Thirty years ago today, a young man in Bangor was killed because he was gay.
It’s a tragedy that many credit with starting the gay rights movement in Bangor.
30 years ago, being openly gay in Bangor wasn’t common. But 23-year-old Charlie Howard was out and proud.
“He was an openly gay man, and in the 80s, it was not easy for people to be out,” said Bangor City Council Chair Ben Sprague.
“Charlie was an unusual looking person, often carried a purse, and tall, very slender, skinny, friendly guy,” said Bangor historian Richard Shaw.
Howard was well-known around town, but on July 7th, 1984, his name became forever etched in the city’s memory.
It was around 10:00 at night when Charlie Howard and a friend were walking here along State Street when a car pulled up. Three teenagers got out, reportedly asking the men if they were gay. An altercation ensued, Charlie was thrown down these stairs and over this railing into the stream below, where he drowned.
By the time emergency crews found him, Charlie Howard was dead. With a poor witness and little evidence, Bangor P.D. made a decision.
“We felt that as long as these teenagers didn’t know that a person died, and we kept this away from the media for a while, that they would go around bragging about their actions, and basically that’s what did occur. They went around town and bragged about throwing a gay person off the bridge,” said former Bangor Police Detective Bill Lawrence, who worked the Charlie Howard case.
The three were convicted in the killing, but only served a few years in prison.
“Certainly it was a tragedy back then, but people didn’t really treat it that way. It was almost like a boys being boys attitude,” said Sprague.
“There were people that didn’t want to make Charlie the gay icon that he has become in many ways, they didn’t feel that his life was worth it. Other people were more broad minded about it and thought that he was worth it,” said Shaw.
But over years and decades, the tide began to turn.
“So it certainly made a big difference for me. How was I, a normal citizen to react to this crime in our midst? Was I supposed to pretend it didn’t exist and paper it over and pretend this was a nice normal community, or are we going to work to change our community?” said State Senator Geoff Gratwick, a Democrat representing Bangor and Hermon.
“It was one of those things where I went, oh my gosh, I didn’t even know this guy, and he’s affected my world in ways that I didn’t think it would. People are really talking about, well maybe gay people deserve a chance to be a person,” said Sue McKay, chair of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor’s church council.
In the decades since, Bangor has passed ordinances protecting gays and lesbians, and gay marriage became legal in Maine in 20-12.
And at this year’s Bangor Pride celebration, Sprague made a special proclamation
“What we want is for July 7th to be remembered as Tolerance Day. and hopefully we can take it and teach people lessons of tolerance and equality and remembering the story of Charlie Howard in the hopes that something like that would never happen again,” said Sprague.
And given the changes that have happened over the decades, many in 2014 see Charlie Howard’s death as tragic still, but at least not in vain.
“I think Charlie should be proud that he was part of that process of change, I’m just so sad that it came in that particular way,” said Gratwick.
“The Charlie Howard murder was a catalyst for the gay rights movement, no question about it, but the evolution in the minds of the citizens of Maine has really been remarkable,” said McKay.
This Sunday morning at 10, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor will host an event in Howard’s memory.
They’ll hold a walk from the church on Park Street to the State Street Bridge where flowers will be thrown into the Kenduskeag Stream in Charlie’s Howard’s honor.