Politics

November 6, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Revelation for Michaud, evolution for Maine

The candidate’s coming-out wasn’t a big deal for many, showing how much views have changed since that famous ‘Seinfeld’ episode.

I have the perfect new slogan for Maine’s Democratic gubernatorial campaign: “Mike Michaud for Governor – Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

U.S. Representative Mike Michaud more 3 4 5..

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

The iconic line comes from “The Outing,” a hilarious episode from the fourth season of “Seinfeld” way back in 1993. The plot centers on Jerry Seinfeld’s and sidekick George Costanza’s frantic efforts to dispel a college newspaper reporter’s assumption that they’re gay, repeatedly punctuating their protestations with an exaggerated, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

It was, without a doubt, one excellent and enduring piece of comedy. It was also a sign of the times.

Back then, to even talk about sexual orientation – let alone base a comedy show on it – was still risky business.

Far away from hip Manhattan, in places like northern Maine, you best kept your homosexuality to yourself if you wanted to fit in with the rest of the community. Or, in politician Michaud’s case, if you wanted folks to keep voting for you.

No longer.

“It was a very difficult decision,” Michaud told Portland Press Herald State House Writer Steve Mistler this week. “It’s a personal decision. It’s one I wish I didn’t have to make.”

That’s certainly understandable. With his startling announcement Monday on the op-ed page of this newspaper, Mike Michaud the candidate for governor instantly became Mike Michaud the gay candidate for governor.

And should he succeed in supplanting Republican Gov. Paul LePage one year from now, he could become Mike Michaud the nation’s first openly gay governor.

Still, as Michaud himself asked in his carefully choreographed coming-out announcement, “Why should it matter?”

The simple answer is it doesn’t – at least to the large-and-getting-larger segment of Americans who grow more accepting by the day of their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender neighbors. With emphasis, it should be noted, on the word “neighbors.”

Back in 1993, right around the time that famous “Seinfeld” episode aired, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 61 percent of Americans had a gay or lesbian acquaintance. Twenty years later, in a poll released in June by the Pew Research Center, that number had skyrocketed to 87 percent.

What’s more, 23 percent of the Pew respondents said they know “a lot” of gay or lesbian people, and 49 percent said a family member or one of their close friends is gay or lesbian.

Put more simply, more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are out there (literally) today than ever before. And as their visibility has increased, so has the social pendulum swung from taboo to tolerance, from “don’t ask, don’t tell” to “what’s the big deal?”

Thus what is most notable about the tsunami of reaction to Michaud’s announcement is not the risk he took in confirming what has long been grist for Maine’s political gossip mill. Rather, it’s the consensus – bordering on a statewide yawn – that this is nowhere near the big deal it would have been back when Jerry and George were having their politically correct nervous breakdowns over simply being perceived as gay.

Think about it, folks. If Maine can be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage at the polls, why in the world can’t we be first to elect an openly gay governor?

And while there surely are those scattered among us who fervently believe Michaud just punched his ticket to eternal damnation, their voices are noticeably absent from the quiet applause now rippling from Portland all the way to Presque Isle.

Matt McTighe, who ran the same-sex marriage effort and now is Michaud’s campaign manager, sees it not only as an evolution for Maine, but for Michaud himself.

“The root of it is, are you comfortable coming out to anyone?” said McTighe in an interview Monday. “You first have to get to the point where you’re comfortable saying that.”

Michaud, noting that his decision to come out was prompted largely by a “whispering campaign” and reports of a push poll that presaged a rough road ahead, is clearly a new arrival to that comfort zone. Indeed, even in making what must be the most difficult revelation of his life, he emphasizes repeatedly that being gay doesn’t change the fact that “I’m still Mike.”

And Mike he must now stay as opponents LePage and independent Eliot Cutler tiptoe around Michaud’s pre-emptive pronouncement without so much as a sideways glance. As Cutler put it in a brief interview Monday, “This is a 48-hour story. ... I think this election is going to be about Maine’s future.”

Let’s hope so. The last thing this already rollicking gubernatorial campaign needs is a distraction that, as Cutler aptly noted, “has nothing whatsoever to do with whether (Michaud) is qualified to be governor.”

Still, in a state where acceptance of gays and lesbians has risen in lockstep with exposure to that once-closeted gay neighbor, Michaud has become Maine’s (and, in particular, northern Maine’s) quintessential gay neighbor. A major step forward, to be sure, but a challenge nonetheless.

From here on, Michaud finds himself walking a tightrope between the gubernatorial candidate who happens to be gay and The Gay Gubernatorial Candidate. Lean too far – or, more likely, get pulled too far – toward the latter and Mike the longtime mill worker risks becoming Mike the adopted figurehead of the national gay-rights movement.

McTighe puts the chances of that happening somewhere between nil and you’ve got to be kidding.

“I can tell you right now – and I’ve known him for awhile – you’d have a hard time turning Mike into anything other than who he is,” said McTighe. “He’s going to be exactly the same – no matter what.”

Which, when it’s all said and done, is the bigger point behind this whole kerfuffle: It’s not Mike Michaud who has changed – he was as gay 20 years ago as he is now. Rather, it’s Maine that has changed, from a state where closet doors were best kept shut to a community that abounds in gay neighbors and is proud of it.

Tuesday morning, just out of curiosity, I called McTighe with an odd question: Does Michaud remember that “Seinfeld” episode all those years ago? And if so, as a closeted gay man, how did he react to it?

“It just didn’t really show up on his radar screen,” McTighe reported back a few hours later. “I don’t think he’s ever seen an episode of ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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

bnemitz@pressherald.com

Twitter: @billnemitz

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