursday evening, proudly urging his fellow lawmakers to send a message - at last - to those who for so long have given Maine's homosexuals good reason to be afraid.
''Discrimination happens every single day,'' Quint told his transfixed audience. ''I know it because I've seen it, I have experienced it and I still carry around the fear that it could happen to me any day at any time.''
When he was finished, Quint all but fell into his leather chair, exhausted and relieved that this most pivotal moment in his young political career - and his life - was over.
Then something extraordinary happened: For two solid hours, the Maine House defined the difference between politics and leadership, between cowardice and conscience, between doing what is safe and doing what is right.
One after another, members rose to say they would vote for Maine's gay rights bill not because their constituents told them to - in some cases, the opposite was true, or because it was easy - in some cases, it clearly wasn't. They would vote for it, they said, because anyone who has felt the sting of discrimination knows it is wrong.
Some, like Rep. Joseph Jabar of Waterville, spoke on behalf of their ancestors, who in Jabar's case were Lebanese and Catholic and knew well the pain of being treated like ''one of them.''
''Don't be afraid,'' Jabar exhorted his fellow lawmakers. ''It is time to tell our constituents why we did the right thing.''
Others, like Rep. Julie Ann O'Brien of Augusta, spoke on behalf of their children. She told the House she'd entered Thursday's session still unsure how she would vote - until she found herself wondering how she'd feel if one of her children came to her one day and said, ''Mom, I'm gay.''
''I'm doing this for them,'' said an anguished O'Brien.
Through it all, Quint sat in his chair and read the steady stream of congratulatory notes the House pages delivered to his desk.
''One was from (House Speaker) Libby Mitchell,'' he said. ''She said I was the first person to ever say they were gay on the House floor - and that she was very proud of what I'd done. I can't tell you how good that made me feel.''
Finally, Mitchell called for the vote that everyone thought would be so close. It wasn't. Echoing the Maine Senate, 84 state representatives said yes, let this bill become law. Only 61 said no.
While gay rights supporters applauded and hugged and cried outside the House chamber, Carolyn Cosby sputtered to the television cameras about how ''shocked'' and ''disappointed'' she was and how her Concerned Maine Families will likely try to derail this horrifying piece of legislation.
Let them try. At last, we no longer have to watch Carolyn and her homophobic horde and worry about the state - moral as well as geographic - in which we live.
At last, we can look to Augusta with pride in a group of people who last week stopped being political servants long enough to become our elected leaders.
And at last, we can tell Michael Quint and the countless others who have trembled for too long that Maine's law - along with its conscience - is finally on their side.
Bill Nemitz is a columnist for The Portland Newspapers.
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