Thursday, May 14, 2009

After the battle: Where will same-sex marriage be in 2010?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In a fast-moving and historic couple of days in Augusta (pity they don't move so fast on other important issues), the Maine Legislature last week approved same-sex marriage, and Governor John Baldacci ended weeks of speculation about what he would do by signing it that very day.

The bill is now slated to take effect 90 days after the close of this legislative session, or September 14. But opponents are widely expected to collect the 55,087 signatures required to bring the question to the ballot in either November or June 2010, setting the stage for what may be a pretty intense fight. That's the short term. But it's much less clear what will same-sex marriage will be like in Maine after the post-battle dust settles, say, in late 2010.

We asked few folks involved in the debate what they think. And a large number of them — whether they are for or against same-sex marriage — predict that most people won't really give it a second thought, even a scant 18 months from now. Among the remainder, the chief sentiment is that the degree to which same-sex marriage is controversial will shift with time, possibly resulting in a repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which limits federal marriage benefits to one-man-one-woman couples), subtle shifts in clerical practice, or both.

An expanding movement

"Gay and lesbian couples will be getting married," predicts Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, one of the organizations that led the drive for marriage equality in Maine. But, like a true activist, she doesn't see it ending there. "Some of those couples may start to look to the federal level to rectify the discrimination that's occurring federally," she says, adding that "Maine's success will inspire citizens of other states to advocate for equality." And on a personal note, "In 2050, I think that I'll be telling my grandkids about the most historic moment of my legislative advocacy, and they'll be bored. They won't be able to imagine a time when we discriminated against gays and lesbians," similar to how many young people today struggle to imagine discriminating against African Americans.

End of controversy

Like Bellows, Dennis Damon, the Democratic senator from Hancock County who was the lead sponsor of Maine's same-sex marriage law, expects the controversy will largely blow over, though there will remain pockets of people who don't accept it, "just like there are those probably in this nation who have never accepted desegregation."

Damon, a notary public who is allowed to conduct civil marriages under Maine law, says he has been pleasantly surprised to find that people have asked him to officiate at their same-sex marriage ceremonies. He says the law allows him to agree to conduct some, and not others, as he has previously decided individually whether or not he will conduct heterosexual marriages, and "I'm not worried about being sued" over those decisions, as some same-sex marriage opponents have suggested might happen.

Stronger traditional marriages

Damon finds what may be unlikely agreement from Bob Emrich, director of the Maine Jeremiah Project, which has opposed same-sex marriage, and which is leading the people's-veto effort. By late 2010, same-sex marriage will be overturned and not mourned, but rather considered "a fad that's passed by," Emrich says.

But some, he hopes, might say to themselves that they "really haven't taken marriage as seriously as we ought to," and will undertake both personal efforts to shore up their relationships and begin to demand that state government act to "stabilize families."

Clearer church-state divide

Reverend Deborah Davis-Johnson, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Portland and a member of Maine's Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry, thinks the boundary between church and state will continue to become clearer. "Likely people will have separated the religious ceremony of marriage from the legal ceremony," she says. Some of that may come, she suggests, from clergy who, in efforts to treat all couples equally, regardless of sexuality, will eventually decline to sign state-issued marriage licenses, choosing rather to conduct religious marriage ceremonies and send couples to state or local government representatives for the legal certification process.

End to 'marriage control'

Mark Henkel, founder of, an Old Orchard Beach-based group promoting "Christian polygamy," says conservatives will continue to object to same-sex marriage, and predicts they will ultimately come around to his perspective: that governmental "marriage control" of any kind should end. "Both sides are redefining marriage," he says, either as one-man-one-woman, or any-two-adults; both, he says, discriminate against polygamists. He hopes government will eventually get entirely out of determining what is or is not a marriage, so long as it is between "unrelated consenting adults."

Increasing acceptance

Betsy Smith, executive director of Equality Maine, a leader in the push for same-sex marriage, is mostly thinking about the referendum fight, which to her is an effort to protect "fairness and equality for all Maine families."

She sees hope as young people, who "don't understand what the big deal is" and quite strongly, as a demographic group, support same-sex marriage, grow into political power that will continue that protection. (She also predicts "a big boost" for Maine's economy in wedding tourism.)

