“[Homosexuality] is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste-and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”

— Time magazine, “The Homosexual in America,” Jan. 21, 1966

Eighteen years after these words were printed, three miscreant teenagers in Bangor threw Charlie Howard into Kenduskeag Stream to drown because he was gay. His death helped obliterate social pretenses like those espoused by Time, and helped make the 25 years since much more tolerant.

It would be simple to mark this transition by milestones. The passage of same-sex marriage legislation in Maine this year, for example, or the prior enactment of equal rights laws. Yet the real landmark evolution is not occurring in law books and legislatures, but in the hearts and minds of American citizens.

Over a short period, infinitesimal considering the age of our society, our popular opinion of homosexuality has changed measurably. Increasing sensations of social tolerance and acceptance have been reported by gays, lesbians and heterosexuals over past decades, as social barriers between lifestyles have broken down.

Even milestones that may seem unhelpful are actually indicative of progress. The summer comedy “Bruno” may feature a faux-gay character that’s an outrageous homosexual caricature, but it carries a moral message through making unsuspecting people confront their biases and stereotypes in blunt fashion.

It’s vital to remember, however, that the immense freedom to pillory these petty biases has come at a devastating price, like the life of Charlie Howard, who was merely minding his business on a Bangor street in 1984 when three bigoted teens decided to let their demons out to play.

Howard died of drowning and fear in the swirling waters of the Kenduskeag, while his killers were tried and convicted as children and released back into the world as adults. This is far from justice, but at least Howard’s death has helped destroy the small-minded justifications that caused it.

There is still far to go. The looming repeal of same-sex marriage in Maine is indicative of the historical divide, and the same social studies that have applauded the growing tolerance have also noted, somewhat ominously, that reports of violence and threats toward homosexuals still exists in intolerable numbers.

Only if these acts are forever extinguished, should we allow the memory of Howard to fade. Until then, his tragic passing serves as a stark signpost, marking the deplorable nature of intolerance, as well as a turning point for public attitudes about homosexuality in Maine, and perhaps the nation.

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