Maine has a long and proud history of standing up against bigotry.
In the last decade, schools across Maine have made significant strides in reducing harassment and violence directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. This change has been the result of a broad movement in schools across the state to stop harassment and bullying by providing students with the knowledge and skills to speak up for respect and civility.
Lewiston and Auburn schools have been at the forefront of these efforts.
The Center for Prevention of Hate Violence’s Unity Project, the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Teams, Gay/Straight Alliances and the leadership of principals and teachers have improved school climates for every child. While harassment continues to exist, much of which is directed at gay students, more and more students are acting with courage to make their schools as safe and respectful as possible
These gains, however, are at risk. The Maine Legislature will soon begin debate on whether to remove the current ban on same-sex marriages. If the bill is passed, gay and lesbian couples will be able to marry and have all the same rights flowing from marriage which are available to heterosexual couples.
Our concern is what will happen if the Legislature defeats this bill. This will roll back the gains which schools have made in creating a safer climate for those students who are gay or are perceived to be gay.
Young people are influenced by what adults do, particularly by adults who are leaders. Legislative defeat of the marriage legislation will send this clear and disturbing message to teens and younger children: Gays and lesbians are second-class citizens. Many students who have biases against gay people will conclude the state of Maine has endorsed their biases. As one Maine middle school principal stated recently, “Students will interpret this as a green light to harass students they think are gay.”
Bias, harassment and violence directed at gay students and heterosexual students who are mistakenly targeted is likely to increase.
The continuation of the ban on same-sex marriage will have another sad and disturbing impact. Young people who are gay and lesbian will learn their state believes them to be second-class citizens. Their hopes and dreams for being treated with respect and dignity will be crushed. Some will move away from the state they love while others will struggle to stay in Maine and live in a hostile climate. But others will be overcome by hopelessness.
A small number of these young people may take their lives. Studies show a higher rate of suicide for gay and lesbian students in America’s schools than for other students.
Maine has a long and proud history of standing up against bigotry and for fairness and equality. Hundreds of young Maine men, some only teenagers, fought to end slavery under the leadership of Gen. Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith is celebrated by all Mainers for her courage in standing up against the ugly hatred spread by Joseph McCarthy. Many Maine residents traveled to the deep South in the summers of 1962 and 1963 to join the struggle to bring segregation to an end.
Our children need these models of courage and leadership. They need to know that their leaders will stand up for fairness and equality.
Schools in Maine are succeeding in reducing bias, teasing, harassment and violence. In large part they are succeeding by empowering their students to speak on behalf of those who are targets of mistreatment.
Respectful schools allow students to focus on academics, rather than the fear of being bullied. If we want our children to speak up in their schools for those who are harassed because they are different, then we must have the courage to do the same in our state capital.

Stephen Wessler is executive director of the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence in Portland. E-mail

Comments are no longer available on this story