Friday, October 27, 2006
First Openly Gay Congressmember Dies at 69
Interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
In one of those ironic coincidences that if a screenwriter tried to insert it into a film script, his or her producer would say, “Oh, come on, nobody in the audience is going to believe it,” former U.S. Congressmember Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) Studds (D-Massachusetts), who acknowledged his homosexuality after a House page he’d had sex with in 1973 “outed” him 10 years later, died at age 69 of a blood clot in his lung on October 14, right at the peak of the scandal surrounding former Congressmember Mark Foley (R-Florida), who resigned his seat after reports of his own sexual approaches to Congressional pages via e-mails and instant messages were published.
Not that Studds’ and Foley’s experiences were all that similar. Studds, as far as is known, had one consensual sexual affair with a 17-year-old page in 1973, shortly after he won his first Congressional election; Foley hit on multiple male pages with a compulsiveness recalling former Senator Robert Packwood’s (R-Oregon) approaches to women. Foley quit Congress as soon as the initial revelations came out; Studds stuck it out, accepted censure from his colleagues, kept his seat and won re-election in 1984 — thereby becoming the first House candidate to win even after he was known to be Gay. He remained in Congress until his retirement in 1997, and as a resident of the one U.S. state in which same-sex couples can marry he took advantage and wed his long-time partner, Dean Hara. Indeed, in a sign of how far we’ve come, the Associated Press obituary on Studds identified Hara as “his husband.”
I interviewed then-Congressmember Studds on September 19, 1986 when he came to San Diego to speak at the San Diego Democratic Club’s annual Freedom Banquet. In a pre-banquet reception he was asked about fellow Congressmember Robert Bauman (R-Maryland), who’d been “outed” cruising a Washington, D.C. restroom in the early 1980’s. Studds said he’d known Bauman for years because they both represented coastal districts and frequently worked together on fishing legislation important to both their constituencies -— but neither had had any idea that the other was Gay.
The initial version of this interview was published in the final issue of the San Diego Gayzette, a feisty Queer paper which came out from 1982 to 1986. Christine Kehoe, who later moved into politics herself as a San Diego City Councilmember, State Assemblymember and now State Senator, edited it for most of its final two years. The version below, however, is a new one, freshly edited from my original transcript.
Zenger’s: The obvious question I suppose everybody asks is that you came out rather accidentally, as a result of revelations in 1983. How did that affect your life, and do you think you ever would have come out openly without that happening?
Congressmember Gerry Studds: The second half I can address. Would I have done it if it had not been for that? I don’t know the answer to that question. I’d thought a great deal about it, but I kept coming up against an irony. That was, how does one call a press conference to make an announcement that will make headlines, inevitably, about a subject the principal point of which is its irrelevance? Then you’ll be making a statement about something which is fundamentally irrelevant; in fact, that would be the statement one was making. But, ironically, one would do it in the glare of publicity and headlines.
I could never figure out how that could be done. I think I had come to a point where I could have done it if I could have figured it out. Perhaps I would have. Certainly my own life had changed dramatically in the preceding five years or so, prior to 1983. Had that not been the case, I would not have survived — literally or figuratively — the events of that year.
Zenger’s: You told the Advocate that your life had been “wrapped up in self-pity and not functioning at all as a human being” before that. How precisely did being in the closet affect you, and did that change when you came out?
Studds: The before part of that question is a phenomenon that’s well known to virtually any Gay person, unless he or she is lucky enough to have grown up from a very early age in a totally open and accepting environment, which I think is very rarely the case. Perhaps someday it will be.
We’ve all been through that in one way or another over some period of time. Any Gay person who, having been through that and then, in his or her own way and in his or her own time, makes the statement, comes out, whatever the phrase may be, finds that whatever else it does, it transforms your life in virtually every respect. Every Gay person who’s been through that knows immediately what that means.
Zenger’s: How did it affect your relations with your colleagues in the House?
