Gay-rights law magnifies right-wing schism -- The Maine GayNet Archive

Sunday, May 25, 1997

Gay-rights law magnifies right-wing schism

By NANCY PERRY
Staff Writer
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications
Carolyn Cosby won't be there this summer when conservative and religious activists fan out across Maine to try to overturn a new law that extends civil rights protections to gay men and lesbian women.

Although Cosby has personified the opposition to gay rights in Maine for much of this decade, she has chosen to sit this one out. Others will run the latest crusade.

Her decision did not come easily. It underlines a division that runs so deep within Maine's conservative political ranks that even those who share the same goal can no longer work together on an issue as crucial to their mission as gay rights.

The schism falls between these two types of groups: Maine's so-called ''religious right,'' embodied in groups such as the Christian Civic League of Maine and Christian Coalition of Maine, and Cosby's Concerned Maine Families, a secular political organization she founded to fight gay rights.

The schism is not new, but it is significant and it has reappeared at a critical juncture.

By acting to protect homosexual rights this month, the Legislature and Gov. Angus King have amended Maine's civil rights law, an act that was 20 years in the making.

Opponents have a daunting challenge in trying to overturn that law. And they have just three months to build an offensive team capable of toppling it.

With Cosby out of the picture, religious groups are left short on time, money and unity. They are battling a governor committed to gay rights, a supportive Legislature and a public that seems willing to accept the idea that it is wrong to discriminate against gay men and lesbian women.

Even Maine's religious community is split on the issue.

The Catholic Church in Maine is neutral. The Council of Churches, representing eight Protestant sects, has become more vocal in its support of gay rights. The Jewish Federation of Southern Maine, the largest Jewish community in Maine, also supports the new law.

Some who support homosexual rights say it's already too late for conservative groups to succeed.

''They can't win on this issue, no matter what collection of groups they assemble,'' said Karen Geraghty of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. ''They're going to have to find another battleground.''

Until this month, Maine's social conservatives were defenders of the status quo, arguing that gays and lesbians should not be granted new and special protections under the state's civil rights law.

But King changed the landscape May 16, when he signed a law adding the words ''sexual orientation'' to the state's human rights law. With those words, it is now illegal to discriminate against gay men and lesbian women in the areas of housing, employment, credit and public accommodation. For years, it has been illegal to discriminate against Mainers based on race, sex, religion or physical and mental handicaps.

Opponents hope to repeal the law that added homosexuals to the other groups already protected. They have three months to collect 51,131 signatures to force a public vote on repealing the law.

Activists split on means

The irony is that most activists on the conservative side of Maine's political spectrum agree that the laws should be repealed, but disagree deeply about how to do that and, more importantly, who should lead the repeal drive.

''There's a fierce battle going on for control of this issue,'' said Geraghty.

Three organizations - the Christian Civic League, Christian Coalition and a loose-knit group that led a previous fight against a gay-rights proposal in Lewiston - will try to collect the signatures needed to force a referendum.

Cosby and other leaders of Concerned Maine Families last week announced that they will not participate. Lawrence Lockman, Cosby's deputy at Concerned Maine Families, said the organization wants to pick a fight it has a chance of winning.

''We're not going to go out in the field and be destroyed,'' Lockman said. ''We're keeping our powder dry for another day.''

The division among conservative groups in Maine has caused national consternation. That's troublesome for Maine conservatives because those national groups are the ones most likely to contribute the money and expertise needed to wage successful, in-state campaigns.

In that respect, it is the right wing in Maine that is hurting the right wing's chances of succeeding this year.

''The national groups are very concerned about Maine, but we're waiting to see if Maine people can bind their differences and move forward,'' said Roger Knight, director of cultural studies for the 300,000-member Family Research Council, based in Washington. ''We stand ready to aid them, but as far as loosening the purse strings of the national organization, we'd like to see unity.''

There is no doubt that there is no love lost between Cosby and many of her former allies on the right. Cosby's often abrasive style and insistence on running the show her way, have sent former supporters packing.

For example, Paul Volle, once an ally, now heads the Christian Coalition, which is working with Heath. Linda Bean Folkers, who contributed to Cosby's last campaign, is contributing to Volle's group this time.

A proven track record

However, there also is no denying Cosby's organizational skills. She collected the signatures to force a statewide vote on gay rights in 1993 which she lost, 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent.

She collected the signatures that led to the Legislature's voting to ban same-sex marriages in Maine this year. That bill became law without Gov. King's signature. Cosby can organize a crowd of supporters and energize them.

Whereas religious organizations have strength in numbers, Cosby's group has strength in energizing supporters for a cause.

Critics say Concerned Maine Families is basically a small group, consisting of Cosby, Lockman and a few other active supporters.

