Starting today gays and lesbians in Maine have legal recourse to stand up to anyone denying them services, housing or a job based on their sexual orientation.
Even though Mainers have battled for nearly three decades over whether such rights are an appropriate fit for the state, no major gatherings or events were scheduled to mark the occasion.
The new anti-discrimination law gives the Maine Human Rights Commission the power to investigate complaints of bias against gays and lesbians.
“Before, people could fire somebody for being gay [or lesbian] or refuse to hire them, or refuse to give them a hotel room,” said Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, formerly the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance. “And now they simply can’t do that anymore.
“If they have been fired because of their sex orientation, they can legally file a lawsuit,” she stressed Tuesday.
The law is not retroactive, Smith pointed out, and can be applied only to cases from today forward.
State legislators passed the law this summer but it was put on hold when a coalition of organizations, including the Christian Civic League of Maine, successfully petitioned to have voters decide its fate through a November referendum.
Fifty-five percent of voters rejected the coalition’s proposal on Nov. 8, allowing the law to take effect today.
The day after the vote, members of the losing side announced they would refocus their efforts to passing a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Opponents argued during the campaign that the new law would eventually lead to same-sex marriages, even though they are prevented under existing law.
On Tuesday, however, Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said the coalition was not yet certain about pursuing the amendment.
“We’ll be deciding sometime after the new year,” he said.
Heath said the league had no events planned for Wednesday to mark the law’s enactment.
Smith said the only thing Equality Maine was doing to spotlight the new law was to send e-mails reminding its more than 2,000 members about the law taking effect. The message also outlines steps victims of discrimination would need to follow to file a complaint.
One Brewer bar, however, planned to host a gourmet dinner and drag show in the evening. All proceeds from the event at the Detour Bar and Grill, co-owned by “life partners” Chase and Troy Blanchard, will go to the Howard Foundation, a Bangor-area group that promotes acceptance and tolerance of gay and lesbian people.
The foundation was named for Charlie Howard of Bangor, who drowned on July 7, 1984, when he was assaulted by three local teens and thrown off a downtown bridge into Kenduskeag Stream. The teens admitted attacking Howard because he was homosexual. The foundation was created last year on the 20th anniversary of his death.
Chase Blanchard said tonight’s event will be a great way to promote diversity in the region. The dinner starts at 6 p.m. and the show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets will be available at the door on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.
While she couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, Patricia E. Ryan, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, penned her opinion of the law in an October column that ran in the Bangor Daily News.
“Opponents have frequently claimed that protection against discrimination is a ‘special right’ for gays and lesbians,” she wrote. “As the one responsible with enforcing Maine’s anti-discrimination laws, I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth.
“These are not ‘special rights,'” Ryan stated. “They are basic human rights that are, and should be, guaranteed to everyone.”
The Maine Human Rights Act also prevents discrimination based upon race, sex, disability, religion, ancestry and age.
The new law, which adds sexual orientation to the list, is not expected to cause a significant jump in the commission’s caseload, Ryan wrote. Her office handled about 600 discrimination cases in 2004, mostly concerning discrimination against those with disabilities.
Smith agreed that there likely would not be an onslaught of cases, but that if there was a need, gays and lesbians could now “actually file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. The law now is on their side.”