Hundreds of people — “a who’s who of gay liberation” at the time — came to the first-ever Maine Gay Symposium in April 1974, recalls Steven Bull, an organizer of a panel discussion and exhibit celebrating the history of the LGBT movement in Maine, to be held Wednesday, June 18 of Pride Week.
The symposium 40 years ago was a project of Wilde-Stein, the gay and lesbian group at UMaine Orono that had formed just a few months earlier, itself part of a national swell of such organizations. It was big news, drawing attendees such as Morty Manford, then-president of the Gay Activists Alliance in NYC and a veteran of the 1969 Stonewall riots that are considered the catalyst for the gay rights movement; Vito Russo, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); and Bruce Voeller, a founder of the National Gay Task Force and the biologist who coined the term acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
“In those days, the fledgling LGBT movement was in a war and when a battle flared somewhere, troops went in,” Bull wrote in remarks he prepared for Wednesday’s event and shared with Out in Maine. “We were the beneficiaries of that instinctive, reactive approach.”
Unsurprisingly, the event garnered significant coverage in the local papers and substantial opposition from both fundamentalist preachers and homophobic state legislators. “It was really nasty, really hostile,” says Stan Fortuna, co-founder of the MGTF and Gay People’s Alliance at the University of Southern Maine, who will also sit on Wednesday’s panel.
Perhaps most importantly, the symposium led to the creation of the Maine Gay Task Force, which brought together activists from around the state, allowing for shared resources, and reducing feelings of isolation.
“When we came out, no one knew a homosexual,” Fortuna says. “We were invisible.”
But the 1970s brought both safety and strength in numbers. It was an intense and productive time, as the movement shifted away from assimilation and attempts to blend in, and toward something more visible, vocal, and revolutionary.
Among the movement’s earliest and most notable accomplishments:
>> At UMO, activists ran a gay and lesbian slate for student senate, comprising Bull and his Wilde-Stein co-founders Karen Bye and John Frank. They won.
>> When they were offended by an episode of the medical family drama Marcus Welby, MD (in which a male teacher sexually assaults a male student, implying a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia), members of the MGTF were able to get local affiliates to run a disclaimer: “The following program has been the subject of protest by the Maine Gay Task Force.” (While the program drew ire from groups across the country, Maine’s was the only one that managed to get the disclaimer.)
>> When unionized campus workers protested at the State House in Augusta during a contract dispute, Wilde-Stein joined them on the picket line.
>> At the state Democratic Party convention in 1974, with the guidance of former Portland state representative Gerald Talbot (the first African-American state legislator in Maine), MGTF got a gay rights plank added to the party platform, making it the second in the country to do so (after Oregon).