Homophobia

The hit movie 'Philadelphia' paints anti-gay bias in black and white. Most Americans agree gays should have equal job opportunity. But what about gays adopting kids? Or marrying? In confronting gay rights, one town was torn apart.

ALETA GIRARDIN WANTED NO part of the conversation. Huddled under a thick blanket, she sat and worried at her knitting as her husband fielded questions and voiced opinions. "I've got nothing against these people," Roland Girardin said. "If they want to live that lifestyle, that's their right."

Just two years ago you probably wouldn't have found the people of Lewiston, Maine, talking about homosexuality. But lately, in this mostly blue-collar town of some 40,000, gays and gay rights have become an inflamed, divisive topic. Last November, by popular vote, the city was one of five in America to strike down an ordinance banning discrimination against homosexuals. The town has become a scale model for a country suffering sharp growing pains over gay issues-the debate over gays in the military, gay adoption (page 47), gay-rights bills. Audiences have been flocking to Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia," starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, making it a top-grossing movie for three weeks in a row-a surprise, considering its sobering subject, homophobia and AIDS.

Homophobia seems like such a simple issue. We've all known homophobes. They're the ones who hurl epithets or worse at gays, who discriminate in housing or employment. In "Philadelphia," the story of a gay lawyer (Hanks) who loses his job when the firm learns he has AIDS, you can spot them without your glasses on. The only attorney he can find to take his anti-discrimination suit against the firm is a homophobic ambulance-chaser (Washington). As the firm's high-powered patriarch, Jason Robards can barely keep the poison in his soul from seeping through his shirt. "He brought AIDS to our company picnic," he thunders. "He deserves what he gets." Robards's homophobia is monumental; it is a literal enactment of the word.

But in real life, issues like homophobia rarely offer such a clean kill. Most of us are full of gray areas and comfort zones; we're busy drawing and redrawing the lines. just what is homophobia? in an era of increased tolerance and acceptance, the word has kept its bite but lost some of its definition. As a nation, we tend to promote an ethos of frontier individualism: you do your thing, I'll do mine, as if our lives weren't more intertwined than that. But when our lines inevitably cross-say, at adjacent showers on a navy cruiser-that ethos can crumble. We are tolerant mostly by long distance; closer to home we start to squirm.

As gay rights have won a more prominent spot on the national agenda, gays are finding that increased visibility is a double-edged sword. They have greater political clout and social acceptance, but their newfound confidence has energized the far right, and anti-gay harassment and violence have doubled in the last few years. And polls show that Americans do have deep ambivalence toward gay issues, especially those surrounding family values, such as adopting children or legalizing gay marriage.

That divisiveness-and ambivalence has raged through Lewiston for the last year. In January 1993, the city council passed a bill banning discrimination against gays. Within a week angry citizens had gathered enough signatures to put the measure to a popular vote. Eleven months later, by a margin of 2 to 1, the town overturned the bill. Tim McCloskey, city editor of the town's Sun-journal, says, "We had lifelong friends pitted against each other. This town hasn't seen that much emotion about a single vote in a long time."

In his stocking feet and a blue flannel shirt, Roland Girardin is a typical citizen of this predominantly Roman Catholic mill town. He built his modern cabin home himself, and he hunted the bear, deer, buck and caribou whose heads hang on the livingroom wall. Like many locals, he is cautious with his words. He owns a trailer next to his home, which he rents out. He'd be willing to rent it to gays, he said, but he didn't like the idea of anyone telling him he had to.

Roland Girardin is what you'd call homophobic. Or maybe he isn't. He'd put it like this: "My morals are just plain old-fashioned." He's one of perhaps millions of Americans whose thoughts about homosexuals and homosexuality are not easily charted, and are full of gray areas and apparent conflicts. Until the issue of an antidiscrimination ordinance came up, he hadn't had much call to think about homosexuals. Now suddenly he had to take a stand. He was opposed to discrimination of any kind. At the same time, with official legislation, who knew where things would lead? "Probably rather than passing a new law for them," he said, perhaps betraying more about himself than he intended, "we should help and get them treatment."