Studds: These relations are better, more cordial and stronger than they have ever bee, believe it or not. I’m not sure I fully understand, but I can certainly figure some of the reasons. I have to believe that I’m a good deal more pleasant to be around than I used to be — clearly, as you can see, hysterically funny. Any person who’s at east and comfortable with himself, and has a reasonable amount of self-respect, is infinitely more pleasant and agreeable to be around, and in turn elicits more respect from others. The transformation of himself is obvious, and to a certain extent contagious.
Zenger’s: As the only openly Gay Congressmember, do you consider that you have a special responsibility to come out on issues like Gay rights and AIDS, and do you think you’re taken more or less seriously on those issues because of your being openly Gay?
Studds: I don’t know if there’s a special responsibility. I’d like to think that the responsibility to speak on issues like that is inherently a human one, not a Gay one, and that one’s response would not vary according to one’s sexual preference. I myself spoke out on issues like that long before 1983, as did the members of Congress whom I respect most.
Whether or not other members look to me particularly on these issues, I don’t know. Clearly, those who are friends in a personal sense would do that, and clearly, when I speak on that, I speak with a certain authority, a certain presence. I suspect I’m listened to more so than I otherwise would have been, clearly. But I hope I’m listened to on questions of marine environment, where I also have a specialized knowledge. I listen to a farmer, who talks about things he knows about. I speak from a personal knowledge and concern, and people respond to that, I think.
Zenger’s: In recent months, we’ve seen a lot of reverses and some very successful attacks on the position of Gay people in society, things like the Supreme Court ruling in the Hardwick case [the 1986 decision which upheld state sodomy laws as constitutional, later reversed in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas], the Justice Department opinion on the civil rights of AIDS patients, and the confirmation of Justice Rehnquist as Chief Justice. How have you dealt with these things personally, and what do you think you, in your political position, can do about them?
Studds: I think one can make the case, and I’ll say this again tonight, that this is either the best of times or the worst of times. It’s probably both. My own inclination is not to belabor the components of the argument that it’s the worst of times, several of which you just cited. It’s a very easy case to make. It’s particularly easy for a Gay person to make, because our lives have been replete with evidence of that unfairness and that injustice and that misery of it all. We’ve all been through that at one stage or another, and most Gay people probably still live lives that are not fully happy ones.
But I think things are changing for the better far more rapidly than I thought I’d ever see them change in my lifetime, , notwithstanding all the tragedies. You obviously could have added AIDS itself into that list of arguments that this is the worst of all possible worlds, but there are other things in life one can use to accentuate the affirmative and positive. Certainly my own experience tends to make the case, without for the moment suggesting that the horrors of the world, and particularly as they’re visited on Gay people in this, as in most cultures we know about, are not very real and painful.
But I think changes are coming. I think we see them, even in that horror of AIDS. I think we see the silver lining in that component of education which inevitably comes with that. Granting the unspeakable tragedy of AIDS, along with it comes a reference, worked through every day in the press, to the existence of a whole set of folks to whom there was no reference whatever in the press in the first 30 years of my life. We didn’t exist. I was over 30 years old before I met another Gay person, and I certainly didn’t read about them in the paper, or anywhere else.
I just think that the perception of society as a whole has changed. There is a large, significant Gay community. Its presence cannot be denied, and to the extent that increasing numbers of men and women who are part of it are free to proceed about their business openly, whatever it may be, these changes will accelerate.
Zenger’s: You got your political start as a young man working in Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential campaign in 1968, which was thought of as a kind of symbolic affirmation of what is thought of as the spirit of the 1960’s: the sense of idealism, the sense that anything is possible. We’re moving now in a much more conservative time, a much more materialistic time, which has been euphemistically referred to as a success-oriented period. How do you see the political universe as having changed, and how has that affected you personally?
