And they did all this without email or cell phones. (Cue collective gasp from any organizer reading this piece.) What they did have, however, was a vibrant exchange of ideas and information with like-minded organizations around the country, thanks to a newsletter exchange program. Fortuna, who served as editor of the MGTF Newsletter (later Mainely Gay News), has a fantastic collection of these published works, which he has donated to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection at the University of Southern Maine (see sidebar, “A very special collection”). He recalls not only subscribing to the publications of other established groups, but also sending free copies to even greener organizations, like ones
in North Carolina and Mississippi, in solidarity.
“We were extremely effective,” Bull says, attributing a certain amount of serendipity to the “gathering of very determined people.”
Their success made them bolder. In June, 1975, the police were called on a group of Maine Gay Task Force members who dared to dance with same-sex partners Valerie’s in Ogunquit (what is now MaineStreet). The confrontation with police led to a picket at Ogunquit City Hall. (Around the same time, local police were known to ride through the sand dunes looking to catch same-sex couples.)
The MGTF also protested the American Freedom Train that toured the country in 1975-76 to celebrate the US Bicentennial, calling attention to the realities of inequality and discrimination that ran counter to the Freedom Train’s message. While Maine was the first state in which a protest took place, there were protests at every subsequent Freedom Train stop.
Bull credits the collective, inclusive nature of the movement for a good part of its success, noting that agitation around gay rights was part of a larger push for equal rights for women, Native Americans, and minorities. There was overlap in both message and mission. “We had a much broader perspective” than many of today’s activists do, he says. “It pains me sometimes when everything is about getting married.”
Of course, these early activists paved the way for that very victory here in Maine, along with many others. MGTF newsletters through the late 1970s show a group gaining steam, confidence, and recognition (while still simultaneously living in fear; one issue warns of machete and baseball bat attacks in Deering Oaks Park). Surely their actions in the 1970s laid the groundwork for the creation of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, which later became EqualityMaine. There is much to learn from them and their experiences.
But if the next generation of young activists takes just one thing away from this panel of pioneers, let it be this: “We also had a very good time,” Bull says. “We were like family.”
“Maine LGBT History: Life and Activism in the 1970s” | Wednesday, June 18 | reception + exhibit at 5:30; panel discussion and Q&A: 6:30 pm | at the Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Way, Portland | with music from the Plaid Dragonflies | prideportland.org
Besides Steven Bull and Stan Fortuna, the LGBT history panel includes:
Wendy Ashley | co-founder, Maine Gay Task Force + Maine Lesbian Feminists
Chair + Moderator: Susan Mariah Breeding | co-founder, Maine Gay Task Force + Maine Lesbian Feminists
Stephen Leo | co-founder, Gay People’s Alliance of USM + Maine Gay Task Force
Peter Prizer | co-founder, Maine Gay Task Force + co-editor, Mainely Gay
Lois Galgay Reckitt | executive director, Family Crisis Services + co-founder, Human Rights Campaign Fund