Published Date Written by Cliff GallantWhen I was in high school in Portland in the 1960's, the only thing we knew about anything having to do with sex besides a boy and girl getting it on in the back seat of somebody's Chevy was that there were "queers" , or maybe "homos", who hung around Deering Oaks, otherwise known as " Pickle Park", so you shouldn't go there alone. Oh, maybe for a baseball game, but be very careful when you go chasing after a foul ball, day or night.
Then after high school came the counter-culture and we found ourselves flocking to third floor crash pads where we sat on the floor around glass-topped lobster traps drinking Chiante wine, smoking local green, and listening to Bob Dylan tell us that "the times they are a'changin". Society as we knew it was being upended. Long hair on males, hair everywhere on females, and, lo and behold, "gays". People who out and out declared their sexual preference for others of their own gender, and who refused to demean themselves by haunting public places looking for cheap thrills.
Centuries of custom don't evaporate overnight though. There was an avant-garde who declared their "gay pride" very openly, yes, but the notion that there were people who were "naturally" homosexual or lesbian and that they were not inherently immoral or deviant didn't enter mainstream thinking until quite a bit later.
The movement for gay and lesbian rights began to gain traction in the 1970's with the appearance of gay bars in the city. Not exactly what local gay and lesbian activists had in mind as an end goal, but decidedly better than having to lurk around dimly lit places or cruise the streets in the wee hours.
Longtime Portlanders will remember Cremo's, at the corner of High and Spring streets, across from where the Greyhound bus station was. Many a newcomer to the city wandered over, unknowingly. Many lingered, knowingly. And there was Roland's Tavern, at the corner of Forest and Cumberland avenues. Started out as Alvie's Truck Stop Café and made a slow but sure transition. The stories. The stories.
It wasn't until the 1980s, though, that the gay movement in Portland began to take on an air of legitimacy and even respectability. John Preston, who was a nationally known novelist and gay activist, moved here in 1979 to escape the pressures of the New York literary life and wrote extensively about his observations of the local gay scene. Throughout the 1980s, gay publications across the country carried his "Letters From Maine", which, while drawing short of declaring Portland to be the "gay mecca" that others were beginning to see it as, did describe the city as a place where gays were experiencing an uncommon degree of acceptance. Surprisingly enough, in spite of what one might expect to find up here in the Northeast corner of the country, Preston wrote, he found tolerance for one another's beliefs and behaviors to be very much a part of the local character.
Evidently there was a great deal of truth to that observation, in as much as in 1987 Barb Wood became the first "out" gay person elected to public office in the State of Maine when she won a seat on the Portland City Council. Also elected to the council in that same year was Peter O'Donnell, who later became the mayor of the city, after having held a press conference on the steps of City Hall at which he declared himself to be a gay man.
Then in the 1990s there was Fran Peabody and her trademark boa feathers. A wealthy aristocratic woman who, as a straight grandmother in her '90s, embraced the cause of gay rights so wholeheartedly and enthusiastically that she was proclaimed the Grand Marshal of the Southern Maine Gay Pride parade in 1998. Watching a young man running beside the convertible she was riding in desperately trying to hold an umbrella over her in an all-out effort to protect her from the hot sun is a scene that will always stay with me.
So the progression from the dark shadows to the light of day has been steady and hard won for the gay community in Portland, but this November there is to be a state-wide vote that will be a true test of exactly how far our sense of fair play and common decency extends. Once unthinkable, the question of whether or not gay men and lesbian women can legally marry will be put squarely before us on the ballot.
Gay men and women want what anyone wants: to celebrate in front of their friends and families that they have found the person who they want to share their life with. And they want their relationship to be legitimized so that if one of them needs to be hospitalized, for instance, the other is allowed, as a spouse, to be privy to vital information about their condition. Then there's all the other legal matters that pertain to the married state. Wills, insurance, that sort of thing. So there are practical as well as emotional issues involved here.
If you've read this far you were probably already with me on this, but that's not enough. You have to get out and vote. This involves a basic human right. It's time to stand up and be counted.