Politics

December 9, 2012

Bill Nemitz: What's the next step for EqualityMaine?

The boxes, piled three and four deep, filled much of Betsy Smith's office, a hard-won political campaign compressed into so much paper.

click image to enlarge

Betsy Smith, executive director of EqualityMaine, speaks at news conference at the State House in Augusta on Jan. 26 after gay marriage supporters collected enough signatures to force a second referendum on gay marriage. The referendum was approved Nov. 6.

2012 file photo/The Associated Press

"I've always said to my staff, 'Our job is to put ourselves out of a job,"' said Smith, the executive director of EqualityMaine, as she surveyed the pile.

Smiling, she added, "But we're not out of a job yet."

Twenty years ago, the goal for what was then the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance was simple: Add sexual orientation to the types of discrimination prohibited under the Maine Human Rights Act.

Done. The Legislature and then-Gov. John Baldacci passed "An Act To Extend Civil Rights Protections to All People Regardless of Sexual Orientation" in 2005 and that fall, the measure survived a people's veto referendum, 55-to-45 percent.

Seven years ago, EqualityMaine and a coalition of other groups set their sights on same-sex marriage.

Done. After same-sex marriage failed 53 percent to 47 percent at the polls in 2009, "An Act to Allow Marriage Licenses for Same-Sex Couples and Protect Religious Freedom" passed last month, reversing the previous outcome.

So there sat Smith last week in EqualityMaine's Portland headquarters, contemplating the past, present and, yes, the future of what clearly has become one of the most sophisticated, well-managed and successful political organizations in recent Maine history.

The obvious question: Now that it's put Maine on the map as one of the first three states to approve same-sex marriage at the polls -- Maryland and Washington also did it on Nov. 6 -- where does EqualityMaine go from here?

"We have parallel tracks going at the moment," replied Smith, who's led the organization since 2002. "One is who we are and what we do in the short term -- like in the next nine months. And then, who we are, what do we do in the next five years."

The first one is easy: Celebrate.

Maine's same-sex marriage law takes effect on Saturday, Dec. 29. And while EqualityMaine and its allies didn't ask for it -- their longtime mantra, after all, has been "equal rights, not special rights" -- municipal officials in Portland and Augusta (so far) have announced they'll open their clerks' offices on that day to accommodate couples who want to say "I do" as soon as humanly possible.

"We're all very excited about that," said Smith, noting that EqualityMaine will hold "celebration receptions" around the state in the coming months for couples who once wondered if this day would ever come.

But beyond the rejoicing, Smith sees more work -- starting with a series of strategic planning sessions scheduled for the summer.

Exactly where those sit-downs will take EqualityMaine remains to be seen. But for now, Smith said, she envisions a renewed focus on ensuring that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers "can live their lives in a way that they can be fully part of the fabric of society in the same equal and fair way that everyone else can."

In other words, legal protection is one thing. Widespread social acceptance is quite another.

Or, as Smith noted, "We got 53 percent."

Meaning?

"If 47 percent of the people didn't want this to happen, then you can imagine an elderly (gay or lesbian) couple who might be going into a retirement home or assisted living," she said. "They're going to face people who aren't supportive and don't understand.

"And so we need to educate those people. We need to continue having conversations and continue being part of their lives so that they can start seeing us -- and see that more and more people support us."

(Continued on page 2)

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