Twenty years after the killing of a gay man shocked the city, gays and lesbians feel safer in Bangor, Maine. Some say the tragedy marked the beginning of changing attitudes. Back then the movement for gay rights was making huge strides in places like San Francisco, but gays and lesbians in Bangor had little to protect them from discrimination, ridicule, and physical attacks. Today Bangor gays and lesbians acknowledge that much has changed since July 7, 1984, when an openly gay man, Charles O. Howard, was chased down, beaten, kicked, and thrown into the Kenduskeag Stream. "I think I'm safe 99% of the time," says Dan Williams, a gay man who lives in Bangor. But he remains cautious, despite all the changes. "Do I still look for an escape route when I'm about to walk through a group of people on the sidewalk? Of course."
Howard, who wore makeup and carried a purse, had recently moved to Bangor from Portsmouth, N.H. His death came after three teens chased him and a companion in downtown Bangor. Howard tripped on a curb, and the three boys, James Baines, 15, Shawn Mabry, 16, and Daniel Ness, 17, threw him off a bridge. Charged with murder, they eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland. The murder made headlines across the country. The city now has an antidiscrimination ordinance, the police department has a hate-crimes officer, the state has a hate-crimes law, and there's even a monument to Howard on the bridge he was thrown from.
Jamie Rogers, community education coordinator at the Eastern Maine AIDS Network, says Bangor is a tolerant city, but young gay, lesbian, and transgendered people still have a multitude of battles to fight: "It can be tough, and some of them have more issues than just their sexuality," she says. "It's very individual. Some have it easy at their high schools, and others have it tough, just like the heterosexual population, really."
Mike Miles and Dave Wallace, owners of a gay bar called the Spectrum, said they have noticed the changes since opening the club in 1989. "We'd have some distributors who simply wouldn't deliver their products to us," Wallace says. "We had this octagon-shaped window at the entrance, and we were like the little guy on The Wizard of Oz who stuck his head out and said, 'State your business."' These days they run the business in peace, they say: "We've never had a problem here."
Lance Pinkham and his partner, Jeff Brawn, were joined in a union ceremony at the Spectrum two years ago. Both men work in Bangor restaurants and say they have never experienced problems with employers because of their sexuality. When a regular of Captain Nick's Restaurant on Union Street objected loudly to being waited on by a gay man, owner George Brountas had him step outside and
let him know that he could take his business elsewhere, Brawn says. Pinkham, whose brother was friends with the three killers, says he doesn't know if the positive changes can be linked to to Howard's death. Either way, things have changed for the better, he says: "Whether that's due to Charlie Howard or not, I don't know, but things did start to change then."