FARMINGTON — As a gay man in Maine, Paul Fuller saw firsthand the hatred of discrimination, but he thought that as an individual, there was little he could do. As a long-distance hiker and athlete, however, Fuller knew he had one gift — he could walk.
So on a 32-degree-below-zero morning last January, Fuller began walking from the Canadian border to Kittery in support of the anti-discrimination law that would have protected gays and lesbians as well as others in housing, credit and employment. The law passed by the Legislature in 1997 was defeated in a referendum Feb. 10.
Fuller was the keynote speaker Sunday at the 24th annual Symposium, the state’s gay convention, held at the University of Maine at Farmington. The two-day convention drew about 200 people from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire who participated in workshops and listened to entertainers. Fuller told the gathering about his walk and how it changed his life.
“This trip was the most profound thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said the Waldoboro antique dealer. “It changed me forever.” He said he hoped his walk would help bring together the gay community and enable grass-roots organizations to cooperate on passing the referendum next year. Fuller and others at the conference said they planned to hold a summer summit to organize for a new referendum to pass the civil rights law.
“Someone said to me while I was walking `This walk has tied the state together.’ I hope it did. Maine is 400 miles long and every bit of it is important,” said Fuller.
During the walk, most of which was made in rainy, icy weather, Fuller was encouraged along the way. At the beginning of the trek, he passed an African-American man in Presque Isle who shouted “Go for it!” and gave him a huge smile. Minutes later, a 10-year-old boy stuck his head out of a passing car and shouted encouragement.
Suddenly, said Fuller, he realized that he was not just walking for gay rights. He was walking for human rights. “The tears ran down my cheeks,” he said. “When I was young, all we got was `queer’ and `faggot.’ Now it is becoming OK to be different. We’ve come a long way and we have a long way to go.”
The difficulties mounted along the route, said Fuller, until he reached a low point just outside Bangor. “It was pouring rain and I approached an icy puddle that was as deep as my knees,” he recalled. When some of his supporters offered to drive him through the puddle, Fuller replied, “No. I have to walk every step.”
Fuller began drawing strength from the cause, he said, and despite losing weight and several toenails, and sporting nearly a dozen blisters on his feet, he persevered. All along the way, people spontaneously held rallies, opened their homes to him and handed him bread and water, and many honked their horns as they drove by.
Only once was he in danger, he said, when a loaded pulp truck nearly drove over him in Aroostook County. “I was offered a bulletproof vest, but I never wore it. Through the walk, about 1,000 people walked with me, sometimes for just a few feet, sometimes for days. We walked single file across the Carlton Bridge in Bath and hundreds of us entered the city of Portland,” Fuller said. “To finish the walk, knowing I might have made a difference was amazing.”
Fuller said he was “devastated” when the civil rights law was vetoed by the voters in the Feb. 10 referendum. The saddest part of the experience, he said, was seeing that the place with the greatest number of signs saying “Vote Yes” to veto the law, was in his own neighborhood. “We lost Waldoboro and that hurt the most,” he said.
Fuller said he vowed to see the civil rights law passed next year. “This is a human rights issue that affects everyone,” he said. “I sometimes feel we focus too much on the lesbian and gay rights versus human rights.
“And next time we will win,” he added. “We will win because we are right.”