Nearly 20 years ago, I was fired from a television station in Bangor, Maine after I was spotted inside a gay bar by straight co-workers. When word filtered up to my conservative boss, he euphemistically dismissed me by saying that I wasn’t “right for Maine.”
Losing my job seemed like a personal and professional catastrophe. I was 24 years old, flat broke, living with a 20-year-old boyfriend who worked for minimum wage at a sandwich shop, and we had just arrived from Florida. To survive, we pawned our new furniture for virtually nothing on our frigid front lawn, while we stood and shivered on this foreign substance called snow. Within weeks, our two-year relationship was a casualty of the stress caused by this nightmare, and he returned to Florida.
Ironically, this disaster turned out to be my lucky career break. I was hired as a press secretary for a Democratic candidate who was running for the United States Senate. This set the stage for me to move to Washington, D.C. to build a career in politics, writing and advocacy.
Given my experience, it was gratifying to see the enormous progress that Maine has recently made. Last year, voters approved a ballot initiative legalizing same-sex marriage. This showed that it was actually people like my former boss who aren’t “right for Maine” and undermine the state’s core values of fairness and equality.
Indeed, it seems the state – like much of America — has come full circle, with Rep. Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat, running op-eds this week in newspapers throughout the state, announcing that he is gay. According to BuzzFeed, Michaud joins six House colleagues — Reps. Jared Polis, David Cicilline, Sean Patrick Maloney, Mark Pocan, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mark Takano — and Sen. Tammy Baldwin as the out LGBT members of Congress.
Michaud is running for governor and will test the state’s newfound social acceptance for LGBT people. Indeed, residual anti-gay animus is what led the congressman to come out. His announcement was designed to head off “whisper campaigns, insinuations and push-polls some of the people opposed to [his] candidacy have been using to raise questions about [his] personal life.”
As a former campaign staffer in Maine, I understand where he is coming from. While I worked on the Democratic side of the primaries, Susan Collins was running for the Senate as a Republican. Sundry bumpkins would occasionally waltz into our Bangor campaign headquarters with unsubstantiated rumors about her sexual orientation, hoping we would use it as a weapon to disqualify her from office. Thankfully, the candidate I worked for was progressive and would never stoop to that level.
Had Collins, or any candidate for that matter, actually come out as gay it would have been interesting to see if she would have still prevailed and become a U.S. Senator. (To be explicitly clear, I have no idea about her sexuality and assume she is heterosexual).
Today, the political calculus is different. A Gallup poll revealed last year that 68% of voters nationwide would be fine casting a ballot for a lesbian or gay candidate for President, with 30% opposed to doing so. In a political column in the Bangor Daily News, Mike Tipping writes that coming out might actually benefit Michaud, who is in a three-way race against Teabagging governor, Paul LePage, and Independent Eliot Cutler, who is liberal on social issues. (I’m sure Mike Heath, resident homophobe of the Christian Civic League of Maine, may spin Michaud’s coming out by saying that he is on top in a 3-way).
“Many Southern Maine voters who hold progressive positions on these kinds of issues are being newly introduced to Michaud, including irregular voters and previous backers of Cutler,” writes Tipping in his column. “They will learn about the Congressman not just as a candidate with the experience he says is right to lead the state, but as someone who could make history by doing so and this may give them an extra reason to consider his candidacy and turn out to vote.”
Still, there is much work to do. After I was dismissed from my job in Maine, a lawyer explained to me that I had no legal recourse, even though I had key witnesses who could testify on my behalf. This week, the Senate is scheduled to remedy such situations, with a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It looks likely to pass by a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate, but the final outcome is uncertain in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.
Finally, I am moving from Vermont, a state with marriage equality, to Chicago, which is in a state without it. The Illinois legislature may vote this week on the issue. Our nation is clearly on the right track, but Americans are still treated differently depending on which station they are sitting at while waiting for the equality train.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”