July 21, 2013

EqualityMaine shifts focus to rural support for gay marriages

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

After winning same-sex marriage in 2012, a Maine gay-rights group is shifting its focus toward gaining acceptance for couples in rural areas that largely opposed it.

click image to enlarge

Terry Cookson, left, with her partner, Betty Armstrong, on Wednesday. Cookson reported little prejudice against her lifestyle while living in Windsor, which voted against same-sex marriage in 2012. Still, she applauded EqualityMaine's new strategy, which focuses on outreach in rural areas.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

The Portland-based advocacy group, EqualityMaine, released a five-year strategic plan recently to outline its overarching goals through 2018, focused on building and educating communities about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and issues statewide.

It's the group's first major step forward since November, when nearly 53 percent of Maine voters backed same-sex marriage. That virtually flipped the result of the 2009 referendum that negated a marriage law the Legislature had passed that year.

Most in Kennebec, Somerset and Franklin counties, however, probably still oppose gay marriage.

Last year, nearly 60 percent of voters in Somerset County went against it. Only in Aroostook and Piscataquis counties did a higher share of population vote that way. Kennebec and Franklin counties also opposed marriage for gay couples, albeit narrowly, at just over 51 percent and 53 percent, respectively.

Terry Cookson, a naturopathic doctor who lives with her partner in Windsor, said she has a supportive network at her Unitarian Universalist church and she doesn't see any particular hardship living where she does.

"There's just such a supportive community here," she said. "I'm a Mainer ... so I know how not to push people's buttons."

Still, Cookson sees good reason for EqualityMaine's new strategy. In the 1970s, she said, her mother, who lives in Knox, told her the only way she wouldn't accept her was if she was "queer."

By 2012, her mother had a change of heart. She helped her daughter collect signatures to get same-sex marriage on the ballot.

Maine is now one of 13 states that allows same-sex marriage. It's also one of 20 states with anti-employment discrimination laws that encompass sexual orientation, according to Nolo, an online legal publishing company.

"We had to get legal protections in place and do education to get legal protections put in place," said Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine. "But that's not the end of the process. In some ways, it's the beginning."

A gay-marriage opponent said the group's strategy is no surprise, following in the footsteps of groups that have won the marriage battle in other states. But he also said it's logical.

"There's no doubt that the greatest opposition comes from the rural areas," said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League and a leader of the 2012 campaign against gay marriage. "Strategically, it makes sense."

EqualityMaine's plan says the group's vision is to ensure equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people "in the hearts and minds of Maine people and in all areas of the law," with a focus on those living in rural areas and elderly, young and transgender people.

The focus on rural areas is a result of many factors, Smith said.

Part of it is because those who live outside of major cities may have not met anyone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and may be biased against them, she said. The group is looking to reduce that by enhancing community support for those populations, she said.

Smith, who lives in Portland with her partner and two children, said her family chose to live in Portland because it's an LGBT-friendly city with a support network for like-minded people.

"Our kids don't feel like their family is different than everyone else's," she said.

In 2009, slightly more than 33 percent of Windsor voters supported same-sex marriage. In November, that rose just above 40 percent.

Still, Cookson hasn't seen much opposition to her lifestyle, aside from signs disappearing during the campaign. Conley's side reported that as well.

(Continued on page 2)

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