The movie IT Chapter Two, based on Stephen King’s book, was released in theaters last week. It includes a fictionalized account of the real life murder of a gay man, Charlie Howard, who drowned after being thrown off a bridge in Bangor, Maine. Stephen and his family were living in Bangor at the time, and so was I.
My lover and I lived in a one bedroom apartment on the corner of 4th and Cedar Streets. I was working for the University of Maine, Systemwide Services, and when I wasn’t visiting one of the campuses around the state, I was at my desk in Bangor in an old WWII building on the former Dow Air Force Base. My lover of five years was an Assistant Professor at the Orono campus.
Our place was eight blocks from the State Street Bridge, where the teens threw Charlie into the Kenduskeag Stream Canal – where Charlie drowned and his body wasn’t found for hours. Where many of us went to grieve.
The murder was horrific. What made things even worse for us queers was the hurricane of hatred and bigotry which hit town afterwards – most of it delivered in the name of God. Most of it seemed to be delivered by a member of the Christian Civic League or one of their proselytizers.
One of my initial reactions after Charlie’s murder was to wonder if I’d be the next victim or would it be someone I loved or someone I’d met?
The Greater Bangor community didn’t join together to denounce the act, denounce the hatred. No. It seemed like people came from far and wide to denounce us, tell us what sinners we were, or tell us, like one of our foes shouted, “you will burn in hell!” The harassment came in waves and went on for months and months. Charlie’s mother, who lived in New Hampshire, experienced vandalism of her home and eventually was forced to flee permanently due to the harassment directed at her for being his mother.
On the other hand, we queers found each other, we comforted each other, we found supporters, many from the Unitarian Church, the seminary in town, the University, and the Jewish community, some of whom attended the local synagogue. Not that we queers didn’t include professors, staff, and students, Jews, Christians, and atheists. We were also health care workers, school teachers, leaders of non-profit organizations, cashiers at LaVerdiere’s Drug Store and the unemployed.
We organized for change but we were deterred. A simple attempt to make a “tolerance of difference” statement applicable to the local schools was defeated by the School Committee.
We formed an organization, the Bangor Area Gay, Lesbian, Straight coalition. A newsletter was started, some people monitored the murder trials and reported back, some people lobbied the legislature for gay rights, and we had some fun, organized dances and social events.
But I was always waiting for what was coming next. The thing I hadn’t imagined. A year and a half later, I applied for and accepted a position down in Portland. I left town before I found out if things would get better or worse.
Before I moved to Portland, or not long after, my friend Valerie moved there too, then my friends Isabel and Mary arrived, a while later, Barbara and Martin. I heard one gay man moved to Boston. Later Lee moved to Portland. I was not alone in my fears. I’m sure there were people who I didn’t know who left town too.
There were those who stayed like the school teacher with years of tenure who could have been fired at any time for just being who she was. She seems the bravest of all to me. I admire her.
I have been back to Bangor. My last visit was early 1992, before I moved to the West Coast. A gay bar had opened down on Central Street – or was it Franklin? It was packed. Everyone was dancing and laughing and having a good time. Had the town changed back then? I don’t know. Now they have same sex marriage so I’m sure some things have changed.
I don’t watch horror movies, or read horror stories or books as I find the reality of being queer in the USA sometimes leads to experiences that are horrifying enough.
That said, I have read Stephen King’s On Writing, several times, which is superb, and I thank him for renouncing the crime.