November 22, 2006
Gerry Studds, the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress, passed away on October 7 from what doctors believe was a blood clot to his lung. He was only 69 years old.
Let's take a moment to remember his life and times — I think you'll find a few things surprising. He was born to privilege, common among politicians then and now. One of his ancestors was Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts whose name was used to generate the word "gerrymander.' His father was Eastman Studds, a prominent architect who designed, among other things, the FDR Drive in Manhattan.
Gerry attended Yale, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1959 and a master's in 1961. He then served as a Foreign Service officer in the State Department. It all sounds very Back Bay Republican, doesn't it? Au contraire: always a liberal Democrat, Studds landed an assistant's position in the Kennedy White House where he worked among those who created the original, domestic Peace Corps.
After Kennedy's death, he became a teacher at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire and in 1968 he worked for Senator Eugene McCarthy in his campaign in the New Hampshire presidential primary. In 1970, Studds made his first bid for a seat in Congress, but he lost to the Republican incumbent by a narrow margin. In 1972, he ran again and won. His career in Congress was a long and successful one.
The caliber of Representative he was is evident in the reaction of his colleagues at the news of his death. Senator Edward Kennedy said, "Gerry's leadership changed Massachusetts forever and we'll never forget him. His work on behalf of our fishing industry and the protection of our waters has guided the fishing industry into the future and ensured that generations to come will have the opportunity to love and learn from the sea. He was a steward of the oceans."
Barney Frank (whose career as a gay politico is only possible because of Studds' groundbreaking) had this to say: "From his days in the early 1970s as an articulate and effective opponent of the Vietnam War, through his consistent leadership on environmental issues, to his insistence that the US Government stop ignoring the AIDS crisis, Gerry was a forceful advocate for causes that were not always popular and that were consequently shunned by many politicians."
In 1983, The House Ethics Committee had the House of Representatives censure Studds and another Representative for having sexual relations with congressional pages. Sound familiar?! The other, Rep. Dan Crane, had a tryst with a 17-year-old girl. Studds was involved with a 17-year-old boy who went public with the fact that the relationship was fully consensual, which made it legal since 17 was then the legal age of consent in Washington, D.C. What a difference a year can make, huh?
Twenty-three years ago (a more liberal time) his colleagues and constituents shrugged off the "news" of his homosexuality. In response to the censure, he addressed the House thusly, "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."
By the way, though the gutsy young page admittedly pursued his older mentor in a "consensual relationship with a young adult," Studds also called the affair "a very serious error in judgment." He was consistently re-elected until his retirement in 1996.
His partner, Dean T. Hara, whom he officially married on May 24, 2004 — one week after same-sex marriages became legal in Massachusetts, survives Studds. I'll close by quoting him: "Gerry often said that it was the fight for gay and lesbian equality that was the last great civil rights chapter in modern American history. He did not live to see its final sentences written, but all of us will forever be indebted to him for leading the way with compassion and wisdom. He gave people of his generation, my generation, and future generations the courage to be who we are."