As attorney general, Maura Healey has spoken out against legislation targeting LGBTQ people in other states, challenged federal rollbacks of discrimination protections in health care, and opposed Trump administration policies that targeted transgender people. She pushed for the recognition of gender-neutral options on state and federal identification, and led the first successful challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that denied rights to same-sex couples.
On the campaign trail, she says she often meets LGTBQ youth whose parents bring them along or pull them out of school to meet her.
They are excited for a reason: If Healey wins the race to be the next governor, she will not just be a proven advocate — she will be the state’s first elected woman governor and the nation’s first out lesbian governor, whose lived experience will bring crucial representation to the state’s highest office.
“It’s just a fact about me,” she said. “I am proud about it. I have been in a public job for 15 years now. I think everybody knows that I’m gay.”
However, Healey touts her time playing professional basketball, working for a Black federal judge, and being raised by a single mother as experiences that were just as formative to her political identity.
“These experiences helped inform my drive to do civil rights work. I think my identity as a gay person certainly is part of that,” she said in an interview. “You naturally recognize those who aren’t in the majority, those who may be victimized, who may be discriminated against, who may feel that they don’t have a voice. And I certainly bring a certain sensitivity to that.”
Healey’s opponent in the Democratic primary is Jamaica Plain state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, who would also make history as the first woman, first Latina, and first Asian American to be governor of Massachusetts. Both candidates will make their cases at Saturday’s state Democratic Party convention, though Healey is the clear front-runner.
Arline Isaacson, a prominent activist and lobbyist who led the fight for gay marriage on Beacon Hill, said Healey’s advocacy has helped advance LGBTQ rights “in the large, macro way and in the small, micro way.”
“She’s exactly what you would want from our community to represent our community. She’s archetypically perfect,” Isaacson said. “It’s not like she’s slightly out, she’s very out.”
Healey grew up in Hampton Falls, N.H., in a farmhouse her parents bought in an auction. Her mother, a school nurse, spent years raising the children on her own, with help from Healey’s grandparents, who were very involved in the children’s lives and visited often from Newburyport.
She grew up the oldest of five siblings, built-in playmates and friends with whom she remains close (her sister, Tara, is an adviser and constant presence on the campaign trail).
Healey’s parents split up when she was 10, a “significant event” for the family, she recalled. Her mother sold her wedding ring and spent the money to pave a half basketball court behind their house. Healey helped out with her younger siblings, and got her first job at 10 as a baby sitter. When she grew older, she worked at a camp, at the nearby apple orchard, and as a waitress.
In junior high school, she threw herself into soccer, tennis, and baseball before settling on basketball as a student at Winnacunnet High School, where she broke team records. In the warmer months, she practiced on the half court behind the farmhouse. In the winter, she crossed the street to the family’s 1890s-era barn, where she shot hoops at a basket her grandfather had tacked up, practicing in the company of her siblings, the sheep, and the horses.
Healey was recruited by several Division I schools but ultimately chose Harvard University, an hour away from home, so her family could see her play. She lived in the university’s Kirkland House and loved being in Cambridge, remembering that she hardly ventured over the Charles River into Boston as a student.
Her younger teammates remember Healey as a welcoming college senior, who stopped by with cupcakes or coffee when they were cramming for tests, or helped them through supplemental workouts even when she didn’t need the extra training. Healey brought first-year players to join her for meals at Kirkland, and took them to her mother’s house in New Hampshire for an escape from the city and a homemade breakfast.
“She absolutely took us under her wing from day one,” said Tammy Battaglino, a Boston-area consultant and Harvard alum who played on Healey’s team as a “6-foot-2, gangly freshman.”
Before graduation, Healey interviewed on campus with a few investment banks and considered law school, but she was just 21 then and still wanted to play ball for a few more years.
So she went to Austria to play professionally . The WNBA wasn’t founded until 1996, so many American women looking to play in the pros went to Europe, including some of Healey’s Harvard teammates.
Healey doesn’t often talk about her coming-out story and has declined to discuss past relationships, but said the discovery came while she lived abroad. Her sexuality was something she started to ponder before she left for Austria, she said, during summers working at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom as a waitress. There, she saw acts like the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, and Ani DiFranco. At those shows, she saw herself reflected in the crowds of gay concertgoers.
“I remember watching and then also seeing the audience and sort of cluing into something,” Healey said. “And, you know, seeing that there was actually a community out there. And that you weren’t sort of the only one.”
