Gay Rights Fight Begins
Governor Baldacci has submitted "An Act to Prevent Discrimination" to the legislature for consideration, declaring (from the AP) "This is good for business. This is good for Maine. It is the right thing to do. In Maine, we need not fear our neighbors."
When I spoke to veteran Maine political columnist Al Diamon a few weeks ago for the column he wrote about this site, I just had one question for him in return: Why, in his opinion, was gay rights legislation defeated in the 2000 referendum election?
In 1995, Mainers rejected a ban on legislating equal rights based on sexual orientation. In 1997, after three decades of trying, a bill preventing discrimination was passed in the Maine legislature. Both of these actions seemed to confirm that the state of Maine was a tolerant and accepting place.
In 1998, the law was narrowly repealed in a "people’s veto", but the vote was in the middle of a blizzard in February in a special election. Most people wrote off the result as simply a case of huge turnout and tricky politicking by the small but motivated Christian right.
When revamped anti-discrimination legislation was put forward in a legislatively mandated referendum in 2000, it looked sure to pass. Most of the state’s political, business, and religious establishment was behind the measure, and polls put support at around 60% a week before the vote. Then something strange happened. As the returns came in, the vote began to deviate from the polls. In the end, the measure lost by 4,834 votes (less than 1%).
There were various explanations for the result. Some folks immediately declared that there was an underlying anti-gay sentiment in the state. James Roberts of USM told the Portland Press Herald "I think there's a real problem here in trying to measure public opinion [...] You don't want to label yourself as a bigot, so you lie to the pollsters."
Amy Fried, a Political Science professor at UMaine expressed a similar opinion to the BDN. "They don't want to come off as discriminating against anyone and they don't always tell pollsters the truth," she explained.
Governor King, however, thought it was something else.
"It would be easy to wake up this morning to this result and say that the people of Maine are biased, prejudiced, and that this was an anti-gay vote," said King. "I don't think so. They were not persuaded that the change was necessary. I suspect that some part of that [vote] are people who don't like gay people. But I think a significant part were just not persuaded that this was necessary, that there was a need for this. For whatever reason they never got the message across that it was needed. The polls were so one sided that the advocates didn't realize the extent to which they had to make their case. They felt like it was just going to happen."
- Bangor Daily News, November 9, 2000
Diamon leans towards King’s explanation. The people of Maine don’t hate gays; they just weren’t convinced that the law was necessary. The pro-rights side believed the polls and ran a complacent and lackluster campaign, the Christian Civic League turned out their base, and that was that. 4,834 votes.
Diamon had some other insight as well. He predicts that the fight in the legislature this year will be a much tougher battle than many think, and believes that the body has recently become much more socially conservative.
The CCL hopes that’s the case. In an email today, Michael Heath asks members to contact their representatives, and explains that "Stopping this in the Legislature is going to be much less costly and difficult than stopping them in another statewide ballot fight."
Equality Maine has suited up as well. They have set up an online form that can be used to contact your elected officials. I urge you to go there now or use the links in the sidebar of this site to contact your Senator and Representative immediately (and often). This is an issue that goes to the heart of how we view our state and how we treat our neighbors and fellow citizens. We are currently the only state in New England where it's legal to fire someone or kick them out of their home simply for being gay.
If the law passes and another referendum campaign occurs, Diamon had three words of advice for the anti-discrimination side, "Hire Dennis Bailey."
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