I am an African-American, eighth-generation Mainer, born and raised in Bangor, where I still live today.
I served my country in the U.S. Army Security Agency and when I came back from service in 1961, I married another Bangor native, Frances, who was white. We got married in February of 1966, a year before the court decision in Loving v. Virginia. I vividly remember planning our honeymoon and realizing we could not travel to some states in the south because interracial marriage was illegal. Once we determined that it would not be possible or wise to travel south we never went on a honeymoon.
I remember separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks. I remember separate bathrooms for whites and blacks. That I will never understand. Why couldn’t two people of different races use the same bathroom? Separate is never equal. That type of discrimination was wrong then. It is wrong now.
That is why I cannot stand idly by while the Maine Legislature considers LD 1046, “An Act To Amend the Application of the Maine Human Rights Act Regarding Public Accommodations.” This misguided bill would carve out a group of citizens — transgender Mainers — from vital anti-discrimination protections under the Maine Human Rights Act.
It would single out transgender people for further stigma and marginalization — a group precisely most at risk for discrimination and prejudice — by blocking their access to appropriate restroom facilities in public places.
Historically, customer discomfort and so-called “preferences” were used to justify race discrimination in public accommodations. Fortunately, courts have seen through those justifications and rejected the suggestion that they are “legitimate” or “non-discriminatory.” The Legislature should as well.
The question for the Augusta lawmakers, and for all Mainers as we consider whether or not to support LD 1046, is: Which side of history will people be on? Will they be on the side of fear and prejudice? Or will they be on the side of tolerance and acceptance?
I suspect our great grandchildren will shake their heads in disbelief someday, decades from now, wondering what the big deal was all about. Just as today it is hard to imagine a day when black men such as myself had to use separate bathrooms and separate drinking fountains.
Almost 40 years ago, I served as the first executive director of Maine’s Human Rights Commission. I worked hard to pass anti-discrimination protections for African Americans, and I worked hard to pass anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people.
It would be a travesty to roll those protections back. After all, Mainers affirmed their support for giving transgender people these protections back in 2005, when they voted to pass LD 1196, “An Act to Extend Civil Rights Protections to All People Regardless of Sexual Orientation.”
It does not make any sense at all to pass legislation that takes people backward. I urge the Legislature, and all Mainers, to say no to discrimination by opposing LD 1046.
Robert Talbot is a member of the board of directors for the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.