December 9, 2012

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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

2012 file photo/The Associated Press

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:



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