This year the Christian Civic League, uncomfortable with Cosby's style and eager to shape the campaign, moved quickly to claim ownership of the issue. The league announced it would lead the charge to overturn the state's new gay- rights law even before King had officially signed it, earlier this month.

But Cosby's Concerned Maine Families did not want a supporting role, nor did it think that a campaign based on the moral issues of homosexuality could win. So Concerned Maine Families bowed out.

The problem is that, in politics, building winning coalitions means piecing together as many similar-minded groups as possible.

Knight, of the national Family Research Council, remains convinced that gay rights foes could have won in 1993, had Heath and Cosby worked together.

''If you can't marshal all the resources available to you, it weakens your side,'' agreed Doug Hodgkin, a professor and political analyst at Bates College.

Hodgkin thinks the division within Maine's right wing will hinder its ability to win support for the upcoming campaign too. Particularly noticeable, he said, will be the absence of money from national conservative groups, which won't want to sink funds into a losing campaign.

King is another problem for opponents of gay rights.

King to play active role

A popular governor who has demonstrated persuasive powers with the public, King has made it clear that he will play an active role protecting homosexual rights if his support is needed.

King not only signed the new law, he made a ceremony of it - comparing the struggle for gay rights in Maine to earlier battles to win civil rights protections for blacks. King said supporters must use love and education to overcome the fear and ignorance that drives gay rights opponents.

In a direct challenge to the religious right, King said being gay is not a matter of choice, but one of genetics. He talked about ''a little comma on your DNA'' that should be no more grounds for discrimination ''than being left-handed, black, old or Irish.''

Gay and lesbian activists appreciate the strategy behind King's words.

''He helps keep this issue where it's supposed to be,'' said Geraghty. ''He doesn't let (opponents) get too far off target.''

Public opinion appears to be another problem for those who hope to overturn the new law.

The Legislature, which at least in theory is representative of Maine, saw only 66 votes against the gay-rights law this year. Twenty years ago, when the bill was first introduced, only 64 legislators voted for it.

One religious leader said that since gays have become more open about their sexual orientations, stereotypes about homosexuals have slowly faded. Many people now know neighbors, relatives and co-workers who are gay.

''The key to any kind of social change is to personalize it,'' said Thomas Ewell of the Maine Council of Churches, which has become vocal in supporting gay rights.

Knight, of the Family Research Council, also said it is more difficult to overturn a law than it is to prevent one from being passed.

He suggested the best bet for conservatives in Maine is for the Christian groups and Cosby's to implement a ''two-track'' approach. The religious groups could criticize homosexuality as immoral, and Cosby could question the legal wisdom of granting people legal protections because of sexual orientation.

Of course, that would require teamwork.

Conciliation a failure

''I thought it was a good division of labor,'' Knight said, of the conservative situation in Maine. ''Instead, it's just a division.''

Michael Heath, director of the Christian Civic League, said his board has tried to work with Cosby. He sat down with members of Cosby's board two weeks ago to work out their differences. But they failed.

''We tried to create a framework in which there could be teamwork, but it didn't happen,'' Heath said.

Cosby said the problem with criticizing homosexuality on moral grounds is that it begs the discrimination issue: If Heath insists on condemning homosexuality, she said, then gays and lesbians can point to his condemnation as proof that bigotry exists and special protections are required.

''The problem with the religious right is they want to focus the debate on homosexual behavior,'' said Lawrence Lockman, Cosby's deputy. ''They have a 20-year record of failure with these campaigns everywhere they've run them. Their strategy isn't working.''

Heath admits that running a religious-based campaign, based on the immorality of homosexual behavior, makes some people uncomfortable.

Heath also said the league was uncomfortable with Cosby's outspokenness, especially about public officials.

For example, when she lost the 1993 gay rights vote, Cosby accused Portland election officials of fraud. She never substantiated those claims. Cosby and her followers also have criticized the bishop and the attorney general's office.

''There are those who say she's been awfully polemic and driven away the middle,'' agreed Volle, of the Maine Christian Coalition.

Heath said he has no intention of running a campaign he can't win. He has asked supporters to sign pledges promising to collect 60 signatures each. If he gets 1,000 volunteers committed to that goal by June 13, he'll move forward, Heath said. If doesn't have enough volunteers, he'll drop the campaign.

Playing a waiting game

Cosby and Lockman think the strategy is flawed and will fail. They are prepared to pick up the pieces and forge ahead, possibly in 1998. By then, Cosby and Lockman surmise, gay activists will be pushing an extremist agenda that will turn public opinion against them.

Meanwhile, Cosby and Lockman hope to broaden their base, working on issues such as education reform, parental rights and property rights.

They hope to emerge as the new voice for Maine conservatives.

''There is a big vacuum on the conservative side of Maine politics,'' said Lockman.

Librarians Beth Murphy and Susan Butler did research for this story.


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