Remembering Charlie Howard (1961-1984)

I came across a rather unpleasant editorial by a member of the clergy in Britain this morning.  I don’t intend to name him, since I am tired of giving free publicity to these people (though I did comment on the article directly on Facebook), but his point was that Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are as brave as gays who came out in the 1970s.

It’s a common fantasy—the persecuted Christians under constant siege by the liberal media and government, merely for professing the Word of God.  It ignores the fact that the majority of people who support same-sex marriage are, in fact, Christian.  And not all of them are liberals.  But apparently, the fact that they don’t think there is a conflict between their faith and granting gay men and women equality under the law somehow excludes them from the community of “true Christians.”

I could go on at great length about my disgust with those who use their religion as justification for treating others as lesser citizens, but instead I’m going to focus on his assertion that he and his ilk are as brave as those who came out in the 70s.  I came out in the early 80s, just a few years later, and I have a fairly good recollection of the way things were back then.

I’ve written about my personal experiences being gay in New Hampshire in the 1980s.  My primary problem was loneliness and isolation, rather than outright persecution.  I’ve never been beaten up for being gay.  In that, I consider myself very lucky.

But let me tell you a story….

It happened the year I came out—1984.  And it happened in Bangor, Maine, the town I was born in.

Charlie was 23 years old, just four years older than I was.  I was nineteen at the time, living in Keene, NH.  My boyfriend was twenty-four, which made him older than Charlie.  We didn’t know him.  He was originally from Portsmouth, NH, just a half hour down the road from my house now, but the last year of his life was spent in Bangor, which is about 4.5 hours drive from Keene.  My grandparents still lived just outside of Bangor at the time.

Charlie was out.  Not just out to immediate friends and family, but still closeted at work and around town, as many of us were.  He was flamboyantly gay and often wore makeup and women’s jewelry and other accessories.  He had friends in the area and had found a local Unitarian Universalist church that supported him.  He’d just taken an apartment on First Street and adopted a kitten.

Charlie also had asthma.  Remember that.  It comes up later.

He was frequently harassed by local high school kids, and adults in the area didn’t behave much better toward him.  He was ousted from a club for dancing with a man and one day a woman started shouting “pervert” and “queer” at him in a market.  One day he walked out of his apartment to find his kitten strangled on the doorstep.

Then one night around 10 p.m.,  he was walking the post office with a friend and a car with five teenagers started following them.  The teenagers were apparently on their way to buy alcohol with a fake ID one of the two girls in the car had.  Charlie had had run-ins with the boys in the car in the past, so he began to run.  The three boys jumped out of the car and chased after him, shouting epithets at him.

Then Charlie had an asthma attack.  He fell near or on the bridge that crossed the Kenduskeag River and couldn’t catch his breath, while the boys descended upon him, kicking him and beating him.  According to the wikipedia article:

Jim Baines shouted to throw Charlie over the bridge and grabbed him by the legs. Jim Baines and Daniel Ness grabbed Charlie and they began lifting him. Pleading for his life, Charlie grabbed the rail and begged them not to throw him in the river as he could not swim. Prying his hand loose, they began to pitch him over the rail, with Shawn Mabry giving the final push.

The river wasn’t deep—only about three feet—but due to the asthma attack he was having and the fact that he couldn’t swim, Charlie Howard drowned that night, on July 7th, 1984.  His friend escaped from the teens and pulled a fire alarm, which brought the police and fire department.

Charlie’s body was recovered about three hours later.

The teenagers returned to the party they’d been at and bragged about what they’d done.  It’s probably true that they didn’t know the full extent of it, that they’d thought he would swim to safety.  They found out the next morning that they’d killed a man and one of them turned himself over to the police.  The other two were arrested at their homes.

As I said earlier, this didn’t happen to me.  But I came out at a time when it could have happened to me or anyone else I knew.  My boyfriend, Michael, was billy-clubbed in the stomach at a Pride march and later had to jump out a second story window when the gay bar he was DJ-ing in was smoke-bombed.

We didn’t feel safe, because we weren’t safe.  Don’t forget that Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were gunned down just six years prior to this, when I was in high school.  The danger to gay men and women in the 70s and 80s felt very real to us.  And it was.

Christians make up 70 to 80 percent of the people in this country, and although it is now unpopular to express opposition to gay rights, that is a recent development.  And to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been murdered or beaten up for it.  Oh, sure, they might be called names.  But that’s the way Free Speech works—you can say anything you like, but that means other people can say anything they like right back at you.  Also, the law says that in the public sphere, everyone has to be treated equally.  So if a business person decides they don’t want to allow a black person, or a gay person, or a Jewish person to stay in their hotel or buy things in their store… well, guess what?  That’s illegal.  That person can be sued.

Darn.

So I don’t want to hear it, if some jackass whines that he should have the right to insult people without anyone insulting him back, or discriminate against people in a place of business without the law coming down on him, all because he has “religious convictions.”  He doesn’t know what it’s like to really feel threatened by the community he lives in.

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4 Comments

Filed under gay, Gay Marriage, Life, Religion

4 responses to “Remembering Charlie Howard (1961-1984)

  1. That is horrifying. I can’t even imagine it. I too am weary of the whining of a certain segment of the population overly dedicated to attempting to make everyone toe their ridiculous religious line. There’s no equating the inconvenience of being frustrated in your attempts to ram your religion down another’s throat with living in constant, real terror of suffering a horrible death at the hands of the ‘god-fearing’ simply for being what the creator made you.
    Bah!!!

  2. I don’t even have adequate words for how this rips my heart. Like Phoenix, I can’t imagine. And I won’t sleep, imagining Charlie’s horror during his last moments. But it’s best I do NOT rest. I should NOT rest upon hearing such act of hatred toward a human being. It SHOULD bother me.

  3. The comments wouldn’t let me make my post longer…LOL. But I wanted to add a ‘thank you’, Jamie, for this.

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