By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
Firstly, and most importantly, when I took my oath of office, I swore to uphold the constitutions of both the State of Maine and the United States Constitution, where everyone would be treated equally and that I would represent all of my constituency, be they black, white, brown, yellow, red, straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered, documented or undocumented, refugee or immigrant, as well as natural born citizens.
I promised to serve all of the people of my community. I have been and continue doing just that. Some may have a problem with that, and I would suggest that they not serve in elective office, as in the United States of America that is what is required of elected officials. Otherwise, one is not serving all of the people they swore to represent: for America is truly an amalgamation of peoples from all races, gender, orientation, religious beliefs, etc.
Back in 1984, I was a union representative serving on the Democratic Platform Committee for the Maine Democratic Party in preparation for the party convention in Lewiston. I voted to keep planks out of the party’s platform that dealt with equal rights for gays and lesbians. At that time, I figured we all enjoyed the same rights.
When we got to the convention, all the planks we had knocked out got put back in. That hit me like a ton of bricks. There wasn’t much I could do; it was a done deal.
Then, while serving as Chief of the Lewiston Police Department, there were gay bashings where some young guys thought it was fun to group together and beat up gay men. One particular night this happened on Bates Street outside a gay bar in the parking lot across the street. The attacks didn’t occur in the presence of our officers. But, as a result of the testimony that was presented to them, they issued summonses for the assaulters to appear in court to answer to those charges.
The very next day, members of the gay and lesbian community picketed outside the police station and the television media covered the event. When the cameras went away, we invited the picketers into the police station to inquire as to their concerns.
They felt that nothing had been done by the police, when in fact summonses had been issued. No physical arrests had been made because the assaults hadn’t occurred in the officers’ presence. The gay and lesbian community hadn’t been made aware of that. Once they were informed, they were okay with it.
As chief of police, this told me that we had to improve our communication with various members of our minority communities. I then worked to develop a Hate/Bias Crimes Task Force, where we invited members of various minority communities to come together to meet with the management staff of the police department. We would address any issues they had, including ongoing investigations and so on. These monthly meetings were very productive in establishing trust and a sense of working in partnership with the police department, which was there to serve and protect them.
At our first meeting, I made the mistake of saying the words “sexual preference.” A gay man at the meeting said: “Excuse me chief, it isn’t sexual preference, it is sexual orientation.” He said: “When a young boy my age felt an attraction to young girls, I never experienced that. To me, my orientation was to young boys my age.”
It made me think that when I developed an attraction to girls my age, it came to me naturally. It wasn’t a preference; it just was. It wasn’t something I had to think about; it just was. This caused me to think about the man’s words that his orientation just was; it wasn’t something he had to think about.
This new realization caused me to view homosexuality in a different light. I could now understand that this wasn’t a choice, but a simple, natural happening. It caused me to believe that we are all children of God and that we are all sexual beings and that if our orientation is what it is and created by God, then why would I have a problem with it. Truth be known, I don’t!
To me and to a great many people, we understand that we are all children of God and that He has given us all a sexual orientation. To me, the kind and loving God that I know would never damn a person to hell knowing full well that this person has lived out the sexuality that was bestowed upon him or her. God does not make mistakes.
No one, not one religious person, including a priest from my Catholic faith, has yet to inform me that God would damn someone to hell for living out the sexuality that was given to him or her at birth. My God is a kind and loving God to each and every one of His children, regardless of their sexuality. Laws of men and those who impose restrictions on others in their faith in order to keep control are often wrong. We must keep in mind, especially those of us in the Catholic faith, that the infallibility of our Popes can and should be questioned, especially when we have had corrupt popes. That is a fact!
Our kind and loving God has entrusted each and every one of us with a conscience to be our guide, and he has given us a free will. In good conscience, I cannot come to the conclusion that two people of the same orientation cannot develop a loving relationship and still maintain a relationship with the God who created them as they are.
When the Hate/Bias Crimes Task Force wanted to advance an ordinance to the city council based on anti-discrimination for sexual orientation in the areas of housing, employment, extension of credit and public accommodation, I supported it. It passed the Lewiston City Council by a 5-2 margin, only to be rejected by a referendum by a 2-1 margin.
In the last few years when the issue came up to a statewide vote, Lewiston supported it. During the interim period, I firmly believe that the electorate saw it for what it is: it is truly a civil right to be treated equally without being discriminated against because of one’s sexuality.
Not long ago, the Maine Legislature passed a Gay Marriage Law, only to be brought to a referendum, which repealed that law. My Catholic Church was very much opposed and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the repeal of the law. I was incensed by the tactics taken by my church and in particular by my bishop, spending such large sums of money at a time when the church was crying poverty and closing down churches left and right.
Since then, the Portland Diocese has launched a fundraising drive to raise $40 million to keep our church afloat for years to come. My wife and I have pledged to give generously.
We were told that the many thousands of dollars spent to fight the gay marriage bill were dollars donated separately for that purpose. I certainly hope so, but I am somewhat cynical that I am being told the truth: I have found that the truth from the diocese can be very much suspect. These area simply my feelings, but they are certainly shared by many of the faithful.
What truly incensed me was that after the campaign, the Portland Diocese decided to not fund the Preble Street Soup Kitchen in Portland the $30,000 it had been providing in service of feeding the poor. It revoked the funding because of the Kitchen took a stand in support of gay marriage, which was in opposition to its agreement not to oppose the positions of the church. So, who lost in this battle? You guessed it: the poor and needy! How Christian is that?
