July 7, 1984, three teenagers threw 23-year-old Charlie Howard off of
the State Street Bridge in Bangor, Maine.’ The openly gay man, who
had asthma and could not swim, died in the Kenduskeag Stream below. Charlie's
death sparked a wave of civil rights protests in New England, which
set the stage for the larger, more sustained protest that Matthew
Shepard’s murder aroused across the country and which led to the
Maine Human Rights Act. Charlie's death was also part of the impetus
for the formation of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance
(now known as EqualityMaine), and the crime – as well as Charlie's
life – is memorialized in Bangor every year.
Gathering in memory of Charlie Howard at State Street Bridge, Bangor, Maine.
the 25th anniversary
of Charlie Howard’s death, Tom Wallace, composer and Associate
Director of the Maine Gay Men’s Chorus asked Chorus member and poet
(now Poet Laureate of Portland, Maine), Bruce Spang, to write a
script about Charlie. Bruce took him up on the invitation because, as
a young closeted man, Bruce had lived in Bangor in the 1980s;
Charlie’s death had always haunted him.
discovered in his two-years of research for the book a significant
fact: Jim Baines, youngest of Charlie’s killers, saw Charlie’s
eyes as he was tossing him into the river. Jim said that he could
never get Charlie’s eyes out of his head. With that image, Bruce
knew that it was possible to write a story about redemption — and
about being seen and not seen, a central issue for gay people who
often feel invisible. Bruce
then discovered that he had once worked as a colleague with the
counselor who was Director of the cottage in which Jim Baines spent
his rehabilitation: Bruce was intimately familiar with the process of
rehabilitation used! Bruce felt he was ready to represent Jim as a
main character. Finding
the real Charlie Howard took more extensive investigation.
year, Bruce tracked down dead-end leads, read about Oscar Wilde and
Matthew Shepard, studied the Laramie Project and Gross Indecency as
models to frame a story, and examined Benjamin Britten’s work.
Still, none of that research made Charlie real for him.
changed with two fateful eventualities. Bruce found a woman who knew
both Charlie and Charlie's mother, and knew them well (and who,
incidentally, throws a white rose into the Kenduskeag every year, at
the request of Charlie's mother). With that meeting, everything
changed, including the story he was writing. The woman introduced him
to others who knew Charlie, and with
their recorded recollections, Bruce knew Charlie’s story could, for
the first time, finally be told.
courtroom transcripts, news stories, and interviews, and through
extensive collaboration with Tom, the composer, Bruce has pieced
together an extraordinary story. “The White Rose” not only helps
us to imagine Charlie's reality and the man most of us would never
know, but also teaches important things about transformation, both of
society and of the human heart. Indeed, both Bruce and Tom have been
transformed by its writing. For more than two years they have labored
over each word so that it comes alive in song. The result is a story
that will touch your heart.