It was, Steve Bull recalls, like sitting in a fish bowl.
The year was 1973. A handful of students at the University of Maine in Orono had gathered for the first meeting of the Wilde-Stein Club, named after Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein in a not-so-subtle nod to gay men and lesbian women who stood tall on the social landscape.
But this was Orono, Maine. And as they sat inside Coe Lounge at the university’s Memorial Union, Bull and his fellow gay-rights organizers couldn’t help but notice the “widely spaced picket line” of gawkers on their way to and from the nearby cafeteria. One after another, they peered through the glass doors at this group of young upstarts who had the audacity – no, make that the courage – to openly call themselves gay.
“Eventually, a lot of those people were on (our) side of those doors,” recalled Bull, now white-haired and 62. For many, “it was the beginning of coming out.”
Saturday morning, as it has for the past 27 years, downtown Portland will come alive for the annual Pride Parade – a celebration if ever there was one of how far Maine and the nation have come toward accepting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people for the equals among citizens they always should have been.
Maine U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, vying to become the nation’s first openly gay governor, will be a grand marshal. So will Nicole Maines, a transgender student who fought all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for her right to use a girls bathroom – and won. So will Sarah Holmes, coordinator of the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity at the University of Southern Maine.
But long before the parades, the huge rainbow flags and the legal protections against discrimination that at long last include the right to marry, there were the pioneers. Young men and women who decided, in the wake of the homophobia-induced Stonewall riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1969, that they could be silent no longer.
Wednesday evening, before a packed audience at the Portland Public Library, seven of those foot soldiers reunited to reflect on how they – and, by extension all of society – somehow managed to get here from there.
Surrounded by their memorabilia – photos from when their hair was longer and betrayed nary a wisp of gray; old, typewritten newsletters and the mimeograph machine that once churned them out – they looked like any other group gathering all these decades later to relive their glory days. Only in this case, they came of age in a world that was at best indifferent – and at worst downright hostile – to their pleas that they simply be treated like everyone else.
There were the co-founders of the Maine Gay Task Force: Bull, Wendy Ashley, Susan Mariah Breeding, Stan Fortuna, Peter Prizer and Stephen Leo. There was also Lois Galgay Reckitt, co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign Fund and, along with Prizer, the first in a long line of lobbyists for gay rights at the State House in Augusta.
And there were stories – some funny, some heartbreaking, all rooted in the belief that someday, somehow, life would get better.
Prizer, who would go on to co-edit the newsletter “Mainely Gay,” recalled attending a forum at Bowdoin College organized by LAMBDA, a legal organization that to this day battles for equal rights for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered. Horrified by the hostility all around him in the Bowdoin audience, Prizer finally could take it no longer.
“I said, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” he recalled, looking up and down the table at others who were there that night. “And I got up and joined the panel right on the stage.”
Reckitt, at the time the leader of Maine’s chapter of the National Organization for Women who found herself trapped in a heterosexual marriage even as she came to realize she was a lesbian, remembered going to Augusta with Prizer in 1976 in search of sponsors for Maine’s first-ever gay rights bill. They found only two – former state Rep. Gerald Talbot and the late Rep. Laurence E. Connolly Jr., both from Portland. The day the bill was heard, Reckitt stepped forward to testify alongside a state map speckled with dots signifying all communities where Mainers had affixed their names to a petition supporting the legislation. Impressive as the graphic may have appeared, the sad truth behind it was that only 720 people had dared sign the petition.
It was all downhill from there: The committee voted 13-6 against the bill. It was then soundly rejected by both the Senate and House, where then-House Speaker John Martin actually cleared the gallery of visiting school children in anticipation of a floor debate that could – and did – turn ugly.
“Basically, we went down in flames that first year,” Reckitt said. “But we did it.”
Bull, who grew up in Kennebunkport and now lives in Massachusetts, never will forget organizing the first gay symposium at the University of Maine in 1974. The backlash was intense – while fundamentalist preachers railed from their pulpits against the looming “conclave of queers,” lawmakers in Augusta threatened to withhold $1 million in funding if the university trustees allowed the gathering to go forward.
But go forward it did and, as an old Maine Sunday Telegram clipping from the next day attests, “Gay Symposium Not Causing Any Waves.”
Recalling how the clergy fumed that the students would soon turn Maine into a gay mecca, Bull brought down the house Wednesday with the pleasure he takes visiting Portland four decades later. “If we on this panel have contributed in any way to the predictions of the fundamentalist preachers,” he quipped, “you’re welcome.”
And so it went. Breeding recalled a time when gay and lesbian activism was not only on the FBI’s radar, but actually brought inquisitive agents to her doorstep.
Fortuna spoke of how, as a young, closeted teen growing up in Rochester, New Hampshire, he often contemplated suicide as an escape from the low-self esteem rooted in his sexual orientation. Only when he moved to Portland, befriended Ashley and Breeding and eventually co-founded the Gay People’s Alliance at the University of Southern Maine, did that change for the better.
“I don’t have any more low self-esteem,” Fortuna said with a seasoned smile. “That was a long time ago.”
Indeed. Yet, noted Ashley, who would have thought even back then that an entire nation would one day watch Michael Sam, drafted last month to play football for the St. Louis Rams, celebrate on camera by embracing and kissing his male partner?
“When I think of the distance from then to now – an African-American pro football player kissing his white boyfriend on national television while six newscasters watch – this is a difference,” Ashley said. “This is a huge difference.”
Bull, who spearheaded this week’s gathering, sees it wistfully as the likely “last hurrah” for this graying band of gay activists.
But lest they wonder if they’ll be remembered by those who came after them, they need only listen to Heather Dexter, 29, of Portland.
“They paved the way for us,” said Dexter, who will be out there parading down the middle of Congress Street come Saturday. “If they weren’t as brave as they were – which, in those times, was beyond brave – we wouldn’t have the privileges that we have today. We wouldn’t have as much strength as we do to continue the fight. They’re an inspiration … there are no words to express my gratitude.”
Along with, now more than ever, her pride.