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Ideas

How Boston powered the gay rights movement

In the 1970s, a small, staid city laid the intellectual groundwork for the change to come.

Globe FILE PHOTO 1970/Illustration

Next weekend’s Pride Parade in Boston will cap off an extraordinary run for the gay rights movement. In the past two years, public support for marriage equality passed the 50 percent mark for the first time, and today, it is even higher—69 percent—among people under 30. An unmistakable shift in the political climate has encouraged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to join CEOs and professional athletes in affirming that gay people should be treated equally in all walks of life.

When most Americans think about the story of gay rights, they look back to New York’s 1969 Stonewall Riots, when gay men in Greenwich Village rose up in response to a police raid and sparked a decade of determined activism. They remember San Francisco’s Harvey Milk, the charismatic leader from the Castro who was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1977 before being tragically assassinated. Perhaps they remember the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights of 1979, when around 100,000 people from around the country gathered in the capitol to demand an end to discrimination.

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Conspicuously absent in that story is Boston, a city more likely to be associated with its Puritanical past than with gay activism. But while it routinely gets overshadowed by New York and San Francisco, where the gay scenes were bigger, louder, and livelier, a closer look at the movement’s early history and tactics reveals that Boston in the 1970s was deeply important in the arrival of gay rights as a mainstream national issue, and home to a sophisticated, nationally relevant, pioneering gay community. The cause of gay liberation was taken up during those years with energy and seriousness by Boston-area college students, intellectuals, journalists, politicians, psychiatrists, and lawyers. Ultimately, the city would be the source for a significant portion of the national movement’s burgeoning intellectual firepower.

“Boston largely gets ignored,” said Tufts University lecturer Neil Miller, who lived in Cambridge in the 1970s and is the author of “Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.” But as he put it in an essay several years ago, the reality is that Boston “represents a missing piece crucial to understanding the formation and growth of gay institutions...nationwide.”

The city served as a farm team for gay-rights forces across the United States—thanks in part to Gay Community News, an influential weekly newspaper with national reach that was considered the movement’s “paper of record” throughout the ’70s, and whose alumni at one point occupied so many leadership roles around the country that they were called the “GCN mafia.” Boston also helped drive the movement’s political and legal development: Not only was it home to the country’s first openly gay state representative, Elaine Noble, it was also one of the first places in the country where antidiscrimination laws were brought up for debate by politicians, and the birthplace of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, known as GLAD, whose legal advocacy led to Massachusetts’ groundbreaking gay-marriage decision.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File

Representative Elaine Noble at a 1977 Gay Rights Rally on Boston Common.

Part of what made the city distinctive in the ’70s was that the gay community, though active, just wasn’t that big, and thus was unusually harmonious. Gay men worked side by side with lesbians—uncommon at the time—and radical gay liberationists found common cause with moderates who believed in working for political reform. But the fact that this compact scene was devoted to advances on the political, intellectual, legal, and journalistic fronts—rather than becoming known for protests or a vibrant gay social scene—meant that Boston’s role in gay life never captured the imagination as did New York and San Francisco. To look back at what was forged in Boston is to realize that sometimes the forces that drive real social change are, on the surface, less dramatic than the transformative moments and individual leaders that come to symbolize it.

“New York was sexier. San Francisco was really sexy. But Boston was smarter,” said Michael Bronski, a professor at Harvard University who spent the 1970s writing for local gay publications and is the author of “A Queer History of the United States.” “Boston really generated ideas.”

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Compared with other American cities, Boston presented some special cultural hurdles for early gay activists, given the deeply conservative attitudes toward sex that had been prevalent for generations. Several gay and lesbian organizations did have local chapters in Boston before Stonewall, including the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society. But the city never became a mecca for gays and lesbians in the way San Francisco or New York City did. Nor did it give rise, until much later, to a single neighborhood that gay people could publicly claim as their own: Though the west side of Beacon Hill was something of a gay enclave, it did not compare to Greenwich Village or the Castro. “San Francisco had a big bar and bathhouse culture—and that...kind of swallowed up the gay population,” said Miller. “Boston wasn’t quite like that....It was a little more intellectual here, I think, than some other cities, where people really migrated to have fun.”

