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Pride flags in Bangor herald positive change

I recently visited my son, who lives in Bangor with his wife and two children. As I drove through downtown Bangor, I was struck by the large number of LGBTQ+ allied flags flying prominently in front of businesses. This public display of support felt like a positive step forward. While the forces of reaction are trying to turn back the clock in other parts of the country, significant progress has been made in Bangor.

Forty years ago, on July 7, a young man named Charlie Howard was holding hands with his good friend, Roy Ogden, in downtown Bangor. Three young men driving by stopped. They stalked him, caught him, and threw Mr. Howard off the bridge into the water, where he died.

A small religious congregation of which I was a part, the Unitarian Church of Bangor, responded directly to this tragedy. The church held a memorial service for Mr. Howard in which grief and outrage were expressed in words, music and dance.

The congregation provided a gathering space for numerous community discussions about what had happened, why it had happened, and what could be done moving forward. As a result, the Bangor Area Gay Lesbian Straight Coalition (BAGLSC) was born. Leaders emerged. Events were planned and organized by the Unitarian Church.

The church office funded the printing of a regular BAGLSC newsletter. The congregation concluded that society’s fear and hatred gave the three young men permission to act as they did. Furthermore, the congregation committed itself to confronting this prejudice.

This open and assertive response was in stark contrast to the lack of response from others. Many were afraid. Others, who were sympathetic in private, said nothing in public. This reality isolated the Unitarian Church. It became known as “the gay church” of Bangor.

Yet this small Unitarian congregation embraced the biblical affirmations that we are all created in the image of God and that diverse creation is good. It also affirmed that the American project was still an unfulfilled dream of equality and justice for all.

The Unitarian Church’s visible support for and advocacy of equality was but a small historic act. Over time, others took up the cause and change occurred. Civil rights laws were passed and same-sex couples were allowed to marry. We are glad to have played a small part in speaking out.

Looking at those flags a few weeks ago, I am reminded that in the intervening 40 years we have made significant progress in creating a more equal society. However, we must remember that the forces of reaction would snatch those gains away from us.

These flags are not merely images of progress, but visible reminders that we must be strong agents of equality across generations.