Last Thursday, a 22-year-old University of Maine student taped a “Maine Still Won’t Discriminate” brochure onto his door to remind other people in Estabrooke Hall to vote on the gay rights referendum Feb. 10.
In the middle of the night, he woke up because another student had come into his unlocked room and demanded to know whether he was a “fag” and if he had oral sex with men, according to an assistant state attorney general.
Then Kirk Daigle allegedly said, “Let me tell you something. … I’m from Bangor and three of my best friends threw a fag off the bridge and now I come home and find this on your door.”
Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer filed a civil lawsuit Thursday against Daigle, the 26-year-old student from Bangor, to get a restraining order. Ketterer said, “Law enforcement will not tolerate attempts to threaten and intimidate people over the upcoming referendum on retaining anti-discrimination protection for gays and lesbians.”
It’s the third time in three months that an incident at UM has been brought to court under the Maine Civil Rights Act. In late October, a UM freshman sent violent anti-gay messages over the campus computer network to another student and to various groups. In December, a black student was threatened by three white students.
Last year there were 24 civil rights enforcement cases filed in Maine.
Neither the student who was threatened last week nor Daigle returned phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
Several gay students at UM said the incident, coming a few months after another anti-gay incident, has people scared.
“The only reason [Daigle] went into that room is because of the Maine Won’t Discriminate posting on the door,” said Kathleen Worcester, a sophomore who is co-chair of the Wilde Stein Alliance for Sexual Diversity. There are posters for the referendum all over campus, she said, so other people could be in danger.
“That is really creepy. … If you’re open about your support of gay rights, there is a degree of threat out there. … That’s why people stay in the closet, don’t dare come out of the closet, at work, with family, at school.”
Stephen Wessler, the assistant attorney general, said that often the victims of anti-gay harassment do not report anything to the police because they do not want people to know or think that they are homosexual.
A student who is not open about being gay said, “That [incident is] a perfect example of why I’m not telling you my name. Because someone could kick down my door tonight and start screaming at me and talking about Charlie Howard.”
Howard died in 1984 when three teen-agers threw him off of a bridge in Bangor after beating him because he was gay.
“What shocks me most is that [Daigle] directly tied this into the murder of Charlie Howard. That is very scary,” said Worcester.
The Attorney General’s Office brought eight civil rights cases to court last year in which gays or lesbians were targeted. Summaries of the cases are filled with swears and punches and slashed tires. Some opponents of the gay rights law say they believe the figures are inflated. Wessler said three-quarters of the cases come directly from police.
He said UM may have more cases simply because the university’s Department of Public Safety has been responsive to that type of incident. “We take these situations very seriously and have made it clear to students and staff that, should they feel discriminated against or threatened, we will intercede quickly,” said UM President Peter Hoff.
The school has a “zero-tolerance” policy against threats and violence.
The matter has also been referred to the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution. And the university’s judicial affairs office will consider possible violations of its student conduct code.
“This particular allegation of bias is a good reason why, in my opinion, the governor and Legislature acted responsibly last year when they supported passage of anti-discrimination legislation,” Hoff said.
The law to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, accommodations and credit was passed last spring but frozen by a people’s veto effort which forced a special election to be scheduled Feb. 10.
Lawrence Lockman, an opponent of gay rights legislation, said Wessler has tried to make it seem as though there are many more bias incidents than there actually are.
As for this specific incident, he said: “That’s deplorable conduct. Anyone who threatens someone’s life should be punished. We already have laws against all of that stuff” to protect gay people from criminal acts. Any other protection is simply giving homosexuals special rights, he said.
Worcester said she had always felt much safer at UM; growing up in Washington County, she said, “there are still physical threats to your life [if you’re openly gay] in those areas. The only people from my home I’m out to are my mother, and like three other friends that I grew up with that are also queer.” On campus, she does not tell her professors or strangers but doesn’t actively try to hide how she feels, she said.
Some gay students have been working with faculty and other university staff to set up “safe zones” for students who are not heterosexual. Worcester said, “I think a lot more people are going to be locking their doors. I think people feel that in a dorm it’s safe” because nonstudents can’t get in the door at night.
Wessler said the student who was threatened did not lock his door, “but he’s locking it now.”