The History Project

The first issue of Gay Community News, June 17, 1973.

It was not until 1973, with the founding of the Gay Community News—where Miller was an editor—that the city began to appear on the radar of gay activists around the country. The paper, which operated as a collective, began after an MIT graduate named David Peterson pulled together members of all the various gay groups in town and suggested they consolidate their newsletters. For years, volunteers from all over town would gather at GCN’s headquarters at 22
Bromfield St. every Tuesday night to debate the news of the day and plan coverage, as well as every Friday afternoon, to fold and stuff copies of the paper and send them out to subscribers. (The “Friday Folders,” as they were called, were nourished with beer and pizza.)

Though it began as nothing more ambitious than a mimeographed calendar of events around Boston, GCN quickly became a source of exclusive reporting on gay issues around the country, and came to unite people who were fighting for the same cause but had no other way of finding out about each other’s activities. Eventually, GCN was being read in all 50 states, helping to turn the gay movement, which had previously been geographically fractured, into a national phenomenon. “There was no Internet back then—everything was local, or regional,” said Richard Burns, who moved to Boston from New York to join the paper’s staff, and served as its managing editor. To have GCN subscribers and stringers in every state, Burns added, allowed Boston to “infiltrate the consciousness of local movements around the country.”

The History Project

The June 1971 cover of Fag Rag magazine.

GCN’s rise to prominence took place against a backdrop of intense activity in the Boston gay and lesbian community, which by the spring of 1972 had come to seem, according to the book “Out For Good” by Adam Nagourney and Dudley Clendinen, “more advanced than any other in the country.” In addition to gay groups at Harvard and MIT—“A lot of students were away from home and felt like they could be brave,” said lesbian activist and politician Ann Maguire—the city was home to a trailblazing radio show on WBUR, Gay Way, which Maguire hosted. Boston also supported public health organizations like the Fenway Community Health Center, one of the country’s first medical providers catering specifically to gays and lesbians (which continues to operate today) and the Homophile Community Health Service, which was set up in 1971 by the nation’s first openly gay psychiatrist, Richard Pillard, as a place where gay people could get inexpensive mental health advice from doctors who, unlike most of their colleagues, believed that homosexuality was not a disease. At the more radical fringes, meanwhile, were outfits like the Fag Rag Collective, which published a gay liberation quarterly that was once denounced on the floor of the US Congress as “the most loathsome publication in the English language.”

Boston was no stranger to activism by the 1970s—the huge student population meant that the city was host to a diverse and very visible collection of antiwar groups, environmentalists, and other flowerings of the New Left. Even so, most of the gay-rights activity went on out of sight of the straight world. Together, the groups almost represented a second, parallel society. “All of this stuff was going on completely unacknowledged, pretty much, even by the alternative papers, like the Phoenix, and certainly by the Globe,” said Amy Hoffman, who served as news editor at Gay Community News starting in 1978. “It’s hard to describe this to people now, how kind of invisible the LGBT community was at that time.”

For some, like the self-described revolutionaries of the Fag Rag Collective, that was just fine: The point of liberation, as they saw it, was not to integrate into straight society but to create their own. But Boston was also home to another powerful strain of thinking: activists who believed that gay people needed to fight for their place in the mainstream, and that the way to do that was to pursue their interests through the political system, like any other voting bloc. “The Boston movement was intensely political from the beginning, and intelligently so,” said former congressman Barney Frank in an interview. “These were not people who thought the most important thing to do was have a demonstration, though marches were part of it. These were people who got involved...[and] who understood the value—I believe correctly—of insider connections as well as political organizing.”

Globe Staff/File

Representative Barney Frank in January 1977.

