*originally posted October 8, 2009
There always has to be a first. The first one into the pool tells everyone else that the water is fine. And the first one out of the closet lets the rest of us know that it's okay to come out, to be who you are, to live your life openly and honestly. One of our 'firsts' was Gerry Studds. He was the first member of the United States Congress to acknowledge that he was gay.
Though born in Mineola, New York, Studds was raised in Cohasset, Massachusetts, the district he would later represent. He graduated from Yale with a master's degree in 1961. and then began working as a foreign service officer for the State Department. Gerry Studds was also an assistant at the White House, working on a Kennedy administration initiative to establish a domestic Peace Corps. Later he became a teacher of history and government at a private school in New Hampshire.
In 1970, he made his first run for public office in 1970, but lost to the incumbent Republican representative in a close election. Knowing that in order to represent your district, you had to understand your district, their wants and needs, Gerry Studds learned to speak Portuguese, the language of a sizable community in his district, and he also studied issues related to fishing, an important industry in the area.
In his second bid for Congress, Studds was successful, defeating his well-funded opponent and becoming the first Democrat in fifty years to win what was considered a safe Republican seat. But he didn't rest on his laurels; he worked hard for his district, making himself available to his constituents, and traveling to every town in his district to hold town hall meetings and listen to the people.
Recognizing that maritime issues were of vital interest to the people of the Tenth District of Massachusetts, Studds, a member of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, worked successfully to extend United States territorial waters to two hundred miles, to pass the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and to limit the drilling of oil in the Georges Bank, a prime fishing area. He also championed the refinancing of the Coast Guard in a time of budget cuts.
But it wasn't good times and hard work for Gerry Studds. In 1983, one of his former pages revealed that he'd had a sexual relationship with Studds ten years prior. As the House Ethics Committee began its investigation, Gerry Studds did what no politician had done before; he publicly publicly acknowledged his homosexuality on the floor of the United States Congress, saying in part:
"It is not a simple task for any of us to meet adequately the obligations of either public or private life, let alone both, but these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as I am, both an elected public official and gay."
The House voted to censure Studds, and though some in his district were shocked to learn of his secret, a poll or registered voters, taken in July 1983, revealed that 65 percent favored his remaining in office while only 28 percent thought that he should resign and 7 percent expressed no opinion.
Gerry Studds was voted back to Congress by his constituents in 1984, and continued to work for environmental and maritime issues while also calling for a strong federal response to the AIDS crisis, with funding for medical care and research.
He was among the first to endorse lifting the ban on gay men and lesbians in the military.
He supported the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, designed to end discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 1995, Studds suffered a disappointment when the Republican-controlled Congress abolished the House Merchant Marine and Fishing Committee, of which he had been chairman. Studds announced that he would not run for a thirteenth term, a decision that he described as "a personal one" made with his partner, Dean Hara.
After retiring from Congress, Studds continued his commitment to environmental causes, and in 2001, he presided at the opening of the interpretive Visitors Center at the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Provincetown. He also worked as executive director of the New Bedford Oceanarium, a facility still under development, and served as a lobbyist for a Massachusetts fishermen's association.
When same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, Gerry Studds and Dean Hara were married. On October 3, 2006, Gerry Studds collapsed while walking his dog, and died in a Boston Hospital a week later, the victim of a blood clot in his lung.
Gerry Studds; a first, not a last. And someone who set the bar quite high for both personal and professional convictions.
|On This Day In LGBT History|
October 8, 1904 – In Germany, lesbian feminist Anna Ruhling spoke at an annual meeting of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, one of the earliest gay organizations. She criticized the women’s movement for not taking an active role in ending the oppression of lesbians.
October 8, 1972 – The 6th annual convention of the Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapy was greeted by approximately 100 demonstrators protesting the continued use of aversion therapy in an attempt to alter sexual orientation.
October 8, 1974 – The National Gay Task Force organized a protest over the airing of an episode of “Marcus Welby M.D.” in which a gay man is portrayed as a rapist who preys on the junior high school students he teaches. Bayer Aspirin, Listerine, Gallo Wine, and Ralston Purina pulled their advertising from the episode.
October 8-10, 1977 – In Halifax the first Atlantic Canada Gay Conference of groups in eastern provinces begins.
October 8, 1985 – The Austin Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization, was formed.
October 8, 1997 – An episode of “Ellen” titled “Roommates” aired. It was given an adult content warning because of a kiss between Ellen and another woman.