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Maine Pride | How the AIDS crisis and a young man's death sparked a political movement

The Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance was formed just as Charlie Howard was killed in Bangor and AIDS took hold in the state.

AUGUSTA, Maine — You can often find Dale McCormick with a tool in hand, tackling yet another project.

On this spring day, she was in her garage using scrap lumber to build a rack for some of her gardening equipment. 

"I have too many [projects]," McCormick said. "I'm too busy!"

The truth is, she always has been. McCormick was the first openly gay person to be elected to the Maine Legislature. Before that, she started the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in the state. 

McCormick said that despite a number of setbacks over decades, she was determined. 

"I am an eternal optimist. This is my problem. My mom called me a god damn Pollyanna," McCormick laughed. "I guess she was right."

She used that positivity to help found the Maine Lesbian-Gay Political Alliance in 1983 and then became the first president of the organization.

From the start, McCormick said she faced opposition at a time when acceptance, let alone tolerance, was hard to come by.

"One of the big pushbacks we were getting from society at large was, 'Well you choose this, you chose to be gay,'" McCormick said. "The biggest accomplishment is just that we formed MLGPA, to stick up for ourselves. We decided to change how we were thought of."

After decades of fighting and countless failed attempts, the group became most known for getting a civil rights bill passed that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Maine. 

The years it took to achieve that progress were born out of hardship and loss. The MLGPA was formed just as the HIV/AIDS crisis took hold nationwide and here in Maine.

Howard Solomon lost his partner, Ron, to the disease. It was what motivated him to get involved in activism.

"For many gay men, the organizing largely centered around AIDS," he said. "We were taking care of ourselves, and we were taking care of our brothers."

Solomon and many other gay men and allies came together to educate the community and fight for resources, as national politicians failed to take action. 

"The Reagan White House remained silent on AIDS," he said. 

It was not just AIDS that sparked action. In July 1984, Charlie Howard was killed in downtown Bangor. 

The 23-year-old gay man was walking with his boyfriend, Roy Ogden, when a group of teens approached them shouting homophobic slurs. The teens beat them and threw them into the Kenduskeag Stream. Howard could not swim and drowned. 

"What Charlie Howard's death and the subsequent organizing did was make it much more visible, not only to other gay people who were from other towns that they weren't alone, but it also gave our allies, our straight brothers, sisters, parents, and friends for themselves to come out of the closet and support us," Solomon said.

Years have passed, but Howard's death still resonates in Bangor. There is now a rainbow painted crosswalk and a memorial in his honor. 

"It's a reminder every year that we've come a long way, and there's still a long way to go," Jill Henderson with the Maine Health Equity Alliance said. 

Henderson organizes Bangor's annual Pride celebration and events. It is a celebration Charlie Howard never got. Each year, a small ceremony is held for him to remind people of the dark history.

"We're still fighting for safety. We're still fighting so that something like Charlie Howard never happens again," Henderson explained.

As for Dale McCormick, she is still fighting too. She said she is frustrated by an increasingly hostile political environment that targets the LGBTQ+ community.

"I'm not discouraged, but I'm sick of it and really mad," she said. 

She said she is proud of the work she and so many others did to build a better future for Maine's gay community, a future that is now in the hands of the next generation. 

MLGPA is now what's known as Equality Maine, the state's largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization. You can learn more about the work they do at EqualityMaine.org.

You can catch Maine Pride stories on NEWS CENTER Maine at 6 p.m. every Thursday in June. You can also watch our full special report streaming now on NEWS CENTER Maine+. 

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