Frank himself, despite being closeted at the time, first made contact with the gay community in Boston during a public meeting shortly before the 1972 election, when the first-time candidate and former mayoral aide promised the assembled crowd that as a member of the state Legislature, he would support gay rights and help draft legislation repealing the state’s antisodomy laws. Shortly thereafter, activists sent out questionnaires to all 300 candidates running for the State House asking if they would support gay rights legislation; only Frank answered in the affirmative. Later, when Frank won his seat, he became a liaison between the gay community and the Boston Police Department, and helped arrange a system whereby closeted gay men who had been assaulted or robbed during trysts could report crimes anonymously. This kind of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering “lay the foundation for the long-term success of the gay movement nationally,” said Joseph Martin, who served as an aide to Frank. “It created a framework for...how to be effective politically.”

Tactically speaking, the work being done from within the State House could not have been more different from what the radicals involved in Fag Rag were up to, such as burning a Bible on Boston Common and marching around with a banner proclaiming the glory of “Pornography, Prostitution, Promiscuity, Pederasty!” Such antics stirred tensions within the activist community that would erupt most dramatically over a controversy involving 24 gay men from Revere who were indicted on suspicion of running a sex ring involving underage boys. The “Revere Sex Scandal,” as it was called in the press, prompted the Suffolf County district attorney to set up an anonymous hotline that people could call if they thought someone in their midst was engaging in similar activities.

The hotline was seen as a witch hunt by many in the gay community, including John Ward, a lawyer, and GCN managing editor Richard Burns, who channeled the intense anger over the hotline—as well as the arrest of more than 100 men accused of having sex in the restrooms at the Boston Public Library—by creating GLAD. That nonprofit would later become hugely influential by fighting injustice against gays and lesbians through the legal system. Certain others in Boston, meanwhile—including several members of Fag Rag—reacted to the Revere scandal very differently, and formed the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, which opposed age-of-consent laws, and quickly became one of the most widely reviled organizations in the country. It brought unwelcome attention to the Boston gay scene, and was condemned by many of the activists who had once marched alongside its members. “That was just a huge overwhelming controversy,” Amy Hoffman said.

George Rizer/Globe Staff/File

Marchers at a gay pride parade in Boston in June 1972.

***

For the most part, though, radicals and moderates in Boston worked together. And by doing so, the city’s gay activists built what John Scagliotti, former host of the gay-themed “Lavender Hour” on WBCN, called the “R&D center for the whole gay movement.” This was true on a number of levels, from GCN spreading the word about gay activism across the country to the very idea of lobbying lawmakers on behalf of gay people, which originated in Boston in 1973 thanks to a group that included Joseph Martin, Elaine Noble, and Ann Maguire, who went on to manage Noble’s campaign for the state Legislature.

In retrospect, the city helped lay the groundwork for a pivotal transition from an era in which merely being open about one’s homosexuality was a deeply radical gesture, to the movement’s more modern incarnation, in which the fight is about demanding gay people’s right to participate as equals in mainstream society. In this sense, gay activism in 1970s Boston was a prototype for what the broader gay movement would later become.

Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in Noble’s 1974 election, which followed a campaign during which she was open about her sexuality, but deliberately avoided making it the focus of her candidacy. Instead, Noble sold herself as a problem-solver who could help constituents with potholes, absentee landlords, and rising rents—and who also happened to be a lesbian. Though Noble, who could not be reached for an interview, was moderate in her politics, there was something subtly radical in the underlying premise of her campaign: that being gay did not define her. And there was something radical, too, in the fact that, while she did face intense homophobic attacks during her campaign, her fellow Bostonians, like no other Americans before them, were ready to send an openly gay candidate to a state-level office.

Today some efforts are underway to document Boston’s role in the history of the gay rights movement. A group called the History Project, which has been archiving material on Boston’s gay activists since 1980, is working to make their extensive archives available online to the public, and is in the process of digitizing early issues of Gay Community News. The Boston writer and activist Michael Bronski has organized the personal papers of Fag Rag editor Charley Shively and is in talks with Yale about acquiring them. Barney Frank, meanwhile, has retired from Congress, and is planning to write his own book about the gay rights movement.

“We’ve seen it happen before, where the less obvious turns out to really be the most significant,” said Bronski. “And I think that in the long run, what happened in Boston in those years will be seen as a major part of gay American history.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the Fenway Community Health Center and the Homophile Community Health Service.

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