Gay rights is the last issue you'd expect to come between the citizens of Lewiston. A small industrial city of red-brick factories and spired churches on the Androscoggin River, located 45 minutes from Portland, this is a Reagan Democrat town. When Larry Gilbert, the town's heterosexual police chief, launched the initial campaign to adopt an anti-discrimination bill in late 1992, his aims were small-town modest. "I heard that people in the community were fearful of reporting gay bashings or harassment to the police for fear it would become public," he says. "I saw [the ordinance] as making the police force more user-friendly."

As in many New England towns, history has progressed here at its own uneven speed. one month after voting out the gayrights bill, the overwhelmingly Caucasian town elected its first African-American mayor. John I Jenkins, his family and a few friends were the only black faces at the inauguration. "We're not the discriminatory type," said retired plumber Richard Perron, 65. The town may have rejected the gay-rights ordinance, he said, "But then we turn around and elect a colored person. We can't be prejudiced."

Talk to the citizens of Lewiston, the ones who voted against the gay-rights ordinance, and you'll breathe the air of bland reassurance that is the essence of New England charm. Prejudice had nothing to do with it, they say; they just don't believe in giving away special lights. There is little sense of menace here, no odor of the man who, according to one activist, took the floor at a public hearing to declare that God said, "Kill all faggots." Three months after the election, the wounds aren't so much healed as stiffly unacknowledged.

Few spots in town are more blandly reassuring than the home of Paul and Susan Madore. With its unfinished walls and oblique angles, the house looks like it has grown over time with the couple's nine children. Paul, 44, is a general contractor. Susan, 40, teaches the children at home. Together, they ran the Citizens of Lewiston for the Repeal of Special Homosexual Rights. "Tolerance is all right," says Paul, a young-looking man who wears a flannel shirt and long johns poking out from the legs of his brown pants. "I'm all for tolerance." Paul and Susan once rented an apartment in their home to a gay couple or at least they thought they were gay. "I felt it was my moral obligation to provide equal housing," says Paul.

You want Paul Madore to play the villain, to become the Jason Robards character made flesh. In his embodiment of pure evil, Robards frees us from the slow agonies of moral ambivalence. But Madore doesn't make such an easy straw man. Sipping a small glass tumbler of pink wine, he speaks temperately. "Everyone certainly had the right to pursue the life they would want to live," he says. "We never intended to jeopardize anyone's privacy." The group's broadsides appealed to the locals' hardscrabble sense of fairplay. "Take a look at the hardships Black Americans have had to face," ran one flier. "Then see if homosexuals compare. Special rights for homosexuals just isn't fair-especially to disadvantaged minorities."

Spend some time with the Madores, though, and their benign comforts rub a little rough. Paul says the group ran its entire campaign for $5,000, a figure few believe. And his tolerance carries the most conviction when it's theoretical. Deep down, Paul and Susan feel gays shouldn't have certain rights. "We know where all this is headed," Paul says. "They want open rights to adoption, civil marriages, entitlements for spouses."

The Madores played on similar fears in the community. One ad implied that, under the law, psychiatrists could be imprisoned for speaking out against gays-not true, at least as long as the Constitution still holds water. "They successfully instilled fear in people that they would have to follow quotas in hiring and quotas in renting," says Celeste Branham, the dean of students at the liberal-arts Bates College in Lewiston, and one of several prominent straight women campaigning for the ordinance. Suddenly, she says, the issue wasn't letting gays do their own thing in some bedroom across town. It was whether you would have to hire one, let one teach your kids. With no real visible gay community in Lewiston, people faced the unknown. And they were afraid of it. "They didn't meet gays and lesbians who said, 'We are as you are'," says Branham.

The night Lewiston voted to repeal the anti-discrimination ordinance, Branham was among the band of supporters who gathered at the Sportsmans Athletic Club, the town's one gay bar. An unassuming gray and green shack, the Sportsmans is a friendly blue-collar place, with a dance floor downstairs and a well-used pool table above. Roland Blais, the owner, likes to greet guests at the front door, jovially hugging and kissing friends as they enter. If he runs into some of them on Lisbon Street in the morning, though, he may have to look the other way. The night of the election, the bar hosted a troupe of drag queens who performed Barbara Streisand show tunes. The crowd, reflecting the campaign, was gay and straight, male and female. For many of the regulars, it was too straight.

For the last 20 years, the Sportsmans has been the center of gay life in town. Here, you can hear stories of the discrimination many of the town's citizens insist doesn't exist: tales of jobs or apartments lost, of violence. Blais keeps a metal pipe and two I billy clubs handy in case the neighborhood kids get bored again. Last time he got beaten up, six years ago, he took two black eyes and needed six stitches.

