Baines knew his life would never be the same again. “I remember sitting in the detective’s office,” he told the students, “my head in my hands, crying and just hoping the walls would swallow me up. How could I face my mother, knowing I did something so terrible? Then my mother walked in. We embraced. We both began to cry.”
The following Monday night, the Reverend Richard Forcier and congregation president Lois Reed led a memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Bangor. The over 200 attendees celebrated Charlie Howard’s life, and voiced outrage over his vicious murder.
They then marched over the bridge where Charlie had been murdered, and in keeping with Charlie’s mother’s wishes, dropped a white rose tied with a lavender ribbon into the stream below. The procession terminated in a candlelight vigil at the Bangor police station.
All along the line of the march, amid the marchers’ grief and rage, hecklers shouted homophobic epithets. A few weeks after the murder, the words “Fags Jump Here” were painted on the bridge.
Four days after Howard’s death, the Reverend Richard Hasty led another memorial service at the First Parish Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Portland, Maine, followed by a protest march down Congress Street. Onlookers there also heckled marchers from the sidelines.
Few in the community were willing to condemn such bigotry.
Forcier, in an attempt to bring Bangor together, sent a letter to the leaders of area religious congregations to join him in discussing Howard’s murder and speaking out against intolerance. The response was deadening silence, save for the angry replies of a few fundamentalist ministers.
A few months later, a local school board unanimously voted to cancel a proposed “Tolerance Day,” claiming the appearance on a scheduled panel of the president of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance would have threatened the “safety, order, and security of the high school.”
Things haven’t changed very much since then.
Lois Reed, a member of the Unitarian Universalist in Bangor for 21 years and congregation president from 1984 to 1987 has led an annual service on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of Howard’s death.
“Every year, after the memorial service,” she told me in a telephone interview, “we march to the bridge. People say some words of remembrance and throw flowers into the stream. Every year, except last year, we hear taunts from the streets, usually in the form of four-letter words. Sometimes, cars circle the block and people yell at us. The sign outside our church announcing their memorial service is often spray-painted with the word ‘faggot.’”
Charlie Howard was Reed’s friend. She remembers him as “a good person, though he could be absolutely infuriating at times. He was very frail in appearance and was targeted because he was seen as vulnerable.”
After their arraignment, Howard’s killers were released into their parents’ custody. According to a Boston Globe article, Thomas Goodwin, the assistant attorney general chosen to prosecute the case, said he had recommended their release because they were “not a threat to the community,” and had not intended to kill Howard.
Sargent Thomas Placella, the chief detective on the case, in published accounts at the time of the murder, echoed this reasoning saying, “I’m not trying to lessen the severity of the crimes, but it’s not like these were axe murderers. These people came from respectable families who own property in the city of Bangor.”
Three months later, Mabry, Ness, and Baines were convicted of manslaughter and given indeterminate sentences at the Maine Youth Center in South Portland. During Baines’s two years there, he continued his studies, and following release, he returned to high school and graduated with his class in 1987.
Charlie Howard’s murder is remarkable only by virtue of its unremarkability.
Gay bashing, of course, is not limited to Maine, a state that boasted the lowest murder rate in the US at the time of Howard’s vicious attack. The year of Howard’s killing, 90 percent of the 2000 people contacted for a survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (a civil right group based in Washington, DC) reported having been victimized because of their sexual identity. More than one in ten had been threatened with violence.
Victimization occurred at home, at school, and at other community sites. Forty five percent of the males and 25 percent of the females had been harassed or attacked in high school or junior high school because they were perceived as lesbian or gay. About one-third of the respondents had been assaulted verbally, while more than one in fifteen had been physically abused by family members.
Three years later, a US Department of Justice report concluded, “Homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims” of hate violence.
Like his crime, Baines himself was unremarkable. He told students at Biddeford Middle School, “I was not unlike any of you here. I was a grade-conscious, wanting to be popular, 15-year-old high school kid. I played football, basketball; I hung out with my friends on weekends. My grades were okay, and I was really looking forward to going to college.”
Ness and Mabry were also “typical” middle class teens, Ness a promising art student, and Mabry a karate enthusiast and star of the city hockey league.
Why would three young men who seemed to have so much going for them feel compelled to commit a crime of hate?
“As I look back now,” said Baines, “I don’t think I was ever homophobic.”
His primary motivation, he said, was the desire for popularity. Even as he was beating Howard, he had thought, “My friends will look up to me for this, and I’ll be able to talk about it in school for a couple of years.
“In high school,” he continued, “no matter how popular you are, you worry about being popular.”
He went on to explain why he and his friends had targeted gays.
“We thought these people were much different than us and that we would get away with it because it was accepted. I considered that person different than I, less than I. Just like in school, you have your bullies that pick on the little kids; it’s the same idea.”
A female student raised her hand and said, “When we think of gays, we think of a limp wrist, weird voice, and slurred speech and stuff, and we don’t realize that some people we hang around with every day could be homosexuals.”
Another female student added, “I think a lot of people hate blacks or women or gays or whatever just because they’re not a white male.”
A male student asked Baines, “Do you think education in the schools about gay people would have changed your view”
Baines pondered the question briefly and answered, “I look back and think, ‘If I would have been more educated about homosexuality, I would have been aware that it is there, and it’s something that shouldn’t be treated violently.’ I guess, if there was more education in that area, it would’ve probably made me think differently about the whole night.”
In fact, Baines had gotten the opposite kind of education. “I did know that [homosexuality] was something my family looked at as unacceptable,” he remembered, “my family as well as the police.”
Given the lack of appropriate education, it’s not surprising that, as Baines said, “gay-bashing was happening every day. And it was more than just five or six kids doing it.”
In fact, it was considered an after-school extracurricular activity. Baines confided that local youth often stole from gay people, threw rocks at their cars, and once even pulled a gay man from his car and sent it crashing down a hill.
“The parents knew,” he said. “I believe teachers even knew. But nobody thought it would turn into something so serious.”
To Baines’s surprise, even during his trial, a man approached him wanting to shake his hand to commend him for his act.