So with this history in mind and as mayor of Maine’s second-largest city, I now wish to share with you my comments made on the day of the announcement to go back to initiate a referendum drive to bring back same-sex marriage to the State of Maine, as have other states throughout this country. Rest assured, this issue will not die until it is universal throughout this country; the battles for civil rights have not died with such setbacks, including issues of women’s suffrage, civil rights movements of the 1960s and on.
Until we reach full equality in this country, these issues will continue until full equality becomes a reality. In America today, it is beyond me why we discriminate against anyone in violation of our constitution that has been fought for to provide for equal rights for everyone.
Here are my comments made on the front steps of Lewiston City Hall on June 30, 2011, where there was a gathering of Catholics for Marriage Equality, Episcopal Priests, Methodist Ministers and Pastors from various faiths as well as both homosexual and heterosexual persons in attendance on the front steps of city hall:
I am very proud to be here today and welcome you all to Lewiston City Hall to talk about an issue that I am very passionate about: ensuring that all Maine families, including those who are gay and lesbian, have the freedom to marry.
As Mayor, and in my time as Police Chief, I’ve been very vocal in my support of equal rights, and I feel that those rights should extend to marriage for the thousands of loving, committed same-sex couples here in Maine who wish to be married.
As Catholics, my wife of 41 years Pat and I understand the significance of marriage and know the important role that faith and tradition can play in keeping families strong.
But our faith leads us to believe that we should treat everyone the way we ourselves would want to be treated, and that includes allowing people the option of marrying the person they choose.
That’s something we’ve tried to convey to our three children, who we’ve tried to raise with an understanding that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.
There are hundreds of same-sex couples living here in Lewiston, and thousands more across the state who consider themselves lucky to have met someone they want to spend the rest of their lives with.
I understand that there are many fair-minded people in Maine who are truly grappling with this issue. They believe all people should be treated fairly, but are conflicted about what they were brought up to believe.
My wife and I can certainly relate to that since we’ve had to rectify the teachings of our Catholic Church with our support for full equality for everyone.
I personally needed time to think about this issue and learn more about why marriage, as opposed to other forms of recognition like civil unions, is so critical.
It’s because marriage has a meaning beyond legal rights. It is a lifelong commitment through good times and bad, and it is the ultimate expression of love and support that two people can make. That means that the word “marriage” itself is a protection because others understand that when you are married, you are a family.
I encourage anyone who’s conflicted about this issue to do what my wife and I, and so many other folks here in Maine, have done and simply look in their hearts and let their conscience be their guide.
I have faith in the people of Maine that they will do the right thing!
There currently exists an organization called Catholics for Marriage Equality. Here are its principles as articulated on its web site: www.catholicsformarriageequality.net.
The Catholics for Marriage Equality Declaration
As faithful Roman Catholics we believe that the constitutional right to practice freedom of religion is based on respect for the dignity of each individual. We must guard against, not promote, the domination of one religious tradition over others in our civic life. Making respect for the dignity of all people not only an ideal but a living truth, we affirm civil marriage for same-sex couples throughout the United States. Our declaration of conscience is based on the following:
The American principle of the separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Constitution to ensure that no particular religious perspective would be imposed on our pluralistic society.
Catholic teaching on social justice has been central to the building of a just society, creating awareness of diversity in the human family, calling us to lives of respect, not simply tolerance, for one another.
We remember that Roman Catholics were once denied civil rights, treated with suspicion, ridiculed because of our sacred rituals, and questioned as to our allegiance to “foreign authorities.” Memory challenges us to remain vigilant whenever bigotry and injustice enters into public discourse.
Same-sex civil marriage does not in any way coerce any religious faith or tradition to change its beliefs or doctrine or alter its traditional marriage practices.
We know that God is a most gracious and wonderful Creator. Many of us have gay and lesbian relatives and friends. We value the love and commitment we witness in their relationships; their devotion to each other and their children. Civil marriage bestows the dignity and equality called for in our nation’s highest ideals, “the inherent natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As Roman Catholics, we differentiate between sacramental marriage and civil marriage. Therefore, we perceive that same-sex civil marriage poses no threat to our Church. While we respect the authority and integrity of the Church in matters of faith, our prayers and discernment have brought us to a new openness on this issue. We do not ask the Church to perform same-sex marriages. We do implore the Church to honor the States’ prerogative to authorize civil marriages for our gay and lesbian family and friends. Grateful for the gift of our faith and the ways that we have been nourished by faith throughout our lives, and also grateful for our citizenship in America and in our particular state, we sign this statement as Roman Catholic citizens of the United States of America.
In America, the principles of the separation of church and state must remain strong; otherwise we may have various religious principles from throughout the world imposed upon us in a civil society. Our forefathers strongly supported the principles of separation of church and state and for good reason.
Someone recently pointed out to me a bumper sticker that read: “If you oppose gay marriage, don’t marry one.” In the interim, if others wish to in a civil society in America, they should have the right to do so without imposing any requirement on any religion, as the principle of the separation of church and state should remain strong!
If enough signatures are gathered, you will have an opportunity to vote on the issue. If it passes, great! And if not, don’t be surprised if the issue comes up again, as the battle for civil rights will always continue until they are realized.
So, why would a local mayor support gay marriage? My answer is because I see it as my duty and I believe it is the right thing to do!
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.