Meredith Steele of Bath, who boasts over 478,000 followers on TikTok, asked her followers to raise money for a local waiter who was left religious pamphlets targeting them for their sexuality while waiting tables. She gave a portion to the waiter and donated the remaining $10,500 to EqualityMaine in the waiter’s name. Contributed photo

After two people left religious pamphlets in the place of tips, targeting their openly gay waiter for their sexual orientation, a Bath-based social media influencer decided to turn the acts of bigotry into a gesture of kindness and acceptance.

The waiter said when a patron left the first religious pamphlet earlier this month, “I was frustrated but laughed it off.” However, when they saw a second, similar pamphlet left by a different customer on the same day, “I just stopped and stared at it.”

“I felt angry,” they said. “I was raised as a Christian and this isn’t how Christians treat people.”

The waiter spoke with The Times Record, but asked not to be identified for fear of discrimination.

After hearing the story from a friend who works with the waiter, Meredith Steele of Bath said she decided to act against the microaggression as her way of saying, “This is not how people — Christians especially — treat one another.”

“Regardless of your personal opinion, someone’s sexual orientation has absolutely nothing to do with how they do their job,” said Steele. “It’s never your time or place to make a comment like that. It infuriated me.”

Steele asked her over 478,000 followers on TikTok, a social media platform where users to share short videos, to donate to give the waiter the tip they deserved. Donations poured into her Venmo account, an online payment app, faster than she anticipated, leading her to close the fundraiser just days after it launched.

“Some people sent 17 cents and said, ‘This is all I have in my Venmo account,’ and others sent $100,” said Steele. “The amount of money that came in was absolutely insane.”

She split the donations, giving a portion to the waiter and the remaining $10,500 to EqualityMaine, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates for equality for Maine’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, in the waiter’s name. She declined to say how much the waiter received.

EqualityMaine Development Director Christopher O’Connor said the donation will be used to fund a scholarship, allowing 10 young adults to attend the organization’s New Leaders Camp, a weeklong overnight camp for LGBTQ 12-17-year-olds. This summer, the camp is looking to raise $50,000 to send 40 teenagers to camp, free of charge.

O’Connor said campers have called their time at the camp “life-changing” because for many, it’s their first time meeting other LGBTQ young adults and feeling accepted for first time in their lives.

“Kids in every corner of the state exist in their communities and schools as the only LGBT person they know,” said O’Connor. “Camp gives them the chance to meet kids just like them and know they’re valued, respected and loved. They get to feel comfortable in their own skin and explore maybe a new name or pronouns they’ve been thinking about but may be too scared to share it at home.”

Aside from giving campers a space to meet others like them, the camp aims to teach campers LGBTQ history and help them become leaders in their own communities, O’Connor said.

“Our youth are the next generation who will be leading the LGBTQ generation,” he said. “Most schools don’t touch on LGBT history at all unless you have a rare supportive history teacher, so we bring in our elders and they spend a day with the campers.”

O’Connor said this work is especially important because while Maine may be ahead of other states in terms of passing laws that protect LGBTQ Mainers, “there is still so much work to be done.”

“Maine, compared to other states, is well ahead of the curve,” said O’Connor. “We were one of the first states in the country to pass equal marriage by the vote of the people. The fact that Mainers sat up and said ‘Yes, you should be able to marry who you love.’ speaks volumes.”

However, laws don’t mean all instances of discrimination, from children being bullied in school for their sexual orientation or gender identity to waiters being left religious pamphlets, don’t happen, O’Connor said.

“Here this person is trying to make a living, and here comes these people who are saying ‘You’re less than I am,’” O’Connor said of the Midcoast waiter. “Until every single one of us can live our lives without any form of microaggression or discrimination, there’s still so much work to be done.”

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