March 10, 2010

Bangor marks killing of gay man 25 years ago

JUDY HARRISON

— By

Bangor Daily News

BANGOR — Twenty-five years ago today, Charles O. Howard, 23, was attacked by three teenage boys, tossed into the Kenduskeag Stream off the State Street Bridge and left to drown.

Since then, the name Charlie Howard has stirred emotions and spurred political change in Bangor and beyond.

The New Hampshire native, who was killed because he was openly gay, will be remembered this week in events including religious services, concerts, workshops and the dedication of a memorial near the dark water where he drowned.

The current wrangling over same-sex marriage in Maine, some observers say, shows how far the state has come in the past 25 years and how far it still has to go.

Howard and a companion, Roy Ogden, both of Bangor, were walking on State Street shortly before 10:30 p.m. on July 7, 1984. Three teenage boys left their car and assaulted Howard.

They chased him, kicked him when he fell, then threw him over the rail into the stream, according to police. The teenagers returned to their car and left. Ogden pulled the firebox alarm at the corner of State and Exchange streets.

Howard's body was recovered about 12:10 a.m. on July 8 in about 3 feet of water south of the State Street Bridge. The autopsy found that he drowned -- he told his attackers he couldn't swim -- with an acute asthma attack as a contributing factor.

On July 9, 1984, Daniel Ness, 17, Shawn I. Mabry, 16, and James Francis Baines, 15, all of Bangor, were charged with murder. After spending a night in jail, they were released to their parents. That night, more than 200 people attended a vigil for Howard.

Ness, Mabry and Baines pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Oct. 1, 1984, two weeks after District Court Judge David Cox ruled they should be tried as juveniles. They were sentenced to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland for an indeterminate stay not to exceed their 21st birthdays.

Ann Phibbs, a member of the Bangor Area Gay, Lesbian, Straight Coalition, said at the time that the group was ''shocked and outraged at the lenient and irresponsible prosecution of the Charles Howard homicide. To allow the three individuals to be treated as juveniles instead of adults and to plea-bargain from murder to manslaughter lessens the severity of the crime and may fail to act as a deterrent.''

BALDACCI DESCRIBES IMPACT

John Baldacci was serving his second term in the state Senate and working in the family restaurant in Bangor when Howard was killed.

''If you were living in Bangor in 1984, you could never forget Charlie Howard's death,'' the governor said in a recent e-mail. ''I didn't know Charlie Howard, but his death had a profound impact on the entire community.''

It also focused national attention on Bangor and Maine.

A few weeks after Howard died, members of the state delegation to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco were asked by reporters about Howard rather than the presidential race.

''We were outraged and saddened,'' Baldacci recalled. ''And the idea that three kids -- teenagers -- would attack a person, throw him off a bridge and let him die was unbelievable. The brutality of the attack forced Bangor to take a hard look at itself and to begin an honest discussion about gay rights, bigotry and tolerance.''

The Bangor School Committee created a tolerance subcommittee and adopted recommendations by the end of August 1984 that aimed to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation in hiring, to support teachers and staff in their rejection of intolerance, and to develop employee workshops about dealing with homophobia.

''Charlie's death really affected people,'' Baldacci said in his e-mail. ''I think we came to a conclusion as a city and as a state that what happened to him should never, ever happen to anyone. Not in Bangor, Maine, or anywhere else.''

The Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance, now called EqualityMaine, was founded shortly after Howard's death.

Efforts spearheaded by the statewide organization and other groups, such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union, led to amending the Maine Civil Rights Act, also known as the ''hate crimes statute,'' in the early 1990s to add sexual orientation.

The law now makes it illegal for any person to interfere with another's right to engage in lawful activities through violence, property damage or threats motivated by bias based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, gender, religion, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation, according to the Maine Attorney General's Office.

''It was the inclusion of sexual orientation that generated the most controversy,'' Thomas Harnett, assistant attorney general for civil rights enforcement and education, said in an e-mail. ''The tragic end to Charlie Howard's life was one of the examples used to demonstrate why sexual orientation had to be included in any meaningful civil rights legislation.''

Of the 72 hate crimes that Maine law enforcement agencies reported to the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 2007, the last year statistics are available, 21 were based on sexual orientation.

MEMORY KEPT ALIVE

Howard worshipped at the Unitarian Church, now the Brick Church at the corner of Union and First streets in Bangor. His faith community has been vigilant in keeping his memory alive.

The Rev. Richard Forcier was a student at Bangor Theological Seminary and serving as the part-time minister at the church when Howard was killed. Forcier, now 55, of Barre, Vt., will return Sunday to Bangor to conduct a memorial service as he has several times over the past 25 years.

''The experience as a student minister profoundly shaped my religious convictions,'' Forcier said at last year's service.

He said that those convictions included ''keeping in mind the larger vision that God is calling us to be greater than we are. I didn't know that back then.''

The Unitarian Church merged in 1995 with the First Universalist Church, 120 Park St. Two events associated with the Unitarian Church -- free monthly bean suppers for the community and the annual Howard memorial service -- were adopted by the newly formed organization, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor.

''Now we feel it is part of our heritage,'' said Sue McKay of Bangor, who headed the committee that planned this week's events.

''I feel very positive about how far we've come, but this was Bangor's moment,'' and how the community dealt with it was not admirable, she said.

The Unitarian Church was the only one that held a vigil after Howard's death, according to McKay. In 1998, just days after Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was slain, vigils were held at churches and on college campuses around the state and across the country.

Most members of the clergy in Maine did not speak publicly about Howard's killing 25 years ago. This year, a coalition of ministers testified before the Legislature, held press conferences and worked behind the scenes in support of the same-sex marriage law.

''Because religion has long been associated with anti-gay sentiment, people of faith in every tradition must critique and discard those religious teachings, including skewed biblical interpretations, that are oppressive and dehumanizing,'' the Rev. Marvin Ellison, professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary, said in an e-mail. ''We need to repent of anti-gay 'preaching' and practice not in order to be 'politically correct,' but in order to be faithful.''

HOWARD'S LEGACY

McKay, Ellison and others were reluctant to connect Howard's death directly to passage of a same-sex marriage bill this year.

''I think it's probably kismet,'' McKay said. ''It's certainly ironic.''

Baldacci said that Howard's death set the state and its residents on a path toward greater acceptance and understanding.

''Looking back 25 years,'' Baldacci said, ''it sometimes feels like progress has been slow, but no one can deny that we have come a long way. Today in Maine, we make sure that every citizen has the full protection of the law and that people are treated fairly and with respect.

''Would Maine be where it is today if Charlie Howard hadn't been thrown into Kenduskeag Stream and allowed to die? I don't know. I'd like to think we could have advanced our thinking without a tragedy like his death. But I also believe the events of July 7, 1984, forced us to confront hate and started us along the path toward becoming a more tolerant and open community.''

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