In recent weeks, Maine’s openly gay congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud has faced trenchant criticism from an opponent on an unlikely topic: gay rights. According to independent candidate Eliot Cutler, Michaud has a spotty record on LGBTQ issues, having frequently voted against pro-gay bills during his time in the Maine state legislature. On Wednesday, I spoke with Michaud to get a better picture of his views on gay rights.
Your opponent notes that, while serving in the state legislature, you voted against extending civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. Can you explain these votes?
You have to remember that I’ve been in public life for three decades. And today I’m proud of my 95 percent lifetime rating from the Human Rights Campaign for all the work I’ve done in Congress. My tenure in the legislature began when I was 24 years old. When you look at LGBT issues, as a country, as a society, we’ve come a long way. I’ve evolved just as the people of Maine have evolved.
You know, this year is the 30th anniversary of Charlie Howard. He was thrown off a bridge in Bangor [in an infamous anti-gay hate crime]. I was doing some reflection upon what happened back then, and when I went back and looked at the Bangor Daily News editorials—and back then the Bangor Daily News was the second-largest paper in the state—I saw how they portrayed that murder: He was asking for it. It was his choice to be gay.
It really shows how much we’ve moved. That wasn’t long ago, 1984. Back then we actually did pass legislation in Maine that dealt with [anti-gay] hate crimes. [Michaud supported the hate crimes bill starting in 1987; it finally passed in 1993.] At that point in time, we thought we were making a lot of progress. As a matter of fact, when I ran for re-election to the state House of Representatives, my opponent attacked me on supporting legislation that would encourage homosexuality.
We thought we were doing the right thing at that time. Making a lot of progress. Reflecting back today, what we did back then really wasn’t much progress at all. We established a civil rights team on the appropriations committee—we had to call it something else, though, because we couldn’t get Republicans to support it.
We’ve done a lot, but there’s still so much more to do. I am shocked at how far we’ve come on this [issue], though. Individuals have evolved. As a state, we’ve evolved. I’m very proud of the fact that Maine was the first state in the country to pass marriage equality at the ballot box.
First by a few minutes—Maryland’s results came in almost simultaneously.
[Laughs] Well, if I do win—first, it’ll be historic; second, look at the issues affecting the LGBT community. They’re going to be dealt with at the state level. I will have a seat at the table. It’s important to talk to my colleagues, peer to peer. For those that say they really support this issue, this [race] is the opportunity.
After so many years of public service, what convinced you that this was the right time to come out?
It was never an issue before. I ran six campaigns for Congress and several campaigns in the state legislature with no problems. But this time around, I heard those rumors about my sexuality, so rather than have people speculate about it, I figured I’d just come out and move forward.
Were you never previously tempted to come out during your three decades in office?
It just wasn’t an issue. My personal life was my personal life. When I run for office, I run to represent a district. It never was an issue, and it never became an issue. It became clear in this campaign that someone was trying to make it an issue. Rather than have them speculate, I figured I’d come out and say, “Yes, I am, what does it matter?” and move on.
Do you think that your coming out has had any effect on the race?
Yes—it’s been positive. When I first came out, someone from a rural part of the state told me about his son, who is 15, who came out to him four, five months before that. The way he came out was, he said he really needed help. And the dad told me that the fact that I came out really made a difference. I’ve had several people coming up to me since then. It’s really been a positive impact as far as how other people view their sexual orientation.
What about in the rural, more conservative parts of the state?
People have been really positive. Some folks’ comments have been, “Well, marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that’s the way it is. But I know Mike, I like Mike, and I’ll support Mike.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.