2013-11-15 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Where were you when I needed you?
By Al Diamon

The Bangor Daily News ran an editorial saying U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate, is “brave” to announce he’s gay.

He isn’t.

A civil-rights leader told the Bangor paper Michaud could serve as a role model for gay youth. He’ll “change people’s minds,” said Ian Grady of Equality Maine.

I doubt it.

Liberal political commentator Ethan Strimling said Michaud showed “remarkable courage.”

He didn’t.

But here’s who did.

In 1973, while Michaud was still deep in the closet, Steven Bull, John Frank and a few others founded the Wilde-Stein Club at the University of Maine in Orono. The state’s first organization for openly gay people drew threats from politicians to cut the school’s funding and threats from homophobes to do far worse.

Unlike today, coming out 40 years ago didn’t elicit much sympathy from the public or the media.

In 1977, Portland state Rep. Larry Connolly introduced the state’s first gay rights bill. It got almost no support. Connolly passed away, but allies like Portland state Rep. Gerald Talbot carried on, until the measure was finally approved in a 2005 referendum.

Michaud, first elected to the Maine House in 1980, voted against the bill at least five times, including in 1993, when it passed both chambers, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. John McKernan. By that time, supporting civil rights wasn’t a tough call for most Democrats and even many moderate members of the GOP. But Michaud remained quietly in opposition.

Others who showed real courage: Frederic Berger became probably the first openly gay candidate for public office in Maine, when he ran for the Portland City Council in the mid- 1980s; Barb Wood, the first successful gay candidate, when she won a Portland council seat in 1987; Dale McCormick, the first openly gay person to win a seat in the state Legislature in 1990; and that’s just a few of the politicians. Others, such as author John Preston and AIDS activist Frannie Peabody, dared to force a complacent public to confront the unpleasant realities of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, Michaud was still silent when voters rejected gay rights bills in 1998 and 2000.

As a legislator, he voted to ban samesex marriage in Maine. He didn’t publicly acknowledge he’d changed his mind on that issue until just before last year’s successful referendum to allow gay men and lesbians to wed, by which time all the heavy lifting had been done.

Like former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who endorsed same sex marriage only after she’d departed from office, Michaud stepped up after the war was mostly won.

If he’s successful in becoming the first gay man to be elected governor of any state, it won’t be because he was brave. It’ll be because he sat silently on the sidelines for 30 years while real heroes fought to change public attitudes.

As for the honesty thing, check out Michaud’s answer to questions about whether he has or has had a partner. “No,” he told the Bangor Daily News last week after his carefully orchestrated coming out.

That doesn’t differ too much from his reply to a question asked by a Portland Press Herald reporter back in 2000 about his social life. “I’m married to politics,” the then-closeted Michaud said. “I really put my heart and soul into it.”

The congressman’s claims that he’s not currently and never has been shacking up with anybody doesn’t pass the straight (oops) face test.

In attempting to appear celibate, he seems to be trying to reassure his conservative base in Maine’s 2nd District that whatever his sexual orientation, he doesn’t actually engage in icky activities like gay sex. But unless the 57-year-old politician reveals he long ago pledged to remain a virgin until marriage, this prissiness comes off as residual shame at experiencing the same urges as any other human being.

Nor is Michaud being honest in claiming he had no political motives in making his announcement at this time.

“It’s something that never crossed my mind,” he told the Press Herald. “I never judged whether it would be politically advantageous, detrimental, whatever.”

Michaud has been in politics for more than three decades. During that time he’s earned a reputation for being cautious – some would say overly cautious – about his every public utterance. His timing was generally impeccable – and that was just when he was assembling his weekly list of church suppers and charity fundraisers he attended to shake hands with his constituents.

For something of this magnitude, he would have calculated every factor, including forcing the press to agree not to seek reactions from anyone else until after his unedited op-ed had been published in the state’s two largest daily papers.

Honest? Brave? Those words describe a lot of gay men, lesbians and others who advanced the cause of civil rights.

If Michaud appears to be displaying those traits, it’s only because he’s standing on their shoulders.

Courageous comments welcome at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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