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.

"Otherwise, people are pretty OK," Cookson said.

During the 2012 campaign, Conley's side said negative effects of "redefining" marriage eventually would come to Maine. Those include the creation of conflicts for private businesspeople who must provide certain services to gay couples — renting a wedding venue, shooting photographs or baking a cake, for example.

Refusing that service on the basis of sexual orientation would be illegal under Maine's anti-discrimination laws with or without same-sex marriage. Conley has maintained that marriage eventually could lead to those with deeply held convictions getting in trouble.

He said his organization will "continue to point out the consequences in places that are three or four years ahead" of Maine.

Smith said her organization hasn't yet heard of any specific instances of illegal discrimination in Maine, but rural areas could be more prone to discrimination than other parts of the state.

"There are a lot of situations that may not be legal discrimination, but where there is prejudice and bias," she said.

Even in rural Maine, however, support for same-sex marriage is growing, if election results are an indication.

In Somerset County, for example, supporters gained nearly 6 percentage points of the vote between 2009 and 2012, gaining more than 7 percentage points in Skowhegan and Fairfield, the county's biggest towns. They made gains in every county in Maine, even if they lost both times in those areas.

Conley chalks that up to a few reasons: Turnout was higher as President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign energized Democrats, while Republican nominee Mitt Romney didn't excite his base, which was less likely to support expanding marriage. He also said his campaign was outperformed at motivating constituents to vote.

"Not all of it is ideological," Conley said. "Some of it is strategic."

Even so, Smith said while Maine as a whole is becoming more tolerant of her side, some places are more accepting than others. She referred to a central Maine couple who has had beer bottles thrown on their lawn.

"We won marriage. It matters, but it doesn't change their lives on a day-to-day basis," she said.

Cookson hasn't had those problems where she lives, but she said as rural Mainers see that neighbors and friends identify themselves as gay and lesbian, minds will change.

"If people just look at us as a label rather than as individuals, they're not going to understand," she said. "That's why we need to get out into the rural areas."

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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