For those of us who lived in Bangor, Maine in 1984 when a 23 year old man named Charlie Howard was murdered and thrown into Kenduskeag Stream for the crime of being gay, today’s 89-57 vote by the Maine Legislature to legalize gay marriage has special meaning. Here is a photo of Charlie not long before he was killed. He was just a normal 23-year-old New England kid.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Charles Howard. As Jake Chambers said in Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, “Go on, there are other worlds than this.” Charlie, I hope you are well in the world you now live in.
(Charles O Howard memorial slab, now installed on the bridge he was thrown from.)
I was a sophomore at the University of Maine at Orono when Charlie Howard was murdered on July 7, 1984.
At that time, I did not know anyone who was out about being gay. My friend Frank Harding was diligent in covering Charlie’s death for the Maine Campus, the daily newspaper of the University of Maine, where we both toiled. Frank’s reporting was better than the Bangor Daily News’ coverage. Through Frank’s reporting I learned who Charlie Howard was and the grisly details of how and why he was murdered. Here is a succinct account:
On the night of Saturday, July 7, 1984, Charles O. “Charlie” Howard was walking through downtown Bangor with his friend Roy Ogden, having spent the evening at their church’s potluck supper. Charlie, who was openly gay, had recently moved to Bangor from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he grew up.
Three teenagers in a car drew close to the pair, shouted homophobic slurs and eventually left their vehicle. The teens attacked Charlie, throwing him to the ground. When Roy Ogden ran for help, the assailants threw Charlie over a nearby bridge railing, even as he screamed that he could not swim.
Charlie Howard drowned in Kenduskeag Stream, twenty feet below. He was 23 years old.
When Charlie Howard was murdered for being gay, much of the Bangor community desperately tried to sweep his murder under the rug and, in the alternate, to blame him for his own murder. A non-closeted homosexual did not fit into the Bangor Chamber of Commerce self image. If Charlie Howard had not been so “flamboyantly gay,” (the phrase the newspapers fixatedly used), those poor innocent teenagers who beat him to a pulp and killed him would not have been forced to beat him to a pulp and kill him. The bridge in downtown Bangor over Kenduskeag Stream where Charlie Howard was thrown to his death quickly became known to area high school kids as “Chuck-A-Homo Bridge.” Good times were had by all.
Charles Howard’s brutal and senseless murder by three teenagers was a wake up call to a lot of people my age (I was 19). It made me grow up real fast. To see that level of hate and violence in small town Maine, in our own town, was shocking. And to see the community rally around and defend the murderers and vilify the man who was murdered, was spine chilling. Stephen King thought so too. He lives just up the hill from the killing site and, like the rest of us, had to endure the endless screeds of hate and bile during that hot summer in 1984. Stephen King accurately describes the murder of Charlie Howard in his book, “It.”
In hindsight, we should not have been surprised by Charlie Howard being murdered in Bangor for being gay, because this hate was there all the time. We all knew it was there. We just deliberately chose not to see it. It’s easy when you’re not gay.
The 89-57 vote in the Maine Legislature means that we in Maine, as a state, have taken a great and belated leap forward since that summer night in 1984 when Charlie Howard was chased and beaten and thrown over the Kenduskeag Stream bridge to drown and die. For the crime of being gay.
UPDATE 1: Since I wrote this last night, a friend of Charles Howard provided the following personal information, which I am deeply grateful for:
I’m glad that Charlie is not forgotten, and not just because his story is heartbreaking and his death a tragedy.
My home state – like many places – was unforgiving for gay people, especially out gay people, back in the day. Charlie paid the ultimate price for being true to himself, and the thought of it strikes a special kind of fear and sadness in my heart because it so easily might have been anyone.
In fact, it could very easily have been my big brother.
See, my brother was good friends with Charlie Howard – had known him for years (we lived near Portsmouth & the Seacoast gay community was pretty small). My brother was a couple years older than Charlie; I was a couple years younger. Like Charlie, my brother came out when he was fairly young, at a time when there was precious little support for such a thing. Growing up, I heard plenty of “war stories” involving abuse and gay bashing and ignorant homophobic acts, and I saw a lot of unnecessary cruelty directed at my kind, decent, never-hurt-a-fly brother and his friends, including Charlie. I was P-Flag before P-Flag was cool.
So when I heard about Charlie’s death a few years later, I was horrified and profoundly sad, but not completely shocked. At the time, I was living in the UK, but had spent the previous couple of years in Orono; my brother had also moved north, to run a B&B, so he was connected to the Bangor gay community at the time. I remember the hurt and sadness and anger in my brother’s voice as he told me what had happened to Charlie. It was all so pointless.
I can only hope that today’s vote is a signal that things are finally, at long last, starting to change. I’m going to send my brother an email, and mention the vote and this diary, because he’d want to know that someone remembered his friend.
UPDATE 2: On May 6, 2009 Maine Governor John Elias Baldacci, himself a native of Bangor, signed Maine’s gay marriage law at 12:30 p.m., almost as soon as he received the law from its final vote in the Maine Senate. Gov. Baldacci’s statement was short and eloquent. He said, “I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage.” As my wife Lori said this evening, Baldacci correctly framed the issue as “separate is inherently unequal.”