March 10, 2010

This time, gays are not the targetThis is a 1-30-3 column

By BILL NEMITZ Columnist

— File this one under ''supreme irony.''

Twenty-five years ago last week, a trio of young thugs beat up Charles Howard and tossed him off a bridge to his death in the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor -- all because he was homosexual. If you were gay or lesbian in Maine back in those days, you had good reason to be afraid.

Now, as the campaign to repeal Maine's same-sex marriage law shifts into high gear, fear is once again in the air. Only this time it's not the homosexual community that's quaking.

It's their opponents.

''I know what you're saying -- there is some irony there,'' agreed Marc Mutty, now on leave from his job as public affairs director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland to run Stand for Marriage Maine.

Still, Mutty said, ''We feel like the minority that's being discriminated against. We are being treated like pariahs everywhere we go.''

Some might hope that's a harbinger of how many Mainers will vote this November, when a people's veto of the same-sex marriage law is all but certain to be on the statewide ballot. (Polling that consistently shows the question too close to call, however, suggests the referendum will be far from a landslide in either direction.)

Others might look to the complaints coming from Mutty & Co. and observe that victimization sells -- especially in politics.

In a recent interview with Susan Cover of the Kennebec Journal, Stand for Marriage Maine's leader, Bob Emrich, complained that he and his wife have been getting rude phone calls at their home in Plymouth. People also drive by and holler insults, he said, and on a recent night at 12:30 a.m., someone ''banged real hard on our door and ran off.''

''I expected people to be emotional, but I really didn't expect not to feel safe in the little town of Plymouth,'' Emrich, a Baptist pastor, told the KJ.

Apparently he's not alone.

A recent e-mail to the staff at the Portland diocese, forwarded to me this week by someone using the pseudonym ''M. Luther,'' offers this advice to the diocesan staff:

''For security reasons, please do not give the physical location of the SFMM (Stand for Marriage Maine) office to anyone. It's imperative that no one else know the location.''

The e-mail also instructed staff members, should they receive any ''marriage'' calls, to ''direct the angry mobs to the toll-free number or invite them to visit the SFMM website.''

Sitting Monday afternoon inside Stand for Marriage Maine's headquarters, an unmarked office in Yarmouth, Mutty said he authorized the e-mail. The ''angry mobs'' reference, he said, was tongue-in-cheek and not meant for public consumption.

Asked why repeal proponents are so worried about their safety, Mutty cited ''what happened in California.''

During last fall's successful campaign to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage in California, Mutty said, ''Churches were desecrated, donors were identified and harassed by the other side, and businesses (that supported the repeal) were blackballed.''

More recently, Mutty said, consultants from California who were hired to help with the Maine repeal effort have warned repeatedly that this is dangerous business and security should be of paramount concern. (They even told Mutty to install double locks on the headquarter's doors -- which he declined to do.)

To be clear, Mutty said, it's not the ''organized opposition'' here in Maine that has Stand for Marriage Maine on alert. Rather, he said, it's the ''fringe groups'' from away.

''Maine is now ground zero in the (same-sex marriage) debate,'' Mutty said. ''And the activists on both sides know that.''

No doubt they do.

But by complaining loudly and often that they've been called names and heard things go bump in the night since they launched their campaign, might Stand for Marriage Maine's organizers also be portraying themselves as an oppressed ''minority'' (Mutty's word, not mine) in the hope that they will be perceived as the victims this time around?

''No,'' Mutty replied flatly. ''I don't think that's the way to operate. That's not the point we're trying to make.''

Maybe not, but Stand for Marriage Maine's secretive ways contrast sharply with the see-through strategy of the Maine Freedom to Marry coalition.

Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for Maine Freedom to Marry, said his group plans a grand opening of its headquarters on outer Forest Avenue in Portland in the next week or two -- and the public is invited.

''Our whole effort is volunteer-driven,'' Connolly said. ''And our volunteers need to know where we are -- so we'll be publicizing that throughout the state.''

Beyond the logistical advantages to having an actual address, Connolly said his organization is ''totally transparent'' and looks forward to operating a ''very welcoming and open office.''

''Maine is a much different place from California,'' Connolly said, adding, ''I'm not sure where (the opposition's) fears are coming from.''

Here's a theory:

Those who are trying to overturn Maine's same-sex marriage law are learning -- many for the first time -- how frightening it can be when someone gets in your face or dials your home phone out of the blue and calls you a nasty name.

At the same time, those who are defending the law are learning -- many for the first time -- that the more the social pendulum swings their way here in Maine and beyond, the less they need to live in fear.

What a difference a quarter-century makes.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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