2014 has been a big year for gay and lesbian civil rights. Same-sex marriage was enshrined into law in half a dozen states, and may be legalized in a half dozen more by the time the year is out. Social conservatives are all but publicly admitting defeat.
But the biggest story for the LGBT community is happening far outside of a court room, and has nothing to do with wedding chapels.
In the state of Maine, Mike Michaud, a six-term Democratic congressman, is vying to become the first openly gay governor in United States history. Yet in an era when gay people come out of the closet at younger and younger ages, and when politicians’ personal lives are considered part of the public domain, Michaud did not reveal his sexual orientation until last November, at the age of 58. Then, in an editorial he distributed to Maine’s three major print media outlets, he said that he was coming out because he was leading in the polls, and his opponents were engaging in a whisper campaign about his personal life.
“They want people to question whether I am gay,” Michaud wrote. “Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: ‘Yes I am. But why should it matter?’”
Even a few years ago, the prospect of electing the first openly gay chief executive would have been a matter of major importance, with conservatives arguing that it presaged moral ruin, and liberals marking it as major turning point in the fight for equality.
But in Maine, in 2014, the prospect of a gay governor is met mostly with a shrug.
“It is totally irrelevant to the race,” said Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine.
Pundits are saying that it is not so much that Michaud may become the first gay governor of a state, but that he may become the nation’s first “post-gay” governor—someone whose sexual orientation is truly a non-issue in the campaign. Democrats in Maine say that Michaud has been actually reluctant to talk about his sexuality for fear that to do so would risk being accused of playing “the gay card,” or of exploiting his sexual orientation for political gain.
In a head-to-head race against the incumbent, Republican Paul LePage, polls suggest that Michaud would win easily. But he is being undercut by a third candidate in the race, independent Eliot Cutler, who has been making the case to voters that he is actually better on LGBT issues than Michaud is.
“I think it is fair to say that it has gotten very weird up here, yes,” said Mike Tipping, who runs a website about the state’s politics and has written a book critical of the Le Page administration.
When asked about how his announcement from last November was affecting the race, Michaud seemed momentarily at a loss.
“As far as being gay you mean?” He asked. “The only ones that really bring it up are reporters.”
Mainers say they were surprised, but not shocked, when Michaud came out of the closet last year. Rumors about unmarried middle-aged people, regardless of profession or gender, are sadly as common there as elsewhere.
Michaud spent thirty years as millworker and a member of the local union. His father and grandfather were both millworkers, and he represents more conservative French-Canadian towns up the coast as a conservative “Blue Dog Democrat” with a spotty record on social issues like abortion.
But although he took some votes in the state legislature that limited the rights of gays, he was a stalwart defender of LGBT civil rights while in Congress. And when Maine became one of the first states to pass marriage equality by popular vote in 2012, Michaud was one of the most fervent lobbyists for the cause, and someone who advocates say was great to have in their corner since his millworking, centrist profile meant that he could be dispatched to more conservative communities.
Michaud did not come out of the closet in order to avoid some scandalous revelation. He told The Daily Beast that he is not in a relationship, and that he has never been in a relationship. In fact, he could not point to the moment, or even the time period, when he discovered or realized that he was gay. He did not tell his family until shortly before the op-ed came out.
“My focus has always been serving the people in the state of Maine. I have always been working morning, noon and night for Mainers. I never had much of a social life, so that’s pretty much it.”
Explicit in Michaud’s coming-out op-ed was that he was doing so for political reasons—reporters were being encouraged to look into Michaud’s personal life, and he wanted to stop something before it could be a big issue.
But now that he is out, it is has been such a non-issue that it is fair to wonder if Michaud made the right calculation.
“I would never have come out if we hadn’t heard about these insinuations,” Michaud said. “I always thought my personal life is my life, and my feeling was, well, let’s address it head on and move forward. I am the same Mike today as I was yesterday or ten years ago or twenty years ago. I haven’t changed and I am not going to change.”
Now political analysts say that Michaud’s sexuality is mostly a political wash. Sure, those who were not going to vote for him now have another reason to support someone else. But if anything, Michaud may get a small bump out of the revelation because liberals suspicious of his centrist voting record may now be more inclined to support him.
“Liberal Democrats who don’t like him very much now have a reason to vote for him,” said Professor Maisel. “I think it is a net plus. Not a big plus, but a net plus.”
And so, according to Maine Democrats, the GOP has been trying to undercut that support by distributing flyers touting Cutler’s record on gay rights. Cutler, a lawyer and an entrepreneur, has been pointing to a series of votes Michaud took in the state legislature that he says denied rights to lesbians and gays, and also points to his own history as a major donor to gay causes.
Michaud, though, had a conservative district to hold on to then. And despite his moderate voting record, he was still accused of favoring “a back door approach for the spread of homosexuality” by social conservatives.
“Cutler, he never ran for office,” Michaud says. “It’s easy to say one thing, but he has never had a history or a record.”
Mainers say that their state has almost an allergy to discussing a candidate’s personal life. And if Michaud’s sexuality did not register, it has been in part, Mainers say, because they have battled it out on LGBT issues over the last decade. A gay marriage bill first passed the legislature in 2009. It was reaffirmed in 2012, and popular support has been steadily building an ever—healthier majority for marriage equality. Now, to most Mainers, these issues are settled.
National gay rights organizations have made Michaud’s race a priority. And even though major gay donors have been reluctant to give money to a race thought to be strictly a local concern, advocates say they are thrilled to see two candidates competing over who is more LGBT-friendly, a mere decade after George Bush ran for president highlighting his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“I want to show the world that gay couples are as boring as straight couples. We are not running around with feathered boas. We are no different from your neighbor, your police officer, your firefighter, your child’s teacher. We are ever day men and women,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “Michaud has been serving that state for literally thirty years. He will be elected on the merits of his public service—and oh yeah, he is also gay.”
Michaud is aware of that his election would mark a major point in the fight for gay equality, and he says that if he wins he will be able to preserve Maine’s gay marriage laws, and will be able to talk up civil rights to his fellow governors.
But he says he is not talking it about that all that much, and he will not going forward.
“It definitely is a historic race, if we win, and we are apparently on the way to do so. But this hasn’t been the major issue in this race, and it shouldn’t be, because Mainers know me from my record in the state legislature, from my time in Congress, and that is how it should be,” he told the Beast. “People should be judged by what they stand for and how hard they work.”