The Bowdoin campus has become a battleground for groups fighting on both sides of Maine's upcoming referendum on gay rights, Question 1.
The ballot question reads, "Do you want to repeal the law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation?" The measure is on the ballot as a response to a law passed earlier in the year by the Maine Legislature that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Numerous student organizations are involved in the debate, and many are planning Election Day activities. Organizations that have mobilized include the College Democrats and Republicans, the Bowdoin Queer-Straight Alliance (BQSA), the Bowdoin Women's Association (BWA), the Democratic Socialists, and the newly-formed Queers and Allies group (Q&A).
According to Professor of Government Chris Potholm, the key to the campaign is convincing rural Mainers that discrimination is a problem.
"You and I might think there's discrimination based on sexual orientation, but a majority of people who live in small towns do not believe that," Potholm said in an interview. "They genuinely do not believe that there is a problem."
Potholm said that the most recent polling of definite voters had the "Yes" vote leading by a margin of seven to eight percent. However, Potholm said that confusion with the wording of the measure would give the "No" side an extra five percent.
Campus groups are mostly focusing on getting Bowdoin students and community members to the polls. While acknowledging that the College Democrats had been doing some phone banking over the last two weeks, Co-President Frank Chi '07 said that the group was primarily working with the Bowdoin and Brunswick community.
"The Bowdoin College Democrats are going to focus on Brunswick and Bowdoin on Election Day," he said.
The College Republicans also have been working chiefly on the Bowdoin campus. According to president Alex Linhart '06, "We have done three main things in response to the referendum?host Michael Heath, put up posters around campus and distribute information to students, and help get students to the polls early."
Proponents of the referendum are attempting to frame the issue as a stepping stone to gay marriage, as well as a constraint on economic freedom. "This type of language can be used as a gateway to gay marriage either in the judicial system or legislation," said College Republicans National Secretary Daniel Schuberth '06.
According to Linhart, "A small business owner shouldn't have the government telling him who he can and cannot hire when that decision should be his alone. The government should not interfere with his efforts of achieving profit-maximization."
Groups opposing the referendum see the measure quite differently.
"This is a moral issue. It's about basic human rights. Anyone who is a human being should be treated fairly," Chi said.
Co-president of the BQSA Dan Robinson '07 echoed his sentiments. "This is about ending legal discrimination in Maine," he said.
Members of the groups opposed to the referendum are confident about how Bowdoin students will vote on the measure.
"There is overwhelming support here," said Q&A student liaison Margaret Munford '07. "I think because I view the state of Maine through the lens of Bowdoin I have optimism that people will vote 'No.'" Munford was less sure about other areas of the state. "I worry about Western Maine, Northern Maine," she said.
Schuberth countered Munford's optimism.
"I think the 'Yes' vote's going to carry the day. The 'No' folks haven't galvanized their base and they have not portrayed the consistent message that they need to portray for victory. They've tied themselves into fighting whether or not this will lead to gay marriage."
Potholm said that the opponents of the ballot measure have made two mistakes. First, by saying that the referendum is not about gay marriage, the opponents are tacitly acknowledging that gay marriage is a part of the debate.
"This is not about gay marriage," Potholm said. "Gay marriage is your opponent's best issue."
The second mistake, Potholm said, was emphasizing the fact that Maine is the only New England state without protection from discrimination based on sexuality. "If you don't want people from Maine to like something, say it's from Massachusetts," he said.
Emily Sheffield '06 was frustrated by what she felt to be the acrimonious debate between the two sides.
"I think that political activity at Bowdoin is very polarized, or at least students are presenting their views in such an extreme manner that it's difficult to find middle ground," she said. "There are always many aspects of a political controversy to take into consideration; I find it frustrating when such debates are presented as black and white."
BWA Co-Chair Heather Day '06 expressed exasperation with the measure itself. "Not having the language of sexual orientation in Maine's law system is just ridiculous and it makes no sense in terms of allowing discrimination," she said.
Day was also concerned with what she perceived to be that absence of activism on the issue at Bowdoin. "It's been kind of bizarre with the lack of activity that there's been on this campus. If it was a national issue it might garner more support."