The scene on Congress Street during the 2018 Pride Portland parade, which will return Saturday, June 18, for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. (Diane Hudson photo)
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As Pride month is celebrated after being scaled back for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, Maine’s longtime LGBTQ advocates say despite 30 years of progress their work isn’t done.

There’s much to be proud of – Portland will have parades and is marking the recent opening of the new Equality Community Center but the advocates say there’s no room for complacency.

“We can never grow complacent in the progress that we’ve made,” said Chris O’Connor, the manager of the Equality Community Center who has also worked at EqualityMaine and Pride Portland.

Chris O'Connor
Chris O’Connor, manager of the new Equality Community Center on Casco Street in Portland: “We can never grow complacent in the progress that we’ve made.” (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

O’Connor said it’s the resiliency of the LGBTQ community that affords the opportunity to celebrate this month, and the reason for his feelings of comfort and peace, despite the watchfulness. He called the new community center a milestone in Maine’s longstanding history of LGBTQ advocacy.

The ECC – a home base for LGBTQ and other equality community groups at 15 Casco St. – officially opened on June 1. It has a variety of community events scheduled throughout the month, as well as programming that will continue throughout the year. It houses the LGBTQ movement and its allies that have fought for years against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and for marriage equality. 

To LGBTQ advocacy veterans like Betsy Smith, one of the founders of the ECC in 2014, the opening of the center is the culmination of more than 30 years of work in the movement.

It’s also a way to show support for the younger generation. Before they were writing checks to campaigns, Smith said, and now they can write them to “a place of permanence” to call their own.

Betsy Smith
Betsy Smith, a founder of the Equality Community Center in 2014, said the center is a culmination of 30 years of work. (Courtesy ECC)

“It feels very special to me and many of my colleagues that there’s a place for the next generation that we never had,” she said.

Another LGBTQ advocacy veteran, ECC Treasurer Dale McCormick, described the feeling now as “joyful but watchful.” There’s always work to be done, she said, but this month will be special.

The last time the Pride parade took place, the ECC was at its smaller, rented location. “Now we have a whole building and a manager, programming for pride, and we’re going to have a reception,” McCormick said.

O’Connor agreed this year’s Pride month will be unique because of the addition of the ECC but acknowledged that a sense of caution is never far away for the LGBTQ community. 

“Our whole existence as a movement and as people … has been making progress, and then someone trying to take it away,” he said.

Now the issue is the U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming abortion decision that is expected to strike down Roe v. Wade; the next thing being reevaluated could be marriage equality, O’Connor said.

Federal protections for marriage equality passed in 2015, as a result of Obergefell v. Hodges, but that change had a negative side effect, he said, because many thought the LGBTQ movement had won and its work was finished. He said this led to many state equality organizations shutting down.

Fortunately, he said, EqualityMaine never adopted that attitude and continued going strong.

“We wish there would be a day where you don’t need an EqualityMaine or you don’t need a MaineTransNet, but that isn’t the reality,” O’Connor said.

No shortage of opposition

EqualityMaine launched a campaign for the freedom to marry in 2009. It was passed in both houses of the Maine Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci, but overturned by a people’s veto ballot initiative later that year.

The nonprofit followed up with a campaign to put marriage equality on the 2012 ballot, and it was successful. It made Maine the first state to grant the right without legislative or court approval, but it wasn’t without struggles along the way.

Dale McCormick
Dale McCormick, treasurer of the Equality Community Center in Portland, described the feeling of the LGBTQ community this month as “joyful but watchful.” (Courtesy ECC)

Activists see the now-conservative Supreme Court as a looming threat. If it overturns Obergefell v. Hodges and leaves marriage equality up to statewide jurisdiction, Maine currently has laws in place to protect marriage, but other states might be quick to cut back those rights.

O’Connor said the LGBTQ community knows that there’s always someone opposing them “right at the door,” waiting to challenge the protections they’ve fought for over the years.

In 1993, for example, the Maine Civil Rights Act was amended to protect LGBTQ people from hate crimes. But in the same year, a bill updating nondiscrimination laws to include the LGBTQ community was vetoed by Gov. John McKernan.

That fight persisted for more than a decade, finally resulting in a nondiscrimination law based on sexual orientation and gender identity being passed in 2005. There were subsequent challenges on several occasions, according to EqualityMaine, including bills in 2014 and 2015 that would have created loopholes in the law.

O’Connor also noted a current Republican political ad that attacks the use of pro-LGBTQ lesson plans in Maine schools, which he said is threatening to LGBTQ youth and especially harmful at a time when elected leaders are making proposals like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. 

More than 240 bills impacting LGBTQ rights have been proposed in the U.S so far in 2022, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This year is “the worst year in recent history” for legislative attacks on LGBTQ rights, Human Rights Campaign said in a press release.

“Those things are all on the doorstep of Maine,” O’Connor said, where three anti-trans bills didn’t pass two legislative sessions ago.

It’s for these reasons that the community needs the ECC and organizations like EqualityMaine and MaineTransNet, O’Connor said, so when it comes to protecting those rights there’s no doubt the movement can step up and fight back.