After two years in Austria, Healey returned to the United States and came out to her former roommate and teammate Liz Resnick.
“I said to her, ‘I have something to tell you.’ And she said to me, ‘I have something to tell you,’ ” Healey said, her voice cracking through tears. “We both came out to each other.”
In 1995, Healey started law school at Northeastern University. At the time, the school was known for being centered on public interest law and was a haven for LGBTQ law students.
“As a young gay person, having recently come out, that just seemed like a very comfortable environment,” she said.
Upon graduation, Healey began her career as a lawyer working under US District Judge A. David Mazzone, then spent time at Boston firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, where she focused on commercial and securities litigation.
She also tried drug, assault, domestic violence, and motor vehicle cases in the Middlesex district attorney’s office, and eventually went to work under Attorney General Martha Coakley as chief of the office’s Civil Rights Division.
While there, Healey led the first successful state challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, arguing before a federal appeals court in Boston that the law, which denied benefits to same-sex couples, was discriminatory. Other states and married couples later filed their own legal challenges as well, resulting in the Supreme Court overturning the law in 2013.
Mary Bonauto, the civil rights project director at GLAD said she worked closely with Healey to investigate the impact of the federal law on same-sex couples in Massachusetts and the way the state handed out benefits. Once the consequences of the law become clear, she said, Healey “led the effort to become part of that fight.”
“She was all in. At the argument, she was phenomenal. She brought not only a lot of heart to this, but such rigor to her analysis,” said Bonauto, who has litigated civil rights issues across New England, and argued the cases that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and nationally, before the Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges. “Maura was so thorough about how sometimes the government has to do things to correct a wrong and get it right.”
After the DOMA win in Boston, Healey appeared in newspapers and magazines and suddenly became a very public figure in the gay community.
Once the Supreme Court struck down the law, it also represented, to some, a victory for Healey.
Elyse Cherry, a 30-year veteran of LGTBQ activism who is active in both national and local political circles, was “bursting with pride” when the federal law got overturned. She has known Healey on a personal level for decades, and said Healey is “just kind of a regular person” who drinks her beer from the can.
“She is completely down to earth,” said Cherry, who hosts fund-raisers on Healey’s behalf.
In 2014, Healey ran for attorney general and beat former Democrat state legislator Warren Tolman in the primary. She went on to win the statewide race, becoming the nation’s first openly gay attorney general, or the “Gay-G” as some in her office call her.
Things have changed since Healey was first elected. More than 600 LGBTQ candidates are on ballots this year nationwide, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.
And while Healey has carved a strong path for herself, with nearly $5 million currently in her campaign account, activists say gay candidates — and especially women — still need additional support.
“The financial playing field is not equal,” said Lisa Turner, executive director of LPAC, a super PAC that supports the interests of lesbians. “Even when you compare gay men to women, it’s not equal. If it was a straight man and a lesbian, it’s very unequal.”
Turner said that across the country, LGBTQ women are still seen as less viable in many places, and don’t always receive the institutional support Healey has enjoyed. They get primaried, she said, and are seen as “less than.”
“This is harder than it looks. And Maura makes it look easy,” Turner said. “She is the epitome of the perfect candidate, and it’s not always easy. . . . It’s a perfect fit for these open LGBTQ women who are such fierce people and incredible individuals to hold these offices.”
Since she first ran for office, Healey has been bolstered by LGTBQ advocacy groups, both in contributions and endorsements.
Victory Fund CEO and former Houston mayor Annise Parker, who was the first openly LGTBQ mayor of a major city when elected in 2009, points to Healey as a “perfect” example of the type of candidate Parker’s group looks for in its endorsement process.
“She is why we exist,” Parker said, noting that she has already made a maximum personal contribution to Healey’s campaign. “She is a game-changer candidate.”
Healey said that like other gay candidates across the country, she has faced her share of vitriol on social media, but that her sexuality is often not the focus of conversation or antagonism. She doesn’t have a partner, she said, and will campaign with friends and family by her side.
As there has been since she first ran in 2014, there is an understanding that she will be an advocate for the LGBTQ community. But, she said, oftentimes people are more interested to hear about her basketball career.
“I take it as a sign of progress in Massachusetts that it isn’t something I have to justify or overcome,” Healey said. “I am certainly proud of it, it’s my identity and who I am.”
Milton Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.