Howard Solomon was in his late 20s when he saw police cruisers screaming through Lower Manhattan and later read newspaper accounts of the groundbreaking riots that had erupted outside the Stonewall Inn in June 1969.

Solomon wasn’t at the now-famous nightclub that catered to New York City’s gay community.

“I was on a date with a female colleague,” said Solomon, now 69. “I was terribly closeted back then.”

A little more than a decade later, Solomon came out to his colleagues at Tufts University near Boston and began teaching some of the nation’s first college-level history courses that dealt openly with all aspects of sexuality.

Solomon, now retired and living in Bowdoinham, distinguished himself as a history professor at Tufts from 1971 through 2004 and as a vocal advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

More recently, he was an adjunct history professor at the University of Southern Maine and scholar-in-residence for the LGBT Collection at the Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine at USM.

Tonight, the center will honor Solomon as the recipient of its 2011 Catalyst for Change Award during a dinner at the Keeley Banquet Center on Warren Avenue in Portland. Past recipients include Rabbi Harry Sky (2007), Dale McCormick (2008), Sallie Chandler (2009) and Allen Sockabasin (2010).

Solomon is being recognized for his work with EqualityMaine and Maine Initiatives on behalf of the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and for his scholarship in developing exhibits and public programming that empowered various underrepresented groups in Maine.

“Howard was the unanimous choice of the board,” said Bob Greene, chairman of the center’s board of directors. “He has such a huge body of work in social justice and human rights in Maine. It has been the focus of his life.”

The board oversees the center’s African-American, Jewish and LGBT collections. Solomon was a member of the board until a few years ago.

“Howard built our LGBT Collection,” Greene said. “Whenever there are protests or movements in society, somebody usually saves stuff. Photographs, parade banners, letters. Howard was instrumental in tracking stuff down and cajoling people into donating it to the collection.”

Solomon, a Pennsylvania native, credits his Jewish upbringing and his colleagues at Tufts as driving forces in his efforts to bring homosexuality out of the shadows of fear, hatred and discrimination and into the light of safety, understanding and acceptance.

“There is a Jewish commandment, ‘tikkun olam,’ which means ‘repair the world,’ ” Solomon said. “I felt that obligation. I also had extremely supportive, loving colleagues in an institution that constantly asked the questions, ‘How can we do more? What can we do better?’ “

Throughout his teaching career, Solomon made a habit of mining society’s fringe groups to find the real history of humanity. He continues to find value in the margins as an artist who creates sculptures from found objects.

Working in his 1804 farmhouse, within sight of the Cathance River, Solomon takes tossed-away items — old tools, rusted iron scraps, children’s game pieces, early typewriters — and fashions them into social statements.

“I enjoy taking stuff that’s been discarded, abandoned and not taken seriously and putting it into context with other pieces from our culture that give it meaning,” Solomon said. “Historians have traditionally been fixated on important people. I came to realize that many people on the planet aren’t considered important, but all of our lives have meaning. I was a Dumpster-diver as a historian, and now I’m doing the same thing at the town recycling barn.”

Solomon acknowledges that the gay community still faces many challenges, including its effort to win marriage rights in Maine. He’s confident that his work has set a positive example to help carry the cause forward. Again, his Jewish roots inform his viewpoint.

“God expects us to join the battle and pick up the banner, but he doesn’t expect us to finish it alone,” Solomon said. “I trust others to continue on.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]