Congressional Lions: Gerry E. Studds
A Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, Gerry E. Studds, was the first openly gay member of Congress. I discuss his life and career in Congressional Lions, my book-in-progress.
Studds served 12 terms in the United States House of Representatives, from 1973 until 1997. In 1983, the House censured Studds for engaging in a sexual relationship with a male congressional page. Studds contended that the relationship was consensual and that the young man knew what he was doing. Nonetheless, he acknowledged a “very serious error in judgment” when he entered into a relationship with a subordinate. Although his homosexuality was an open secret among his constituents, Studds spoke publicly about his sexual orientation for the first time in the wake of the scandal. “It is not a simple task for any of us to meet adequately the obligations of either public or private life, let alone both,” he said, “but these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as I am, both an elected public official and gay.”
Born in Mineola, New York, on May 12, 1937, Gerry Eastman Studds was a descendant of Elbridge Gerry, the Democratic-Republican politician who signed the Declaration of Independence, served as vice president of the United States, and gained immortality as the namesake for the process of manipulating electoral boundaries to favor partisan interests. Whether it was a result of his lineage or his personality, Studds was interested in politics from an early age. He earned two degrees from the prestigious Yale University—a bachelor’s degree in 1959, and a master’s degree in 1961. Afterward, he worked in the State Department and the White House during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Later, he worked as a senatorial aide before leaving Washington, D.C., to teach at St. Paul’s School, an Episcopal college preparatory school in Concord, New Hampshire.
In 1970, he ran for elective office as a Democrat against Hastings Keith, a Republican congressman in the Massachusetts 12th district, and come within a hair’s breadth of unseating the incumbent. Rather than sulk over his defeat, Studds learned the Portuguese language so he could converse with immigrant voters who lived in the district. He also educated himself on the fisheries that affected so many workers in that part of Massachusetts. Owing in part to his indefatigable efforts to educate himself on the issues, he handily won the congressional seat in the 1972 election even as Republican Richard M. Nixon cruised to a landslide victory in the presidential contest.
When Studds won his astonishing victory, he was the first Democrat to capture the district in half a century. Stretching from Cohasset to Cape Cod through an area that included Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket as well as large fishing village, New Bedford, the 12th congressional district was decidedly conservative. Yet Gerry Studds demonstrated his commitment to the people of his district. During 24 years of service, he established a reputation as an “anti-political” politician. Some elected officials bask in the limelight, using their exalted status as a means of stroking their giant egos and satisfying their desperate need for attention. Studds was not a typical egomaniac. Detractors saw him as aloof and reserved, a man who appeared disconnected and removed from the lives of ordinary people. Supporters argued that he was dignified and sober. He eschewed glad-handing and backslapping, refusing to indulge in the chicanery that sometimes passes for political activity. He was not a hail-fellow-well-met kind of person, and he would not pretend to be one. One account described him as “articulate, witty, and enormously smart,” concluding that “his persona was never about him, an almost eerie quality in a politician. Principles motivated Gerry Studds. He didn’t care about fame.”
Congressman Studds was politically liberal, spending much of his career championing traditionally Democratic issues and arguing against the Reagan administration on the Strategic Deference Initiative (SDI), the U.S. increase in defense spending, and the administration’s support for the Contras fighting in Nicaragua. He also supported increasing federal funding for AIDS research, ending the prohibition on same-sex marriage, and extending civil rights protections, especially for gays and lesbians.
For all his success as a member of Congress, Studds was a gay man in a time when coming out of the closet was thought to be the kiss of death for an elected official in most of the United States. Throughout the 1970s, he considered whether he should reveal his sexuality, but he could not bring himself to do it. When the first major gay march took place in Washington, D.C. in 1979, Studds told friends he could not attend and yet he could not stay away. “His act of courage was to jog within a block of it,” remarked Congressman Barney Frank, a Massachusetts congressman whose service partially overlapped with Studds’ tenure. “He felt that conflicted.” Franks subsequently admitted that he, too, was gay, a public admission that might not have been possible absent Studds’ example.
