The Sweetest Face – Charlie Howard 1961-1984
In early July every year since 1984 my memory turns to one of the most shocking painful memories of my life, the murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor, Maine. This year I was trying to remember what he looked like and was shocked by the sweetness in the photos I found. Not because I didn’t know he was sweet and young, but because anyone back then saw that he was “different”. He looks just like so many well dressed young people I’ve known.
I question this, but I think the deepest reason for my pain is because it happened in Maine, my home state of only 1.3 million total current population. The cities are small, the towns smaller, and there are a lot of villages and outlying rural areas. It is a place where I was born and grew up, and spent much of my life. I always felt safe. In my family I was raised to feel safe because I was female, and because I was a child at the time. My stepfather who raised me was a WW2 vet and told me that women and children were not harmed in war. I wonder why he lied to me?
Yes it is true, there is prejudice, there are plenty of “rednecks” and there is a strong right wing religious presence. But to murder someone?! ! for being different? It was unfathomable to me. Hadn’t I been raised that Jesus taught us to love everybody, red, yellow, black and white? (words to a children’s church song)
Until I learned the criminals were 3 teenage boys out on a lark could my intellect find a “reason”, and unfortunately the collective minds of some groups of teenage boys seem to turn to “proving” their masculinity and sexuality by doing violence to someone weaker then they are, usually women, or anyone different, weaker and/or outnumbered, too. Maine is largely homogenized – white – in all areas except the cities and along the coast.
An aside here – I am proud to say that Portland, ME is big in culture, arts and ethnicity, and there are over 40 different languages spoken in the schools in Portland. When one visits a hospital admission office, the signs with directions are written in about twelve different languages.
On July 7, 1984 23 year old Charlie Howard was murdered for being gay by three teen age boys out on a beer run. They parked their car, jumped out, attacked him and threw him off the State St. bridge in Bangor, Maine. He drowned. For more information please click on the link above. Charlie was known to have asthma.
At the time of this crime I was attending nursing school in Bangor, commuting 120 miles round trip daily. I was a divorced mother of a nine year old boy. I was a (closeted) lesbian for the most part, and my partner was the “go to” person for my son, making sure his needs were met when I was in school.
This event was life changing for me. I remember hearing the news the next school morning after Charlie died. There were a handful of people, mostly students and a staff member, that were quite vocal. Most everyone else had little or nothing to say. To put it in perspective, there may have been 25-30 adult students, all LPNs going for their RN in a specially designed “Step-Up” Program. There were about 5 -7 Staff members and instructors.
When I first “came out” in 1980 I was very proud of being a lesbian and very proud to be seen at openly gay events and with women who were openly lesbian. My community always felt safe to me, and I had no fears, other than reactions from family members.
In 1984 I was in the second year of my first lesbian relationship. Both of us, especially my partner, were involved politically for gay rights and women’s rights. Despite having felt proud and open in my own home community of friends, when I started nursing school at St. Joseph’s Hospital of Nursing in Bangor I felt I needed to keep my sexual preference a secret. Why? Was it because the school was Catholic? no. (I hadn’t been raised Catholic but my one long term intimate encounter with nuns was very nurturing and positive.) Was it because I was visibly the only one? probably. Was it because I was without my partner who was a stronger personality who made me feel safe? probably. Was it because there was a certain group of people who would gather before classes, talking loudly and telling jokes, mostly of a sexual, racist, anti-gay nature? For sure.
On this particular day, the first day of school after Charlie’s murder, that group was a bit bigger and talking more animatedly, making me wonder what had happened? What I heard was the story about three men killing a gay man by throwing him over a bridge in Bangor. Charlie was described by them in this way – “…well, he was very effeminate, he acted and looked like a girl, he had long blond hair, wore long dangling earrings in one ear, and carried a woman’s pocketbook…he should have expected something to happen to him for the way he looked and acted…he deserved it…”
I was sick. I wanted to vomit. My thoughts were, though unreasonable “I should have stayed straight then I would have been able to speak up and counter the hate and homophobia I was hearing, but now that I am gay I have no rights, they will not hear me, and what I say will not matter; I’ve lost my credibility with straights.” I felt impotent. And scared.
Prior to this I rarely let pass by me any comment or joke that could have been considered racist, sexist, anti-semetic, ant-gay or bashing of any person of group of people in any way. I was always on the side of the underdog since childhood. It was in my nature.
My vulnerability was revealed to me once again. I was lesbian – gay. I was not safe from hate crimes. Never mind the small homophobic acts I had encountered in the previous 2 years, I could lose my life. But the intention of this piece is to memorialize Charlie Howard.
My reactions to looking at the photos I’ve posted…what a sweet boy, he could have been my own child with that coloring, in fact with that haircut he reminded me of my son as a boy, any mother would be proud to acknowledge him, he is carrying a nice men’s shoulder bag/brief case, not a woman’s pocketbook, I don’t see long dangling earrings, he dresses very well. What the heck difference does any of that make? It doesn’t. Those are just my first emotional reactions to the photos of a beautiful boy, knowing he had been murdered in a hate crime in my home state.
Charlie Howard. At age 23 you were certainly too young to die. Thank you for your courage to be you and to live your own life openly and proud. You help make the world a better place for all gays and lesbians.
On a higher note, I’m very proud of the people in Bangor, Maine who were outraged and devastated by this murder. I went to the first memorial service, and walked down to the bridge to throw flowers in the water in his memory amid lots of weeping and quiet reflection. I’ve also attended two later ones. Today it has been 29 years, twenty-nine years, and these determined people with compassionate, loving hearts who want a “just” and peaceful world for every person continue to have an annual memorial service at the bridge where Charlie died. They’ve even placed a beautiful memorial stone there. That stone got vandalized one year and was repaired. So there is love; there is hate.
What has changed in 29 years for the Lesbian and Gay population? Are things better? Are they worse? Well, in some states and many schools and colleges teens and young adults have an open affirmative program and support people that they can access. Many countries and states or cities in USA have annual Gay Pride Celebrations in June. There are still hate crimes, gays still get beaten and murdered. There is still homophobia. Gay Marriage is passing in countries all over the world, and about 12 states in the USA. Legally, rights are better. Large groups are safe to celebrate in many places. What about for individuals? Are things better? Worse? Unchanged? Does geography matter?
Please comment; I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts for my own personal growth, and interest. And I know my readers want to hear as well. Thank you.
This is a non-scholarly article. Any errors are my own and I will be glad to correct.
Lesbianne Free at lesbiannemusings.wordpress.com