By NANCY PERRYAUGUSTA - A 20-year struggle for equality came to a poignant end Friday as Gov. Angus King signed into law a bill making it illegal to discriminate against homosexuals in Maine.
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
The moment was a compelling one for more than 200 people - legislators, gay-rights advocates and their supporters - who looked on. Many wept freely as King signed the gay-rights bill, and spoke about events that led up to it.
''You have been ridiculed, hated, discriminated against . . . hunted down and systematically murdered,'' King told the people gathered around him. ''Not for what you choose, but for what God's nature made you. Not for something you had control over, but for what you are.''
In the end, the gay-rights issue in Maine came down to two words: ''sexual orientation.''
All King did was put his name on a bill adding those words to Maine's existing human-rights law. The law already protects people from discrimination in housing, employment and other areas based on their age; racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds; or if they have a physical or mental disability.
But the issue of gay rights has been a remarkably divisive one in Maine. At one point, in the early 1980s, the debate became so heated in the Maine House that visiting schoolchildren had to be cleared from the chamber because of the language being used.
Flanked by seven legislators who have tried to pass gay-rights bills since 1977, King led Friday's ceremony. The state House and Senate this year passed a gay-rights bill for the second time. The first time was in 1993. That bill did not become law because then-Gov. John R. McKernan vetoed it.
King signed this bill.
Dan Stevens, who turned 46 Friday, bit his lip as he watched. Stevens was a 26-year-old legislative committee clerk the first time he saw legislators reject a proposed gay-rights bill in Augusta.
Twenty years later, he stood in the State House Hall of Flags and watched King make history. The law will take effect 90 days after the current legislative session ends.
''I can't believe how long this has been coming. Our moment is here,'' said Stevens, an Augusta resident and paralegal at the Maine Education Association.
In terms of impact, the law means it soon will be illegal to deny homosexual men and women rental apartments, jobs, loans or motel rooms because of their sexual orientation.
But for those who fought for the law, it means more than that.
''This is not about getting a job,'' said Rep. Michael Quint, D-Portland, the only acknowledged gay man in the Legislature. ''It's about knowing I'm OK.''
King warned those celebrating victory that their struggle was not over.
The Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine have announced plans to try to gather signatures to overturn the new law during a referendum this fall. Concerned Maine Families will announce Monday whether it will join that effort or mount a separate drive to try to overturn the law through an election-year referendum in 1998.
The groups pledge to run an ''honorable and positive'' repeal effort, and say their position has thousands of supporters in Maine.
The governor acknowledged the opposition at the bill-signing.
''This journey does not end today. There are tests to come,'' King said.
The significance of Friday's event was this: If the Legislature is a mirror of the citizens it represents, then Maine has become more tolerant of gays and lesbians.
That, gay activists say, is as important as the law itself.
When the first gay-rights bill was introduced by former Rep. Gerald Talbot of Portland in 1977, it received 64 votes in both chambers of the Legislature. The House rejected it 88-54; the Senate 21-10.
''In those years, people had to justify why they were voting 'yes.' Now, they have to justify why they're voting 'no,' '' said Stevens. He said having the law on the books sends a message that ''hopefully, the law will never have to be used.''
Not only were the votes lopsided during those early years, but the debate was vicious. The House chambers once were cleared of visiting children when a legislator referred to gays and lesbians as ''barnyard animals.''
Two decades have made a difference. This year, there were only 66 votes against the gay-rights bill. The House enacted it 84-61; the Senate 28-5.
The tone of the debate was civil and respectful.
''It is a fabulous day . . . a reaffirmation of what I believe in,'' said Robin Lambert, who was once fired from a job in Auburn for being gay.
''It's a dream come true,'' said Quint, a native of Houlton who said he did not acknowledge his sexual identity - to himself or others - until five years ago.
Quint did so because his former employer, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, had an anti-discrimination policy, and because his new city, Portland, had an anti-discrimination law.
''This is about young men and young women being able to have a choice. It's government saying: 'We recognize these people,' '' Quint said.
As King put it: ''We're talking about your friends and your relatives - whether you know it or not. People who want to live and work, love and play, just like everyone else.''
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