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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,554

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This is the grave of Gerry Studds.

Born in 1937 in Mineola, New York, Studds came from old money. He was named for his ancestor Elbridge Gerry, i.e,, gerrymandering dude. What a legacy. His father was a well-known architect who helped design FDR Drive in New York City, among other projects. So let’s just Studds was economically stable as a child. He went to Yale, graduated in 1959 and then stayed for a master’s degree, which he got in 1961. He then went into the Foreign Service, but not for long, as the Kennedy administration brought him into the White House. This was the Best and Brightest era, which of course meant young Yale and Harvard grads. His job in the White House was working under Sargent Shriver in establishing the Peace Corps. So a pretty big deal. He taught school in New Hampshire for awhile in the 60s too.

Studds then became interested in politics himself. He was an anti-war Democrat by 1968 and was a key player Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy in New Hampshire. In fact, he was one of the young people who convinced McCarthy to run in that year. Of course, the real impact of that was to force LBJ out of the race. Studds then ran for Congress himself in 1970, though he lost. But he ran again in 1972 when the Republican incumbent who beat him in the previous election decided not to run for reelection. Studds would become an important member of the Democratic caucus, a solid liberal.

But Studds had a secret. He was gay. At this time, that was anathema if you wanted to be in public life. He liked him some congressional pages too. So in 1983, there was an investigation of members of Congress having inappropriate relationships with the pages. This caught Dan Crane, the Illinois Republican who had sex with a 17 year old girl, and Studds, who was having sex with a young man. This killed Crane’s career. It did not kill Studds’ career, which is an interesting thing given the context of the times, with the AIDS epidemic coming into its full effect. Studds did a very brave thing–he came out and said, yes, I am a homosexual and that’s OK, even if the page maybe was not. He got up before the House and stated, “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.”

Yes, Congress censured Studds by a 420-3 vote. They stripped him of his position chairing the House Merchant Marine Subcommittee. OK. But his constituents didn’t much care. First, no one was surprised. He was only barely in the closet back home. Anyone who knew him knew he was gay and that included many people in his district. Second, when he came back home for the first time for a public event, he was received with multiple standing ovations for his bravery in standing up for his sexuality. This really is a key moment in the history of gay politics in this country. Studds obviously wasn’t quite the first openly gay politician. People such as Harvey Milk had laid that groundwork on the local level and also paid for their lives for it. But to say “yep, I’m gay” and your voters being like, “cool man, thanks for representing us and keep doing that by the way,” I mean, that’s a big deal. Long after his death, Studds was implicated a lawsuit for sexual relations with students when he was teaching in New Hampshire. No idea if it is in fact true, but we shouldn’t at all be surprised if it is.

In any case, Studds’ actions after being forced out of the closet and then winning election again were huge. In an interview for Studds’ New York Times obituary, the gay writer Charles Kaiser stated,  “His experience convinced other people that it would now be possible to run as an openly gay person.”

In fact, Studds stayed in Congress through the 1996 elections. Not surprisingly, he became a major advocate for gay issues after he came out. That was critical in the 80s and 90s. Things such as HIV research and funding for services for those struck with AIDS were huge needs. Studds was a real leader here. He fought super hard against the ban on gays in the military as well. Looking back, the ban seems utterly ridiculous. But as most of us over the age of 40 remember, that was a hell of a fight, including against many supposedly national security focused but also really quite homophobic Democrats. The whole deal of Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that created a highly unstable and unworkable compromise position demonstrated the shifting politics, but also how much of a dogfight that really was.

He also was a strong anti-Reagan liberal on the foreign policy issues of the 80s. He was a staunch opponent of the Star Wars program, rightfully noting that it was a huge waste of money. Also, it was stupid, though I suppose that’s more my take. Studds also was outraged by the Reagan administration’s funding of the illegal right-wing war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He was good on environmental issues too. Basically, Studds was the kind of Democrat you want to see representing you.

Studds retired from Congress after the 1996 elections. He did the lobbying work one would expect, mostly for the fishing industry. Not sure that’s such a good thing, but it’s hardly surprising either. It’s also worth noting that while there’s no question the fishing industry has massively overfished the North Atlantic and really the entire oceans at this point, he represented those fishing towns and had always fought for their interests. He also married his long-time partner Dean Hara a week after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004.

In 2006, Studds had a pulmonary embolism while walking his dog. Ugh. He died at the age 69. Because same-sex marriage was still illegal, Hara did not receive the benefits that surviving spouses of members of Congress receive. He continued the fight for equality long after Studds death and was part of the lawsuit that became Gill v. Office of Personnel Management that eventually threw out part of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Oh also, the right continued to loathe Studds. Literally the week before Studds died, the utter scumbag Charles Krauthammer attacked him again in the The Weekly Standard.

Gerry Studds is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other Congressmen who headed the Merchant Marine subcommittee–and why wouldn’t you!!!!–you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Walter Jones is in Farmville, North Carolina and Thomas Ashley is in Toledo, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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