Studds had not wanted to reveal his homosexuality in public, but he had little choice. When Illinois Congressman Daniel B. Crane was caught in a sex scandal involving a 17-year-old female page in 1983, the House of Representatives launched an investigation. As part of its inquiry, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct resurrected an episode with Studds and a male page from 1973, presumably to provide a bipartisan tinge to the matter. The committee concluded that Studds had engaged in homosexual sex with a 17-year-old boy, who may have been 16 when the affair began, and he made sexual advances toward two other pages. Studds admitted to the affair and the sexual advances, prompting investigators to report that “The committee finds that any sexual relationship between a Member of the House of Representatives and a congressional page, or any sexual advance by a Member to a page, represents a serious breach of the duty owed by the House and its individual Members to the young people who serve the House as pages.” Committee members voted 11 to 1 to recommend that the House of Representatives reprimand Studds.
Recognizing that he must address the issue if he hoped to preserve his congressional career, Studds stood on the House floor and admitted that he was gay. Barney Frank mused about Studds’ impact. By clearly and unequivocally stating that he was gay, Studds “clearly gave some other people the courage to do that. It probably had a bigger impact on younger people who said, ‘You know what, I guess I can think about a political career after all.’”
Studds’ affair with the young page raised two separate issues regarding his status and his actions. Although some political opponents objected to the congressman’s status as a gay man, the question for the House leadership was how his actions should be punished. The committee originally recommended a public reprimand, the mildest form of rebuke, for Crane and Studds. “They must live with their shame, their actions indelibly recorded on this nation’s history,” Congressman Louis Stokes, an Ohio Democrat who chaired the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, argued. Such a stain on their record of public service was punishment enough.
Not everyone agreed. House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois led the effort to overrule the committee recommendation and elevate the penalty to a censure. “We are here to repair the integrity of the United States House of Representatives,” said Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Michel’s deputy. Bill Alexander, an Arkansas Democrat who served as chief deputy majority whip, remarked that that “the idea of a reprimand was not enough for the American people. After all, these guys molested minors. I was out in my district over the weekend and I was overwhelmed. The reaction was brutal.”
On July 20, 1983, the House voted overwhelming to censure Crane and Studds for their misconduct. The vote to change the penalty from a reprimand to censure was 289 to 136 for Crane and 338 to 87 for Studds. The final vote tally in favor of censure was 421 to 3 for Crane and 420 to 3 for Studds. At the time of the vote, the U.S. House of Representatives had reprimanded or censured members only 24 times in history, six times in the 50 years preceding the 1983 affair. In accordance with House rules that strip members censured or convicted of a crime of leadership positions, Studds automatically lost chairmanship of the Coast Guard and Navigation Subcommittee of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.
Studds won reelection and rebuilt his career, restoring much of his reputation in the ensuing years. Unburdened by his revelations, he was emboldened to lobby on behalf of issues crucial to gay Americans. He pressed Congress to provide increased funding for AIDS research and called for the military to allow gays to serve openly. In 1990, he played an integral role enacting the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, a measure named for an Indiana teenager who contracted the disease during treatment for hemophilia. The law provided federal funding for low-income, uninsured, and under-insured victims of AIDS as well as their loved ones. Although he had not embarked on a career as a gay advocate, Gerry Studds had become a vocal activist by the time he retired in 1997.
On May 24, 2004, he married his partner, Dean T. Hara, one week after the state of Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages. Their marriage was short-lived. On October 3, 2006, Studds, then 69 years old, collapsed while walking his dog. He died 11 days later in the Boston University Medical Center from a blood clot in his lung. His partner did not receive the congressional pension benefits he would have received if he had been a heterosexual spouse. Under congressional pension rules at the time, Studds received an annual retirement benefit equal to 80 percent of his highest salary, or $114,337. A surviving spouse was eligible to receive half that amount each year. Unfortunately for Dean Hara, a spouse who was convicted of espionage or who was the same sex as the deceased partner was ineligible to receive the benefit.
Studds’ death briefly resurrected public interest in his career. Some 300 friends and colleagues warmly recalled their fallen comrade at a memorial service held in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum auditorium in Boston on December 2, 2006. “Gerry lived a wonderful life of service and dedication to others,” Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy remarked. “His leadership for so many years in Congress proves beyond any doubt that it matters very much whom we, the people, elect to represent us in Washington.” Congressman Barney Frank praised Studds’ groundbreaking role as a gay member of Congress. “Gerry Studds went politically where people of that particular situation hadn’t gone before,” Frank said. “He made a part of the political system safe…and changed the nature of politics in Massachusetts.” Dean Hara said he hoped that others would find inspiration in Studds’ life and dedicate their lives to public service regardless of their sexual orientation. In the final analysis, Hara explained, Gerry Studds demonstrated that ability and dedication matter more than whether a person is straight or gay.