Congresswoman Chellie Pingree expressed what many in the room were feeling at Equality Maine’s annual dinner celebration on Saturday night: the function room at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Spring Street elicits “a little bit of PTSD” for Maine’s gay-rights supporters. After all, the last time the crowd had been together in that room, it was on November 3, under far less celebratory circumstances.

It’s been a tumultuous year for those involved in the struggle for equality. At last year’s Equality Maine awards banquet, state senator Dennis Damon had recently introduced a bill that legalized gay marriage in Maine; advocates were gearing up for what would be a historic and largely uplifting public hearing in Augusta. They rode that high into late spring, when the Legislature passed and the governor signed that bill, making Maine the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage through legislative means. We all know what happened next — a divisive referendum campaign that ended on November 3 with 53 percent of Maine voters repealing same-sex couples’ right to marry. It was at the Holiday Inn that night that the No on One campaign and its passionate supporters learned that they’d have to keep waiting.

While Saturday night’s speakers acknowledged the heartbreak of 2009, they didn’t dwell on the negatives. Instead, they recounted their story in their own terms — the No on One campaign was “the best, most well-executed campaign in Maine history,” Equality Maine political director Matt Moonen told the crowd of more than 600. There was bitterness in the air, to be sure — Damon, for one, blasted Portland’s Roman Catholic bishop, Richard Malone, for encouraging his parishes “to pass the plate a second time for hate — I will never forgive him for that,” Damon said to a standing ovation. But for him and everyone else, hope overshadowed anger.

Hope in the form of an award for Jimmy Lucibello, an HIV/AIDS activist and educator, who reminded the crowd that doing one’s part can be as simple as offering “a kind word or a non-judgmental smile.” Hope in the form of a new name and a broader mission for the former Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, now the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, which will work with (former Maine Civil Liberties Union marriage coordinator) organizer Katy Jayne to expand its statewide (read: rural) influence. Hope in the form of a $17,400 donation to the Preble Street Resource Center by Donald Sussman (Pingree’s partner, of North Haven) to make up for what the organization lost when Catholic Charities withdrew its support due to political differences. And hope in the form of a renewed, practical sense of mission, one that focuses on “the moveable middle” — a demographic that believes in equality and fairness for gay people, but doesn’t yet equate marriage with those values.

“It’s hard to know the winning formula when there hasn’t been a winning formula,” said Equality Maine executive director Betsy Smith. But the equation is closer to being solved.
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