No destruction

"I don't think it'll be anything anybody's interested in anymore," says Reverend Stephen Carnahan, pastor of the Open House Church in Portland and a member of the Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry. "Everyone will have found that it doesn't actually cause Armageddon."

While opponents fear "the end of marriage in Maine," he suggests that what they will find is that "even if they still disagree with it, they'll realize that it's not going to destroy things."

'Ongoing cultural divide'

Marc Mutty, the public affairs director for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, expects success for the people's veto effort he is helping to lead, but says it won't be the end of the road, saying gay-rights activists will continue to push for same-sex marriage, in Maine, in other states, and at the federal level. "I expect this to be an ongoing cultural divide for years to come," he says, though he hopes that the people's veto will end most of the political debate, at least for a while. And, for his part, Mutty hints that if the veto fails, there won't be a next step.

Mercurial influence

Predictions from Portland's Best Comic and Psychic

Brian Brinegar, voted Portland's Best Comedian by Portland Phoenix readers earlier this year, went non-comic (and succinct), citing philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

Robin Ivy, voted Portland's Best Psychic by Portland Phoenix readers, checked with the skies and has this to add: "The gay-marriage decision was made on the eve of Mercury retrograde, so it's a pretty sure thing it will be revisited sooner rather than later. Mercury retrograde is all about retracing steps and rethinking decisions made. At the same time, though, Pluto in Capricorn is working for long-term restructuring and confronting structures that have been in place like governments and, yes, the tradition of marriage. I predict in 10 or 12 years there will still be opponents of gay marriage, but for the most part all different kinds of families will live side-by-side with bigger concerns and a need for community, and move beyond this as an issue. We may be dealing with alien life forms, environmental changes, and technology to preserve life in general. Okay, that may be extreme, but you get the idea. We will have other work to do by then."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Prison Watch: Putting an end to the hunger strike

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Lance Tapley

Maine State Prison officials ended a hunger strike involving at least 10 inmates of the solitary-confinement Supermax unit in Warren by threatening to withhold the strikers’ psychotropic medications, according to allegations by an inmate who participated in the strike.

Eight inmates began striking on Sunday, May 3, demanding access to televisions or radios to help relieve the isolation of 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement. (Inmates in Maine, and in most other states, are not sentenced to solitary confinement by a judge, but rather are assigned there by prison staff, often for breaking even minor prison rules — a common practice despite the fact that many inmates suffer from mental illnesses that are not properly treated in prison and make it hard for them to follow rules.)

“Most states recognize that it’s a necessity to have a TV or radio to keep sane” in solitary, one of the protesters, Jesse Baum, wrote the Portland Phoenix in a letter dated the day the strike began. (Read an online report posted during the early days of the strike at

One inmate dropped out of the strike early last week, and two more had dropped out by May 8, though Associate Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said then that two more prisoners had joined the protest.

Lord says the inmates did not receive radios, but voluntarily resumed eating over the weekend (she did not know the exact time it the strike ended, but said all were eating by the morning of May 11). According to Lord, prison medical and mental-health staff checked the striking inmates daily, though she would not say what they found, or whether inmates received any treatment, citing medical-privacy regulations.

In a May 7 letter to the Phoenix, Baum wrote that the prison’s medical staff were not treating the health problems he and other inmates had, and were planning on withholding medication for their various mental illnesses, such as “psychosis, paranoia, panic attacks, ADHD, bipolar, depression.” And in a May 10 letter, he said Acting Deputy Warden Dwight Fowles and prison mental-health workers “told inmates they were not to get meds while on hunger strike.”

Initially, Lord disputed those statements, saying “We would never refuse medication,” though adding that inmates can refuse to take it. But upon further questioning, Lord admitted that medical staff might have talked about withholding medications if it was “medically deemed necessary.” (She offered no examples, but agreed with a Phoenix suggestion that some of the medicine might have carried recommendations that it be taken with food.)

“Going on a hunger strike is a personal decision,” Lord said, saying that withholding medication might have been “a consequence” of that, and saying medical and mental-health staff would have given inmates “full understanding” of that possibility.

