Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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Maine's Missed Milestone

Maine's Missed Milestone

In a nail-biter of a race, out gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud lost to incumbent Maine governor Paul LePage. The Bangor Daily News called the race for LePage with 47 percent of the vote, while Michaud had 43 percent at press time

Throughout the campaign, the race was a close one — and one that held particular importance for LGBT Mainers and people nationwide who hoped November 4, 2014, would be the day when an entire state's voters sided with an out gay man. 

But in the end, history was not made Tuesday — at least not in Maine. In nearby Massachussetts, Maura Healy earned a historic victory as the first out LGBT person elected as any state's attorney general

Still, Michaud's campaign marked a milestone on the path to greater LGBT visibility that was deemed crucially imporant in one of Harvey Milk's legendary rallies in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood in 1978, when the gay political trailblazer spoke to the importance of electing out officials. 

"A gay person in office can set a tone, can command respect not only from the larger community, but from the young people in our own community who need both examples and hope," Milk said in his famous "Hope" speech in 1978. "Like every other group, we must be judged by leaders and by those who are themselves gay — those who are visible."

Just a year earlier, Milk had implored gay San Franciscans and their friends, supporters, and allies to be open about who they were with family, employers, and elected officials. 

"Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets," Milk said. "We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out."

Nearly 40 years later, Mike Michaud came out for many of the same reasons. Faced with what he claims was a "whisper campaign" about his then-secret sexual orientation, Michaud interrupted the conspiracy of silence. 

"They want people to question whether I am gay," Michaud wrote of the whispers in an op-ed for the Bangor Daily News last November. "Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: 'Yes, I am. But why should it matter?'"

Although Michaud wasn't able to secure the governor's mansion, by telling the truth about himself, the six-term congressman did quash any sinister political effort to turn his sexual orientation into a campaign issue. By coming out on his terms and directly asking his constituents if they thought his sexual orientation should matter, Michaud boldly challenged the dominant — and heretofore correct — prevailing wisdom that said being an openly gay candidate for a state's top office was politically impossible. In the passionate, articulate op-ed, Michaud assured readers that his sexual orientation had no bearing on his ability to effectively run the state and respond to the concerns of his constituents. 

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Right: Michaud thanking his supporters and congratulating Gov. LePage Tuesday evening. Image via Twitter.

But on Tuesday, it seemed Maine voters weren't quite ready to give Michaud that chance. As a Democratic congressman representing Maine in Washington for the past 10 years, Michaud racked up a voting record to speak to his Democratic credentials, which could have been a boon to his popularity in blue-leaning Maine. Even before he came out, Michaud consistently voted in support of LGBT-inclusive legislation, including the reauthorization of the LGBT-inclusive Violence Against Women Act, and as a cosponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. When political posturing in 2007 resulted in ENDA's protections for transgender people being removed from the bill, Michaud voted against the bill, even though he was one of its cosponsors. 

The Human Rights Campaign gave Michaud a perfect score of 100 on its most recent Congressional Scorecard, seeing the Congressman's rating increase from an 85 on the 2010 edition of that Scorecard. In the year before Michaud came out, HRC gave him a score of 95

On the ground in Maine, Michaud's gubernatorial bid earned the endorsements of several major newspapers in the generally Democratic-leaning state, including from the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.

All of this is a stark contrast from 10 years ago when then–New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey announced he was a "gay American" in a speech where the married father of two admitted to an affair with another man and promptly resigned. Although McGreevey had been surrounded by various allegations of corruption — including a charge that he put his male partner on the state payroll in a job for which he was not qualified — the national press fixated on the governor's revelation about his orientation. 

A decade later, Michaud's coming-out was indeed historic but also elicited a comparatively tame response in the press. Certainly, LGBT outlets — including this one — reported on the veteran congressman's announcement, but Michaud's sexuality simply failed to become a galvanizing force in a campaign that focused largely on the economy and rhetoric that argued it was time for a change from LePage's more conservative policies, according to the Portland Press Herald. The campaign featured record spending by both major candidates, as well as substantial expenditures by Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who less than a week before Election Day told his supporters they were free to vote for Michaud or LePage instead of him if they worried about the tight race between the two leading candidates. 

Notably, Michaud effectively vacated his seat in the U.S. House to run for governor, meaning that with a string of losses for new congressional LGBT hopefuls it's possible that there's one less LGBT lawmaker in Washington. Although the Bangor Daily News had yet to call the race to fill Michaud's seat, at press time, Republican candidate Bruce Poliquin had a 4-point lead over Democratic opponent Emily Ann Cain.

And while LGBT advocates had hoped that Michaud's election could prove that the nation is ready to embrace a new cultural and political paradigm, where sexuality really doesn't matter, it looks like voters need more time and more candidates. Michaud was only the first openly LGBT person to run for governor in a general election in any U.S. state.

Tammy Baldwin made history during the last election when she became the first out member of the U.S. Senate, and the House has had openly gay members for decades. One day, a gubernatorial candidate will fulfill Harvey Milk's call for prominent out elected officials.

Only out politicians can truly empathize with the invisibility that comes from not seeing people like yourself in positions of power, Milk explained.
 
"The anger and the frustrations that some of us feel is because we are misunderstood, and friends can't feel the anger and frustration," he once said. "They can sense it in us, but they can't feel it. Because a friend has never gone through what is known as coming out. I will never forget what it was like coming out and having nobody to look up toward. I remember the lack of hope — and our friends can't fulfill it."
 
And while LGBT Americans may indeed be feeling frustration and anger tonight, as Milk was so fond of saying, we've got to have hope.
 

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