A commitment to the movement

For someone who’s been in the fight for years, Betsy Smith said this Pride month is just as important as any other. While it’s time to celebrate, she said Pride month has always been about an annual commitment to the movement, a reminder that the work continues.

Gia Drew
Gia Drew, recently named executive director of EqualityMaine, said with so many pride events this month, there’s something for everyone. (Courtesy EqualityMaine)

Gia Drew, the new executive director of EqualityMaine, said Pride celebrations have changed shape and persisted throughout the pandemic.

Drew said the inability to have large gatherings led members of the LGBTQ community to hold smaller, less centralized events to celebrate pride, which will also continue this month: There are 28 Pride events scheduled throughout June, in as many as 14 Maine towns and cities.

“That’s unheard of,” she said.

Along with the return of Portland’s downtown parade on June 18, Drew said, members of the community can get a bit of everything, picking and choosing how they celebrate their pride.

Theo Greene, a relatively new ECC board member and an assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College, said while it’s special to get together for the parades, what should truly be celebrated is how Pride persevered despite the challenges of recent years.

“We saw enormous continuity and the need to keep traditions alive,” Greene said. While Pride month is a great chance to show support for the movement, he said it’s more than just a month in the year.

“Pride is not a 30-day celebration, but a 365-day celebration and the notion of sustaining the kind of energy we always build around pride throughout the year is really important,” Greene said.

Theo Greene
Equalitiy Community Center board member Theo Greene said pride isn’t just a monthly event but a year-round responsibility. (Courtesy ECC)

While the idea of a community center might seem outdated to some, Greene said people are beginning to see the necessity of a place like the ECC and what it means to allied community groups.

In her more than 30 years of experience, ECC Treasurer McCormick said, that is something that’s brand new to the community center and the movement: “To have equality-focused groups together, in one place, and welcome … I think it’s going to do a lot for Maine.”

New partners like the Cambodian community group KHMER Maine, or Cross Cultural Community Services, are two examples that have already joined the cause.

The intersectionality of these groups is a big part of this phase of the ECC, Chris O’Connor explained. The “strength in solidarity” approach is going to help all of the ECC’s partners make an even greater change, he said, and will include opportunities for the different groups to share their experiences and strategies.

The ECC is now preparing for the final phase of its plan: the development of affordable housing and retail space for marginalized communities next door to the center. A $4 million capital campaign is underway and is hoped to conclude by December.

The Casco Street building – a former bank before it was bought with funding from an anonymous donor in March 2021 – is still undergoing renovations, including the addition of a kitchen and showers. 

While there’s still much work to be done – especially with only two staffers and a volunteer board – O’Connor said he feels like he has the time he needs to keep the movement progressing.

“We will fight, and fight, and fight, and we’re not going anywhere,” he said. “That’s the power of this building being ours.”

Pride Portland 2018
Representatives of EqualityMaine take part in the 2018 Pride Portland parade. (Diane Hudson photo)

A month packed with Pride

Large-scale Pride celebrations are returning after two pandemic years, but adjustments made in that time mean even more programming is being offered by local organizations.

These events have been scheduled by the Equality Community Center and EqualityMaine:

Equality Community Center

Friday, June 10: 

  • Brunswick Pride Tabling Event, 4-7 p.m.; Brunswick.
  • “Just Say Gay” Youth Pride Event, 5-7 p.m.; 15 Casco St., Portland.

Saturday, June 11:

  • Kennebunk Pride Tabling Event (time TBA).

Monday, June 13:

  • Pride poster making, 10-6 p.m.; 15 Casco St.

Tuesday, June 14:

  • Pride poster making, 10-6 p.m.; 15 Casco St.
  • Friends of the ECC Pride Celebration, 5:30-7:30 p.m.; Rising Tide Brewing Co., Portland.

Wednesday, June 15:

  • Pride poster making, 10-6 p.m.; 15 Casco St.

Thursday, June 16:

  • Pride poster making, 10-6 p.m.; 15 Casco St.

Friday, June 17:

  • Pride poster making, 10-6 p.m.; 15 Casco St.
  • Dyke March Maine, 6 p.m.; Tommy’s Park, Portland.

Saturday, June 18:

  • Pride Morning Coffee and Donuts, 10 a.m.-noon; 15 Casco St.
  • Pride Portland Parade and Festival, 1-5 p.m.; Congress Street and Deering Oaks Park, Portland.

EqualityMaine

Friday, June 10:

  • Pride Garden Party, 4-6 p.m.; Sarah Orne Jewett Museum, South Berwick.

Thursday, June 16:

  • Pride Cruise, 6 p.m.; Casablanca Cruises, 18 Custom House Wharf, Portland.

Saturday, June 18:

  • Midcoast Conservancy Pride Hike and Picnic, 11 a.m.-1 pm; Hidden Valley Nature Center, Jefferson.
  • Pride Aroostook, 1-5 p.m.; Riverside Park, Presque Isle.

— Evan Edmonds