When Police Chief Larry Gilbert and the mayor first met with the gay community at the Sportsmans, back in November 1992, to talk about an anti-discrimination bill, the reaction was mixed. Some thought Lewiston just wasn't ready. Others resented that these two straight men presumed to take the lead on the issue. Gilbert had no gay friends, though he had a gay nephew, and this was his first time in a gay bar; he was surprised at how "normal" it seemed. But it was restive. "People were upset," one gay man remembers. "They all said this was not the time to do it. When I left, everyone I knew was talking about how to prevent it from going to the city council ... Frankly, people were afraid to upset the status quo."

The Lewiston City Council passed the measure in January 1993, after a rancorous five-hour public meeting. But the resentments within the pro-ordinance camp continued to fester. Erica Rand, a lesbian activist who teaches art history at Bates College, split with the organizers over frustration with "well-meaning heterosexuals who should have consulted lesbian and gay activists." Rand had worked with the confrontational gay-rights groups ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers. She thought the pro-ordinance group, Equal Protection Lewiston, was too afraid to get in people's faces. The people at EPL, on the other hand, thought radicals like Rand just played into conservatives' hands. When the voters overturned the ordinance in November, both sides pointed fingers. "[The Lesbian Avengers] went out on the streets and they hurt us," says Celeste Branham, the Bates dean. For her part, Rand led a demonstration Lo protest the vote, confrontational even in defeat. "I don't think it hurt," she says. "I don't think we are going to get rights if we don't stand up for the people we are."

At the Sportsmans on election night, Branham ducked out from the bar momentarily and found herself alone on Bates Street. She noticed a black car inching around the corner, its driver's side window rolled down-odd on such a cold night. When she stepped up to go through the door of the bar, she felt a sharp stinging pain in the back of her hip. The shot turned out to be a BB. "It didn't scare me," she says. "It reinforced my belief in what I had been doing. Gays and lesbians live in constant fear."

Few people in Lewiston would argue that the town was any better off for its year of uncivil war. Friendships have been strained; neighbors who once ignored each other's differences are now wary of them. The wave of anti-gay violence that many in the community feared never materialized. Neither, though, did any greater understanding. "I think the climate is worse," says Erica Rand. "Our resounding defeat was permission to be explicit about anti-queer attitudes ... It feels much less safe." The catharsis of the movie "Philadelphia," the unambiguous settling of good and evil, never came to Lewiston. For most people here, the issue remains an unsettled gradation of grays.

Bill Channell, 43, is one of the few people who see any progress. On a day in January, he drove across town in a blizzard to talk about it. Settling into a table at Dunkin' Donuts, he pushed up his sleeves to reveal a tattoo on each forearm. One showed a man with a whip; the other, a pink triangle encircled by the words SILENCE IS DEATH. A few years ago Channell was spotted at a gay bar in Portland, where he had gone to avoid being recognized. By Monday morning the news was all over the shoe factory where he worked. Another time, he recalled, "while I was on break, they roped off my machine. They put a big sign over it that said MR. AIDS." He's also been beaten up and knifed.

These days, he avoids open confrontation. "We have to show people we're here," he says. 'And that doesn't mean standing up saying, 'We're here, we're queer and we want your children.' That's offensive to me." Instead, Channell carries a rubber stamp and marks all his dollar bills GAY MONEY, to show that homosexuals' money spends just as good as anyone else's. And he counsels patience. "It took black people 100 years," he says. "We just started back in Stonewall," referring to the 1969 riots at the Stonewall bar in New York's Greenwich Village, considered the start of the gay-rights movement. As Lewiston shows, the hard progress is slow. And it can be painful. It is not like in the movies.

In the meantime, some activists from Equal Protection Lewiston have joined the campaign for a state anti-discrimination bill. Larry Gilbert awaits Senate confirmation as a U.S. marshal. And Paul Madore is running for the state Senate, which only shows that progress can move backward as well as forward. In towns like Lewiston, history sometimes advances at its own uneven speed. But it advances nonetheless.

YES 43% NO 56% THE NEWSWEEK POLL, FEB. 3-4, 1994

MORE 38% LESS 31%