Portland, Maine Rolls Out the LGBT Welcome Mat

by Robert Israel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Mar 8, 2013

Portland, Maine's picturesque, laid-back, gay-friendly seacoast town, is rolling out the welcome mat for LGBT visitors. With good reason: the passage of the marriage equality law this past fall restores a sense of harmony to the city that was shaken by acrimony and discord three years ago.

In 2009, the hard won Maine marriage equality law was overturned by voters after the opposition waged an aggressive multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Local gay activists worried that Maine's reputation as a bellwether state, with its oft-heard rallying cry, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation," would position it to be at the forefront of a national movement hell-bent on overturning legalized same-sex unions in other states.

They went back to work canvassing their neighbors. Last fall, the pendulum swayed: Maine voters approved it again, paving the way for same sex unions this year. Maine joins two other states - Maryland and Washington - all of whom embraced marriage equity during last November's election.

Revisiting Marriage Equality

During my recent visit to Portland, the spirit of this decision was trumpeted by Anna Schwartz, 31, and Sarah Holmes, 39, two champions of marriage equality who worked with a state-wide coalition to help to restore the law. They are clearly thrilled by the outcome, and, as it happens, are now in the midst of planning their own wedding. Their marriage ceremony will take place on New Year’s Eve at the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa in Old Port, Portland’s funky brick and cobblestoned historic district that hugs Casco Bay.

"Both of Sarah and I are activists in the Portland community," said Anna, who works as director of student engagement at Maine College of Art in downtown Portland. "We are both native Mainers. I grew up in Westbrook, Sarah is from South Berwick. We are both involved with the student population here, and we worked together with them to canvass our neighbors."

"It is very important for us to be married here," Sarah added. "We live and work here. We own a condo here. We’re voters here. And we’re pleased that Portland has once again embraced diversity and is now working with us to ensure it stays that way."

Sarah pointed to the work of Mayor Michael Brennan who has spoken publicly in support of LGBT rights, and to the fact that the police department has appointed a liaison on its force to work with the gay community.

"There are gay bars, Styxx and Blackstones, and gay owned places like Flask," Sarah said, "and we do our own version of Guerilla Gayfare every once and awhile when we all get together for a night out and meet, en masse, to a non-gay bar or restaurant to make our collective presence known. We’re also working on other political measures, and keeping our eye on the opposition to marriage. Our freedoms cannot be taken for granted."

Next page for more about Portland and travel tips.

A Classic Seaport Town

Portland resembles seaport towns such as Newburyport in Massachusetts and Portsmouth in nearby New Hampshire. It is easy-to-navigate and small scale. Many of the nineteenth century brick buildings in Old Port - built during the height of the Industrial Revolution when Maine’s nearby mills were humming - have been restored and now house trendy clothing shops, galleries, bookstores, coffee houses and condominiums.

On various blocks throughout Old Port you’ll find shops selling everything from bath soaps or comic books to a nearby cupcake bakery and chowder house. And then there’s the bustling waterfront, with ferry service to nearby islands, seafood restaurants with windows and patios facing Casco Bay, and kayak and canoe rentals. Although numerous signs direct visitors to the international ferry terminal to Nova Scotia, the service was discontinued some years ago. The only way to get to Nova Scotia and other points in Canada via ferry is to drive several hours north to Bar Harbor.

"We’re a small enough town and because of our size we get to know one another here," David Davis, Director of Sales at the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa, told me. A native New Yorker, Davis came to Maine to go to college two decades ago and never left. He lives in South Portland, just a few miles from the hotel. "What I like about Portland is that even if we don’t see eye to eye on things, we tend to get along with one another in spite of our differences," he said.

While some parts of Portland reflect blight, Davis remarked that there is a mini-building boom going on here. "It’s happening slowly," he said. "New construction is underway for several new hotels, all of which will be completed within the next year or so. Right now things are laid-back and affordable, but it won’t stay that way."

Craft Beers and Wedding Planning

A popular spot is the on the first floor of the Hampton Inn on Fore Street. The menu features tasty craft beers that run the gamut from light, low alcohol content to hearty dark brews that are guaranteed to ward off the wintry chill with just one sip. The menu goes beyond just pub fare and features fresh fish, Maine lobster diners and steaks. It’s an ideal spot for a bachelor or bachelorette party as part of a wedding package and is located only a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront and the shops of Old Port.

Back at the Portland Regency Hotel and Spa, Anna and Sarah and I met at the Armory Lounge, a cozy, wood paneled barroom on the lower level where we chatted about their upcoming nuptials.

"We were impressed by the staff here when we met them at the bridal expo recently," Sarah said. They go beyond just being accommodating. They’ve already made sure our wedding will be wonderful, even giving us a swatch from one of the chairs in the room we’re renting for the ceremony, so we could be sure that the color scheme matches our gowns."

We raised a toast to their good fortune and bright future.

"Portland is the place we want to be," Anna said. "We wouldn’t want to be married anywhere else."

Getting There

Portland is served by highway, air and sea. I traveled via the Downeaster, the newly restored and affordable railway service operated by Amtrak that runs from Boston’s North Station to Portland daily. You can also take the Downeaster further north to Brunswick, with a stop in Freeport, a popular stop for passengers looking for bargains at several of the outlet stores there). The ride is comfortable and fast - two and a half hours from Boston - and it passes through former mill towns along the Merrimack River that separates Massachusetts from New Hampshire, and then into the Maine, with a smooth arrival into Portland.

Portland International Jetport services major airlines including AirTran, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.


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