His Murder Changed One Maine City Forever

By Sarah Cottrell

“May we, the citizens of Bangor, continue to change the world around us until hatred becomes peacemaking and ignorance becomes understanding,” reads the memorial stone for Charles O. Howard that sits in a small garden beside the State Street Bridge in Bangor, Maine. “Charlie Howard, an openly gay man, died here at the hands of hatred and ignorance on July 7, 1984.”

Howard was 23 years old when he was murdered. He was out walking with a companion downtown when a car stopped and three teenagers got out. They called Howard an anti-gay slur, chased him down and beat him. Then, they picked him up and launched him over the railing of the State Street Bridge. The teenagers took off, and Howard, who had asthma and couldn’t swim, drowned.

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After the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, novelist Alexander Chee, who grew up in Maine, wrote in the New Republic, “The first story I ever heard in the news about a gay man was about the murder, in 1984, of Charlie Howard, who was thrown by his attackers from a bridge to his death. A certain violence has always followed me since coming out, whether I was in a bar where someone threw an M-80 at the door, or attacked in the street — it follows us all.”

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Local newspaper stories about the death of Howard. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

The story of Howard is not only the story of a young man robbed of his life through violence and discrimination. It is also the story of how one community — and ultimately a state — was forced to examine its prejudices and create change.

After more than thirty years of self-reflection, the city of Bangor and the state of Maine have come a long way since the tragedy on that summer night, according to a number of residents, community leaders and activists. Many trace the roots of significant societal and cultural changes, in part, to the Howard murder. This includes a 2005 amendment to the Maine Human Rights Act that protected people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

One of the state’s most famous residents, the author Stephen King, wrote a reflection on the murder for a Bangor Daily News special project in 2014. “I think the death of Charlie Howard shocked people in the Bangor area out of their complacency about matters of sexual preference and prejudice. I know it did me,” he wrote. “In the aftermath of this inoffensive young man’s death, the community underwent a period of self-examination that hasn’t ended to this day.”

Judy Harrison has written extensively for the Bangor Daily News about Howard’s death and the annual services held in his memory by the Unitarian Universalist Church. The actions surrounding Howard’s death “sparked a lot of activism and a lot of grassroots organizations that got started to lobby for changes in the laws,” said Harrison.

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A sign shown during Bangor Pride in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

Matt Moonen is the executive director of one of the most prominent of those organizations, EqualityMaine. “Following the death of Charlie Howard in 1984, LGBT Mainers felt the urgency to get organized and take action to make change, which led to the founding of the Maine Lesbian Gay Political Alliance (MLGPA), which later became EqualityMaine,” he said.

His organization, which is based in Portland, has been involved in education and advocacy work on behalf of the LGBT community for the past 25 years and gaining voter support has been an essential practice for them. “Many states advanced legal protections for their LGBT citizens through their legislature, their court system or both. Here in Maine, our most significant advances in legal equality were approved by the voters,” he said. “That makes us unique because our legal protections are less vulnerable to the whims of whoever gets elected because our elected officials know where Maine voters stand on these issues.”

Former Governor John Baldacci knows about the power that lies with voters well. He signed a bill in 2009 that would have made Maine the second state in the country, after Vermont, to give same-sex couples the legal right to marry. “Charlie Howard’s death was a seminal moment in people’s consciousness in how they viewed and treated gay people. The way he died was tragic and sad, and it caused people on a personal level to reconsider how they treated each other,” he said.

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The crosswalk painted for Bangor Pride Week in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bangor Daily News.

Maine voters overturned the law months later in a statewide referendum. But on November 6, 2012, another election took place. Its outcome was a milestone not only for Maine, but for the world: Maine became one of the first three states in the country — along with Maryland and Washington — to allow same-sex marriage by popular vote.

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Each year, residents of Bangor gather to celebrate the life of Howard as part of the Bangor Pride Parade, which marches along State Street. There is also an annual memorial service held at the Unitarian Universalist Church. The memorial concludes at the Kenduskeag Stream, where flowers are dropped in Howard’s memory. And, last year, prior to the kickoff of Pride Week, city officials painted rainbow colors across the crosswalk near the bridge over which Howard was thrown to his death.

The Pride events attract Mainers from every corner of the state to celebrate the LGBT community and include the support of the city council and police department. This is a big change since the days when LGBT were too afraid to be “out” in public, explained 61-year-old Greg Music, an organizer of Pride Week.

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Participants during the Bangor Pride Parade in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Bangor Daily News.

“At [Bangor Pride Parade] they have the freedom to not only be open but to openly celebrate the way they are made. That is life changing,” said Music. “In my lifetime being homosexual and acting upon it was illegal and would earn me a diagnosis of a mental illness. It’s not that long ago in the working memory of many of us.”

“The way we treat any group is a reflection of the safety and goodness of our community. It goes right to the heart of the word ‘community,’ to commune, to live together in harmony. Some recent research in the percentage of people who identify as LGBTQ shows astounding changes. In my generation, only 3 to 5 percent of the population claimed to be LGBTQ. Among millennials the numbers are much higher, around an astonishing 20 percent. This is not because more people are actually LGBTQ than before. It is because more young people feel safe and confident enough to admit to a wider range of emotions and experience than ever,” he said.

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In 2011, the area around the monument for Charlie Howard was vandalized. The response — including a rededication ceremony for the memorial — was swift. But the action, of course, proves that hatred by an unknown number persists.

More recently, there has been an effort on the part of the group Maine Resistance (which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) to put a measure on the November 2017 ballot to remove the words “sexual orientation” from the Maine Human Rights Act. The proposal has been condemned by LGBT advocacy groups. And it reminds those who seek equality for members of the LGBT community that the fight isn’t over.

“To say that all medical, educational, vocational, recreational and spiritual places are safe spaces where LGBTQ people are treated with dignity, safety and equal opportunity would be untrue,” Music said. “We can only change ourselves; but, in doing so, change in our environment is made. That is why we should all care.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Sarah Cottrell is a Maine-based writer and the voice behind Housewife Plus at the Bangor Daily News. She is also a regular contributor to Scary Mommy, Disney’s Babble and Momtastic.

All photos courtesy of the Bangor Daily News. In 2014, the Bangor Daily News published a special report on the murder of Charlie Howard and its effect on Maine. You can read it here.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.