Timing is everything. On the day that Maine gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud told the world that he’s gay (and the world basically yawned), gay-rights activists from Archangel, Russia, came to Maine to enlist help in their fight for equality.
Things are not going well back home, said Oleg Klyuenkov and Lyudmila Romodina of the group “Perspective.”
Anti-“gay propaganda” laws explicitly prohibit them from speaking about their sexuality anywhere within earshot of a child. Gay people in Russia can be fired from their jobs, lose custody of their children or be beaten in the streets with no recourse.
To lesbian, gay or transgender people, Portland must seem like the wildly successful sibling in our sister-city relationship, with our hate crimes laws, civil rights protections and same-sex marriage.
And now, a major political figure announces that he’s gay but doesn’t think that it should affect how voters view him, and most political observers agree that it probably doesn’t.
“In the U.S., people feel so safe to come out, and it’s like ‘yea, so what?’ ” said Klyuenkov. “This is a goal of our (gay-rights) movement to arrive at such a state where it makes no difference, it means nothing.”
But a closer look at Michaud’s career shows how fast and how far attitudes have changed during his years in public life. Michaud has never been a leader in the movement that drove those changes, but he certainly has benefited from the work of the American counterparts of Klyuenkov and Romodina. It was their years of struggle that made it possible.
When Michaud first ran for office in 1980, conditions in Maine and America were not all that different than what exists in Archangel and Russia today.
You could be fired if your boss thought you were gay. You could be evicted from your apartment or denied credit from a bank. Adopting a child was not an option, and the social stigma was powerful.
If Michaud had announced his sexual orientation at the time of his first campaign for the Legislature, he would also likely have been announcing his retirement from politics. (Dale McCormick, Maine’s first openly gay legislator, would not be elected for another decade.)
As in Russia today, it was not safe to be openly gay in Maine. On July 7, 1984, 23-year-old Charlie Howard drowned in the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor after he was chased down by teenagers yelling homophobic epithets. They threw him off the State Street Bridge, even though he pleaded with them not to because he couldn’t swim.
Bills that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation died in the Legislature in 1977, 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1993, when a bill passed both houses but was vetoed by then-Gov. John McKernan. A bill passed in 1998 but was overturned in a people’s veto referendum.
A vote to provide civil rights protections also was defeated at the polls in 2000. It was not until 2005 that a civil rights referendum finally passed. And it was not until this year, after two referendums, that same-sex couples could legally marry.
Michaud did not even support many of these efforts early in his career, although his positions have changed over time, along with those of many of his constituents.
Others led the fight, year after year, keeping the question of equal rights and equal protection on the agenda, and their work over the years is what made Michaud’s announcement and the ho-hum reaction possible.
That is the work that Klyuenkov and Romodina are doing in Russia, hoping for a day when a Russian politician could make a similar announcement to Michaud’s and it would not define him.
They are not asking for Portland to end its sister-city relationship, by the way. They want everyone to keep talking.
At a meeting Tuesday in Portland, the activists said they want Americans to go to Russia and ask to meet with gay-rights activists there, and they want Russians to come to America and see that they have nothing to be afraid of by treating people fairly.
“We do not support cutting ties or boycotts because a boycott is not an instrument for solving problems,” Klyuenkov said. “Instead, we are trying to use the sister-city relationship as a platform for addressing the wider world.”
That’s the kind of back-and-forth that has made a difference in Maine.
And as we’ve seen this week, once progress starts, it can move very quickly.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]