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Maine Votes for Equal Marriage Rights for Gay People: A Memoriam for Charles Howard.

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.”


  1. I was born in 1947 in southeast Michigan. My childhood wasn’t much different than any other kid growing up in the 50’s. I attended all-white schools until the 10th grade. My friends and I told each other all of the racist jokes that were common back then. We used words like kike, fag, and nigger freely and without thought. There was no single event or great epiphany in my life to change any of that. Nothing lke what happened to Charlie Howard. On the contrary, I lived through the race riots in the 60’s. There was a point during those days when I thought we might have to defend our neighborhoods to prevent the riots and burning from spreading there.

    Somewhere along the way, I changed. And changed for the better, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I am thankful that it did.

    Perhaps it was all of the reading I did. I started reading at a young age and had read hundreds if not thousands of books by the time I was 21. That much reading tends to open you up to a wider world. Then again, perhaps it was the experience of working side by side with black men and women at General Motors. We all did the same work. We shared tables in the cafeteria, talked as we worked, shared bits of our lives with each other as we fought against the mind-numbing routine that comes with production line work. Whatever happened, happened during those days at GM. I now had black friends. Not in the sense of Sarah Palin and her imaginary gay friends. These were true friends. We did things together out of work. We were still surrounded by a prejudiced society when we left work, but it was changing.

    During the late 70’s and early 80’s, one of my black friends and I found ourselves struggling to be single fathers with sons who were near the same age. We would take our sons to high school basketball games in lily-white Grand Blanc (my current hometown) or to games at one of the mostly black high schools in the north-end. Neither one of us would have been comfortable going alone, but together we could go anywhere. I have fond memories of those days and believe they had something to do with helping my son grow up to become a tolerant person with few prejudices.

    Somewhere along the way that acceptance of blacks as my equals, and with that acceptance the realization that we are all the same under the skin, extended to all people of all races. Something had happened to that little white boy who at 4 years-old exclaimed upon seeing his first black woman, “Look Mama, there’s Little Black Sambo’s momma.”

    It isn’t at all clear when my attitude changed towards gays. I didn’t have any close friends who were openly gay until I was in my fifties, but I believe I had dropped my prejudiced feelings towards them long before then. I think that it may come from extending one of Thomas Jefferson’s quotes on religion to cover all circumstances. Jefferson said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” That is true of religion, but it is also true of sexual orientation. Put less elegantly, my neighbor’s beliefs and practices are none of my business.

    Now here I am at 62. It has been a long hard road with the end still out of sight. Every step of the way has brought its own lesson. How can those small acts that changed me from what I might have been into the man I am today help others overcome their acquired racism or fear of ‘the other’? Can we really change others or does that change have to come from within, just as it did for me?

    I don’t know the way forward for anyone except myself and I’m not all that sure I know what’s best for me, let alone for others. What I can do is what I have been doing for a few decades now: To speak out against hate and intolerance whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head and to act in a manner that shows I truly believe all people are equal.

    A look at human history may discourage those of us who hope to see a world without hate, but don’t give up hope. This is a long slow journey that started long before Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It may seem impossible when you look at the worst of human nature, but someday love will win out over hate.

  2. I was graduated by Sumner Memorial High School in 1987. A few years after the “Chuck-a-Homo” Bridge incident. It was very much in the minds of folks for years afterwards, and it tinges politics in the Bangor area even today.

    To call Bangor a “small town” though is not quite right. Bangor is one of 22 full fledged cities in Maine. That distinction may not seem important, and considering the sizes of cities in Maine compared to urban areas in Massachusetts and Connecticut it seems almost petty at first, but Bangor is the urban center in that area of Maine. It is a focus of commerce and of political power. Bangor is still an urban center, and has its own problems.

    The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s had its strongest membership outside of the South in Maine. Bangor had its own run ins with this membership throughout the years–with an increasing African-American population in Bangor and in Portland. And with a focus on the French speaking population as well in the 20s.

    Maine has had its run ins, while Governor Baxter and Margaret Chase Smith rejected the Klan and proposed legislation to monitor their activities, it is less advertised. Because Mainers have been less prone to burn crosses and have violent outbreaks. But while to a lesser degree and less punctuated, they still exist.

    The Charles Howard incident was a turning point for a generation of young folks in Maine though. It was a catalyzing agent that showed that we couldn’t ignore that undercurrent of homophobia, and it brought to light issues for a generation of Mainers. When I was teaching in Skowhegan in the early 90s, it was one of the things we focused on. Skowhegan is mill town, hard hit with unemployment, an increasing drug culture, and alcoholism, and rates of abuse that shocked a lot of folks. The casualness of these problems was a particular challenge for teachers. That it was just something that happened was a hard attitude to tackle.

    And the Charles Howard case was an open sore to pick at a bit. It illustrated the dangers that letting things flow under without comment. It was a springboard not just for issues of homophobia, but for equality and to tackle hate across the board. His death helped spur on the conversation with educators and police and legislators and leaders across Maine. Not just on gay rights, but all around.

    Maine is taking a step forward for equality under the law–and ultimately that is what the fight for gay marriage is about. Not about gender or issues of sexuality, but equality under the law. It shouldn’t be a Republican or Democratic issue, but a matter of equality under the law that both parties can embrace and address.

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