At left: Paula Stockholm, creator of Maine GayNet, sits beside her computer at her Cumberland home. Maine GayNet was among the earliest of state-oriented Internet lists for gay people. Staff photo by Doug Jones
Reminiscences of a first kiss. Accounts of discrimination. Chit-chat about a new nightclub, religion and sex, human rights legislation and how to survive and thrive being gay in Maine.
It's all part of Maine GayNet, an Internet mail list that has broken the isolation of gays and lesbians in this far-flung state since going online in 1994.
''It's common for a lot of us, as we discover we're gay or lesbian, to feel we're the only ones, and on Maine GayNet we're almost guaranteed there are other people like us that will understand,'' said Paula Stockholm, who created Maine GayNet.
''The way I phrase it is, it creates community where there is none,'' she said.
In recent months, GayNet subscribers have shared gossip that gay-rights opponent Carolyn Cosby was leaving Maine (a rumor proven untrue); urged one another to lobby for the gay rights bill now in the Legislature; traded Valentine's Day recollections of first kisses; crowed over Ellen DeGeneres' ''coming out'' on the TV sitcom ''Ellen'' last Wednesday; and traded opinions, advice and insights of particular interest to homosexuals and their friends.
''There's news in there, personals, help-wanted,'' said Patricia Peard, a Portland lawyer and gay rights activist. ''It's a little cyberspace newspaper.''
State-oriented Internet lists for gay people are ''popping up all over the place,'' but Maine GayNet was among the earliest, said Kathleen DeBold, deputy director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund in Washington, D.C.
''Not everyone can move to the city, the 'gay ghetto,' '' DeBold said. With an Internet mail list, ''people can keep connected with politics, social events and make friends.''
DeBold said the Internet also provides valued anonymity for gay men and lesbians who haven't acknowledged their homosexuality publicly but want to communicate with people like themselves.
GayNet is not a live, interactive ''chat room.'' Rather, it is a list to which subscribers write e-mail, knowing that it is sent automatically to every other GayNet subscriber.
Stockholm, who studies communications at the University of Southern Maine, estimated there are 300 subscribers today compared with about 90 two years ago. The list generates four or five messages daily, or, for the cyber-savvy, about nine megabytes monthly.
Anyone can subscribe by contacting the Internet address ''firstname.lastname@example.org'' and then typing in ''subscribe me-gaynet''. Because it is by nature a medium for reaching many people, the discussions, information and e-mail names that appear on GayNet are not confidential.
Stockholm's creation of Maine GayNet in 1994 was just in time for the statewide debate over Question 1, a 1995 ballot proposal that would have limited legal protection from discrimination to those categories already listed in the Maine Human Rights Act.
Among the categories that would have been left out was sexual orientation.
Jim Fotter lived in Caribou at the time and was a local organizer of the ''Vote No on One'' campaign.
It was not a popular position in Aroostook County. ''All we saw were 'Yes on 1' signs,'' Fotter recalled. ''It was very lonely.''
It would have been lonelier without GayNet. ''One of the things (GayNet) helped us do was feel connected'' to other gay rights supporters in Maine, Fotter said.
Via GayNet, Fotter shared his frustrations, offered advice on strategies that would sway Aroostook voters and absorbed lots of moral support.
Fotter, who now lives in Brunswick, experienced the support of GayNet in a different context in February of this year.
He was returning from a work assignment in Aroostook when bad weather forced him to stop in Bangor and take a motel room for the night. ''I woke up to find my car vandalized, tires slashed, mirrors smashed,'' he said.
The fact that his car had a rainbow bumper sticker, symbolizing support for gay rights, and was the only vehicle vandalized suggested the crime was motivated by anti-gay bias.
Five hours later, Fotter was typing an account of the incident onto GayNet.
''What I have experienced for the first time in my life is the symbol of violence in apparent retaliation for a six-colored, 50-cent piece of paper adhered to my car bumper,'' he wrote.
Fotter's posting prompted an outpouring of 40 messages of sympathy, consolation and support. One writer sponsored a collection to help pay for Fotter's car insurance deductible. Over and over, the comforting message came through: ''We're here to help you and talk with you.''
''To me, (GayNet) is a perfect example of something that was a simple idea that's helped us help each other and act as a community even if we're far apart,'' Fotter said.
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