Ultimately, though, Lord said, “I’m not sure if medication was stopped. I really don’t know.”

Baum had previously said he thought the prison banned Supermax inmates from having radios for fear they would use the radio parts to harm themselves. Lord seemed to agree, saying Supermax inmates are restricted from having very much “personal property” (a designation that includes TVs, radios, electronic game systems, books, magazines, and photographs) in their cells, “primarily for safety and security reasons.”

Several of the inmates suffer from serious mental illness, Baum wrote to the Phoenix, identifying one hunger striker as Michael James, a severely mentally ill man whose incarceration at the prison has long been controversial. Robin Dearborn, his mother, describes the part of the Supermax where he is held as a “dungeon.” (For more on James, see “Punish the Mentally Ill,” by Lance Tapley, April 13, 2007.)

The last Supermax mass hunger strike, which lasted for several days, occurred in 2006 to protest the treatment of Ryan Rideout, a mentally-ill man who had hanged himself in his cell. (See “State Sued Over Inmate’s Death,” by Lance Tapley, March 5, 2008.)

Though the strike has ended, the Black Bird Legal Collective and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition will hold a rally at noon on Saturday, May 16, outside the prison, at 807 Cushing Road, Warren, to support the inmates and to demand “humane treatment of prisoners and an end to long term isolation and other forms of torture in Maine prisons.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Press Releases: Dodging Shots

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In politics, and with the media, it's the outcome, and not the intention, that matters. That's fortunate for Senator Susan Collins, who got lucky twice in the same week.

Back in February, "moderate Republican" senator Collins managed to strike $780 million designated for preparing for and fighting flu pandemics from President Obama's economic-stimulus package — all part of her efforts to cut Democratic proposals down to a size she could support.

When the swine-flu panic struck last week, Collins was a main target of critics from outside the GOP who labeled her budget-cutting efforts part what lefties call "the party of No's" campaign to gut Obama initiatives.

But as the mainstream media joined the attack, the senator was able to defend herself with two key points. There was a December 2008 letter in which she and other senators asked Senate leaders to add $905 million to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, which is run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. And, during the stimulus-package debate, she'd actually come out in favor of flu-pandemic funding. She just wanted that kind of spending to go through the regular federal-budget process, rather than sliding into an emergency stimulus spending package.

Those moves, the kind of calculated bet-hedging political-speak that all elected officials spout, turned out to be a solid enough counter-attack that the mainstream folk gave her a little breathing room. During that time, nature took its turn to hand Collins a win (at least so far). The H1N1 (swine) flu pandemic threat appears to be smaller than originally feared, so we don't seem to need the millions of dollars she slashed — nor the millions she asked for and failed to get — after all.

If Collins had slashed pandemic funding and hundreds or thousands had been sickened or died, she would have been roundly castigated for her two-facedness. But since that hasn't happened, the media — but not the blogosphere — is allowing her to escape criticism for, in reality, failing to increase pandemic funding even a little bit.

This example illustrates one way the public can become more informed, not less, by carefully using both the traditional media and the blogosphere. Sure, the ranting bloggers didn't do what the pros did — call Collins's office and seek some answers — but they called attention to something needing further investigation, which the pros promptly provided.

What the pros found, when they took the bloggish outrage and made it (not Collins's action) the story, was that the senator's staff were already in backpedal-defense mode.

The crucially telling quote came in spokesman Kevin Kelley's hastily issued statement last Monday: "There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds."

Of course, a quote like that led to more criticism from bloggers, who noted that Collins hadn't stuck to her guns about increasing flu-pandemic funding. The latest federal budget added just $1.4 million in that area, and Collins (because she objected to other things in the bill) voted against the whole thing anyway.

It also led to an uncommon swipe by the mainstream press: the Washington Post's comment that "Collins and the others who led the fight to axe the flu money three months ago can only hope that doesn't change."

Whether or not it does, we can be sure that Collins knows that she is being more closely watched than she might be used to, and by people who are undeterred by the relentless "news cycle." Blogging watchdogs are more like hounds than shepherds. And only luck protected Collins this time.