Studds: I have to tell you that I shy away from generalizations like that. I also refuse to accept the label “conservative” for what’s going on in America today. If the people in Washington who are generally described as, and who ascribe to themselves, the label “conservative,” are conservative, then the English language has lost all meaning. Everyone knows it hasn’t been spoken for years in Washington, but that’s no reason for the rest of us to give up on it.
If Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese and Anne Burford and James Watt and that crew are conservatives, then I think there’s no point attempting to converse through that medium of the English language, because it means nothing. So I won’t let anyone, whether it’s in the context of a political debate at home or a forum in Washington or anywhere else get away with suggesting that that is anything that can be called “conservative.”
I think people have forgotten that he Reagan administration is far from the mainstream of his own political party, and his own political party is a minority in this country. So what we’re ruled by for the last six years is a minority within a minority, far from the broad bipartisan consensus of what government in this country is all about, developed over a great many decades.
No one took Ronald Reagan particularly seriously, at least in the rest of the world outside of California, until late 1979, or I guess maybe early 1980, when it became clear that he really was a serious candidate for the Republican nomination. I don’t think most of the country believed that. I don’t think most of the Republican Party believed that. He was a fringe, he speaks for a fringe within the Republican Party, which in turn is a minority within the nation. And those of us outside of California looked with some bemusement on the fact that a state as large as this could take him as seriously as it did.
We’ve learned our lesson the hard way, obviously, since then, but the fact remains, although he may have made some points about the gullibility of people from time to time, and he may have strained Abe Lincoln’s observation that you can’t fool all the people all the time, nonetheless the fact remains that he and h is folks are ideologues on one extreme of the American political spectrum, and the country will gradually return to some semblance of normalcy when he finally departs, hopefully without too much lasting damage either at home or abroad. Whatever he is, he’s not a conservative. I’m one of the few genuine conservatives left in Washington, as a matter of fact.
Zenger’s: If Ronald Reagan is a fringe ideologue in the American body politic, how come he won both his Presidential elections by such substantial majorities, and the second one by a 49-state landslide?
Studds: Yes, that’s an interesting question. You might ask an interesting corollary to that question, both of which would take a lot longer than you and I have to even begin to discuss, which is how come, in the last election for example, in 1984, notwithstanding all the difficulties I had in the year preceding that, Ronald Reagan carried my district in ’84, as he did in ’80, by the largest percentage in the state of Massachusetts, but the very same day that my district was voting by a substantial margin for Ronald Reagan, it voted by a slightly larger margin for me.
Now, you figure that out. Thousands and thousands of people in the same 30 seconds voted for me and for Ronald Reagan on the same ballot in the same moment. I don’t think you can explain or understand that by looking at the politics of Ronald Reagan or the politics of Gerry Studds. I think you have to look at the gut reaction of very complex human emotions, that package of complex emotions that comes through to a voter, and how it responds to the complexity of other human beings. It’s a very important question, and we’d better understand it at our peril, or we’ll find ourselves subjected to more of the kind of demagoguery that has characterized the Reagan administration.
Zenger’s: After the 1984 election, Congressmember George Brown, a veteran liberal Democrat from Orange County, had a similar electoral result to yours. Reagan carried his district by an overwhelming majority, but Brown also won by an overwhelming majority, and he said, “Well, the voters have made it very clear. They want Ronald Reagan to be President for four more years, and they want me in there to keep an eye on him.”
Studds: That’s part of it, but I think that’s only part of it. I didn’t want to suggest that either our plurality or his was that overwhelming in our district — he took 55 percent, we took 56 percent — but we got a few hundred more votes than he did, and that’s how I always love to respond. People say, “Well, how about the mandate?” I say, “Which one, his or mine?”
People are not ideological, for the most part. They don’t spend their lives that way, they don’t think that way, and they don’t vote that way, which is one of the things I find refreshing about America. Our tradition is a singularly nonideological one, which is another way in which Ronald Reagan stands outside of it.