Berean Bible Baptist Church pastor Arthur Dean yells Bible verses at a drag queen during the 1998 Gay Pride parade in downtown Bangor. Credit: Kevin Bennett

Several years into his career as a drag queen, Bangor resident Harrison Ankers, then 28, decided to don his red wig and a shimmering pink and blue dress to transform into his drag alter ego, Lawanda, and march in the 1998 Bangor Gay Pride parade.

As often happened in those days, protesters from a handful of local churches showed up to express their view that LGBTQ people were sinners going against God’s will.

Ankers, who doesn’t get into drag as much these days as he did back then, recalls being generally nonplussed about the fact that there were people at the parade there specifically to tell him and his LGBTQ friends that they were going to hell.

“What can you do about people like that? All you can do is be a good person and show them through your actions that you deserve to be treated like a human being,” Ankers said. “I was going to walk down the street in heels whether they liked it or not.”

He does recall, however, what happened around the time a Bangor Daily News photographer snapped a photo of him and a protester.

“I remember he screamed ‘Sodomite!’ at me, and I responded with ‘Don’t threaten me with a good time!’” Ankers said. “I love that photo, though the photographer called me a crossdresser, and I’m not a crossdresser. I’m a drag queen. There’s a difference.”

Though Ankers has been out and proud for his entire adult life, it wasn’t that long ago that being openly gay in Bangor could mean you were risking your life to be who you were.

Credit: Bob DeLong

The specter of Charlie Howard — the 23-year-old Bangor gay man who in July 1984 was murdered by three local teenagers — hangs over every Pride celebration in Bangor, even more than 30 years later.

“I think when we are residing in a community where a tragedy like that happens, it makes everything you do — Pride especially — more impactful and resonant,” said Sue McKay, a longtime member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor, which helps to organize a yearly memorial for Howard. “Pride is a wonderful celebration of how far we’ve come, but here, there is an underlying sense that this is a sacred space… it brings it to a different level, here.”

Howard is appropriately remembered each year with a memorial ceremony on the bridge where the murder took place, and, in more recent years, with the painting of the crosswalk on the bridge in rainbow colors.

“I think the fact that this happened here has made the city more generally aware and sensitive to the gay community,” said McKay, who is gay. “It was a hard lesson learned, but we are a more sensitive citizenry for it. Our Pride celebration is known for that.”

Credit: Gabor Degre

For Bangor specifically, Pride carries with it a unique sense of importance, but in general, Pride events all over the world are about celebrating the LGBTQ community — its history, its unique cultural touchstones, how far gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have come, and the many elements that make up the rainbow that symbolizes the movement.

Pride is also important as a time for LGBTQ people to congregate, as businesses like gay bars have largely disappeared from most Maine communities — despite Maine’s reputation as one of the most gay-friendly states in the country, there are only two gay bars remaining in the state (Blackstone’s in Portland, and MaineStreet in Ogunquit). There hasn’t been a gay bar in the Bangor area since 2013.

“In a way, it’s a good thing, because people are free to go pretty much wherever they want without fear. People are more assimilated,” Ankers said. “But it’s also important to have a place to go where you can be among people that are like you.”

Credit: Micky Bedell

Beyond the camaraderie and fellowship among LGBTQ people, Pride also carries with it a distinct political message — a message that younger generations of the LGBTQ community might not otherwise learn, without gathering places and events like Pride, that shine a spotlight on those concerns.

“Many young people learn about our past through studying on their own. It is immensely important to start including these topics in history. Young folks need to know that they are not alone,” said Ambureen Rana, who with her colleagues at Health Equity Alliance in Bangor are the lead organizers of this year’s Bangor Pride. “Pride to me is a protest and a rally. Although we have made a lot of progress in society, I believe that there is still so much progress to be made.”

Despite that progress over the past two decades, the transgender community especially faces an uphill climb in terms of attaining legal protections, as well as overall acceptance among the general population.

Credit: Nick Sambides

Locally, in 2017, for the first time in several years, there were protesters at Bangor Pride. A small group from local church the Mansion Church, now affiliated with Crosspoint Church, held signs saying homosexuality is an abomination. Nationally, another horrific event — the Pulse massacre, which two years ago left 49 people dead in an Orlando gay nightclub — left many members of the LGBT community rattled, as has the Trump administration’s dismantling of certain federal regulations protecting LGBT people. And internationally, countries like Russia, Nigeria and Uganda have persecuted gay and transgender people.

Which is why Pride — even nearly 50 years after the very first celebrations in the U.S. in the wake of the Stonewall riots, and more than 25 years after Bangor’s first pride event in 1992 — still matters in 2018.

“You have to remember where you came from. You have to remember who you are, and all the amazing things about it,” Ankers said. “That’s what Pride is all about. Being proud of who you are.”

Credit: Kevin Bennett

Bangor Pride continues this week with a 5 p.m. Thursday cocktail party at Penobscot Theatre’s Dramatic Academy on Main Street, followed by a 7 p.m. performance of “Shear Madness” at the Bangor Opera House; tickets are $50. Also on Thursday night is LGBT karaoke at Ipanema in West Market Square, starting at 9 p.m. On Friday, there is a panel for LGBT people in recovery at 3:30 p.m. at the Bangor Area Recovery Network on Center Street in Brewer, and at 8 p.m. Friday there’s a drag show at the Downunder Club at Seasons ($10).

The Bangor Pride Parade is set for 10 a.m. Saturday in downtown Bangor, followed by the festival in West Market Square, which goes until 4 p.m. On Saturday night, there’s a youth dance 6-9 p.m. at the Bangor Public Library, a dance party at the Bangor Arts Exchange 7 p.m.-1 a.m. ($10), and a chem-free party 7-11 p.m. at the Bangor Area Recovery Network.

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Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.