December 06, 2021

Gay rights activists regroup> Tourist towns work to reassure visitors of tolerance, acceptance

OGUNQUIT — Since last winter’s repeal of Maine’s new gay rights law, tourism-conscious town officials on the state’s southern coast and down east in Bar Harbor want to reassure visitors their traditional tolerance remains intact.

Ogunquit issued a proclamation declaring support for nondiscrimination legislation, while Bar Harbor enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance similar to one in effect in the state’s largest city of Portland since 1992.

The Bar Harbor ordinance, echoing the blocked state law, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations.

Advocates of a statewide law, still regrouping from their February referendum defeat, have been heartened by the towns’ actions and by tentative steps in other municipalities, including the seaside enclaves of Camden and Kennebunk and the city of South Portland.

But some see the major battlefields elsewhere.

“Unfortunately, the communities that are passing these are not necessarily the places where people are the neediest,” says David Garrity, a board member of the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance from Portland.

Ogunquit, for instance, has long been one of those “communities that I would label as welcoming,” Garrity says. Its tony shops, popular restaurants, comfortable lodging and artistic heritage make it a regular stopping point for well-to-do tourists, including many gays.

The occasional same-sex couple holding hands prompts little notice on the picturesque Marginal Way promenade that curves along the shore. Even a drag queen in a sparkling gown accompanied by a group of young men on a downtown sidewalk draws only discreet whispers and titters from a Memorial Day weekend throng.

“This community is a community that has accepted everyone,” says Martin Fitzgerald, the owner of a Perkins Cove shop called The Whistling Oyster.

It took two decades to get the Legislature to pass and a governor to sign a gay rights law in Maine, but just nine months to have voters repeal it.

The Feb. 10 people’s veto, reflecting suspicion in many quarters about “special rights” for homosexuals, apparently failed to produce economic repercussions that some had warned of, tourism officials say.

Now, among the disappointed opponents of repeal, the vote has sparked a reassessment of political strategy and tactics.

In recent months, some gay rights organizers have concluded that the real challenge to broadening the umbrella of the Maine Human Rights Act lies in the state’s hinterlands, where homosexuality may be little understood or viewed with hostility.

Foes of gay rights legislation are watchful.

“It’s not over by any means. And we’re prepared to respond to that,” says Paul Madore, a repeal proponent from Lewiston where a gay rights ordinance was adopted in 1993 and subsequently overturned by voters.

“We view their tact to be an incremental approach,” Madore says. “They’re trying to circumvent the ballot issue that they’ve failed on.”

Madore’s organization, the Maine Grassroots Coalition, lined up with the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Christian Coalition of Maine to lead the repeal forces to victory last winter. They are now embarked on a petition drive aimed at banning so-called partial birth abortions.

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