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December 9, 2012

2012 file photo/The Associated Press

Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, speaks at news conference at the State House in Augusta on Jan. 26 after gay marriage supporters collected enough signatures to force a second referendum on gay marriage. The referendum was approved Nov. 6.

Bill Nemitz: What's the next step for EqualityMaine?

The boxes, piled three and four deep, filled much of Betsy Smith's office, a hard-won political campaign compressed into so much paper.

"I've always said to my staff, 'Our job is to put ourselves out of a job,"' said Smith, the executive director of EqualityMaine, as she surveyed the pile.

Smiling, she added, "But we're not out of a job yet."

Twenty years ago, the goal for what was then the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance was simple: Add sexual orientation to the types of discrimination prohibited under the Maine Human Rights Act.

Done. The Legislature and then-Gov. John Baldacci passed "An Act To Extend Civil Rights Protections to All People Regardless of Sexual Orientation" in 2005 and that fall, the measure survived a people's veto referendum, 55-to-45 percent.

Seven years ago, EqualityMaine and a coalition of other groups set their sights on same-sex marriage.

Done. After same-sex marriage failed 53 percent to 47 percent at the polls in 2009, "An Act to Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom" passed last month, reversing the previous outcome.

So there sat Smith last week in EqualityMaine's Portland headquarters, contemplating the past, present and, yes, the future of what clearly has become one of the most sophisticated, well-managed and successful political organizations in recent Maine history.

The obvious question: Now that it's put Maine on the map as one of the first three states to approve same-sex marriage at the polls -- Maryland and Washington also did it on Nov. 6 -- where does EqualityMaine go from here?

"We have parallel tracks going at the moment," replied Smith, who's led the organization since 2002. "One is who we are and what we do in the short term -- like in the next nine months. And then, who we are, what do we do in the next five years."

The first one is easy: Celebrate.

Maine's same-sex marriage law takes effect on Saturday, Dec. 29. And while EqualityMaine and its allies didn't ask for it -- their longtime mantra, after all, has been "equal rights, not special rights" -- municipal officials in Portland and Augusta (so far) have announced they'll open their clerks' offices on that day to accommodate couples who want to say "I do" as soon as humanly possible.

"We're all very excited about that," said Smith, noting that EqualityMaine will hold "celebration receptions" around the state in the coming months for couples who once wondered if this day would ever come.

But beyond the rejoicing, Smith sees more work -- starting with a series of strategic planning sessions scheduled for the summer.

Exactly where those sit-downs will take EqualityMaine remains to be seen. But for now, Smith said, she envisions a renewed focus on ensuring that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers "can live their lives in a way that they can be fully part of the fabric of society in the same equal and fair way that everyone else can."

In other words, legal protection is one thing. Widespread social acceptance is quite another.

Or, as Smith noted, "We got 53 percent."

Meaning?

"If 47 percent of the people didn't want this to happen, then you can imagine an elderly (gay or lesbian) couple who might be going into a retirement home or assisted living," she said. "They're going to face people who aren't supportive and don't understand.

"And so we need to educate those people. We need to continue having conversations and continue being part of their lives so that they can start seeing us -- and see that more and more people support us."

At the other end of the age spectrum, Smith sees more work to be done to prevent bullying in schools -- no matter who's the target.

"Our efforts around anti-bullying need to be anti-bullying for everyone," Smith said. "Kids just shouldn't be bullying anyone for any reason."

Then there's Maine's transgender community -- a group that long has lagged behind gays and lesbians when it comes to mainstream social acceptance.

Smith said she's come to understand over the years that there's a fundamental difference between "sexual orientation" and "gender identification." And as someone who grew up on a potato farm in the central Maine town of Exeter, she's well aware that male-to-female or female-to-male transitions remain far outside many Mainers' comfort zones.

"Some people have reached the point where, 'OK, we've got a gay or lesbian couple next door and I'm OK with that, I'm OK with gay people,"' Smith said. "But there's still a lot of education that we need to do around folks who are born in one sex but are really the other."

Starting, she said, with a simple question: "Why, if sexual orientation is OK, isn't sexual identification?"

Smith would like to believe, as many suggest, that this is all simply a generational thing. With virtually every poll in the country showing that younger Americans care far less about sexual orientation and gender identification than their elders, logic would suggest it's only a matter of time before groups like EqualityMaine truly have outlived their usefulness.

She also hopes that last month's sea change at the polls will be accelerated by the courts. Just two days after our interview, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on two cases -- one rooted in California's Prop 8, the other in the federal Defense of Marriage Act -- that could forever alter the legal landscape surrounding same-sex marriage.

But then Smith looks at the NAACP, which grew out of the crusade for racial equality and, more than a century later, is still hard at work fighting racial prejudice and discrimination.

"The NAACP has been around a long time and they've done a lot of education. We have our first African-American president," she noted. "And racism still exists."

As will homophobia?

"I would like to think it won't, that enough laws get passed, that people become supportive and understanding of their gay neighbors and we all become just one. I hope that's where we're heading," Smith replied. "But historically in this country, minorities haven't always ended up in that place."

Indeed. But thanks in no small part to EqualityMaine, we're getting there.

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

bnemitz@mainetoday.com





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