It was almost 40 years ago that a young gay man was brutally beaten and thrown to his death off a bridge into Bangor’s Kenduskeag Stream. The murder of Charlie Howard in July 1984, was a body blow to gays and lesbians in Maine, and helped galvanize a movement for civil rights.
The violence of that murder calls to mind a time when gays and lesbians in Maine had no protection from discrimination in housing and employment, and from violence. Increased acceptance, same-sex marriage and a clearer understanding of issues regarding transgender people would not come until decades later — though there’s still work to be done.
That horrifying murder, the burgeoning AIDS crisis, and the struggles of the early days of the gay rights movement in Maine were some of the early stories in Our Paper, a gay and lesbian newspaper founded just a year earlier in 1983. Its purpose was to bring the community together at a time before the terminology and understanding included an understanding of transgender issues, or the expansive term of LGBTQ.
The paper at that distant time provided a connection for people who were often outsiders, many of them not open about their orientation for fear of losing employment or housing.
In the days following the murder of Charlie Howard, the newspaper provided information about gatherings in his memory, and served as a forum for people to express their outrage.
Among the key founders in the early days were Fred Berger, who hosted meetings of the Our Paper collective in his bookstore on Pine Street, Diane Elze, and later, Barb Wood, who would go on to become the first openly lesbian member elected to the Portland City Council.
Our Paper faced huge obstacles in its early days. After the first two issues of the publication in 1983, The Kennebec Journal, owned by the Guy Gannett company that also published the Portland Press Herald, told Berger that it would no longer publish the paper because of its “tasteless content,” according to an article in Our Paper. Pressed by Berger on what he had found “tasteless,” General Manager Bryan Thayer said it was the “AIDS risk-reduction” information that had been printed. Our Paper’s article had explained that the information, which included “common street language” as well as scientific terms, came from a pamphlet that had been distributed with the aid of the state health department.
It would not be the only time that Our Paper was targeted for printing information about safe sex practices. The newspaper was also briefly banned from the Portland Public Library, supposedly because it printed a “safe-sex test” that included objectionable material.
Early issues of Our Paper chronicle a difficult struggle for state civil rights legislation, in the face of strong opposition from the Maine Christian Civic League. The June 1985 issue that reported on the legislative hearing on the civil rights bill (which added the term “sexual orientation” to the Maine Human Rights Act) also ran front page stories on the firing of Rev. Barry Wood from Saint Luke’s Cathedral for performing a commitment ceremony for two women. Other stories in the early years described an inn on Mount Desert Island that would not rent a room to two women who wanted to share a bed, as well as assaults against gay men at Denny’s Restaurant, which were frequent.
The impetus and importance of the early life of Our Paper was driven by an unfolding AIDS crisis, just then taking hold and claiming many lives in the days before effective treatments. The newspaper fought to provide health information on the crisis, leading to the attempts to prevent distribution and printing.
Fred Berger, now living in Florida, recalls the impact that Our Paper had in those early days, when AIDS, violence and discrimination were real threats.
“I think we had a very large impact on how the politicos and the press reacted to AIDS,” Berger said, citing a lengthy interview with an early AIDS patient published in Our Paper which “helped to bring AIDS out of the closet.”
“We were way ahead of the other media in addressing the personal impact on our community,” Berger said. “I think that article changed the way others looked at AIDS.”