Boston’s first liaison to gays died in obscurity
He helped many; ‘at the end, he needed a lot of help. But he couldn’t really put his hand out for it.’
Robin MacCormack had a gift for blending in.
With a neat dark haircut, a winning smile, and the cachet of his Irish-Catholic surname, City Hall’s first liaison to the gay community was an ally to politicians, a buddy to police officers, and a trusted resource to the city’s gays and lesbians.
But just a few years after he was appointed by Mayor Kevin H. White in 1979, MacCormack melted out of public view. And on April 6, after years without contact with family or friends, he was discovered dead by police in his Dorchester apartment with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 63.
So far, MacCormack’s remains have gone unclaimed. Two people who knew him for decades - attorney Joe Donnellan and retired Boston Police Sergeant Herb White - are working to get him the memorial they say he deserves.
“He was a guy who helped everybody in the world, and, at the end, he needed a lot of help,’’ said Donnellan, who worked to track down McCormack’s relatives. “But he couldn’t really put his hand out for it.’’
MacCormack’s brother, Edward J. MacCormack, said he and his sister, Margaret Guarino, declined to retrieve the remains because, he said, he does not know what his brothers’ wishes were. They had not spoken since 2007.
Donnellan and White said they will try to plan a memorial before the end of May.
To many, MacCormack ’s appointment - lauded in newspapers at the time as the first liaison on gay issues in any major American city - represented a dramatic shift in relations between the government and the city’s gay and lesbian population.
“In the 1980s, the idea of having a designated individual in City Hall who was there for me and my community was groundbreaking and transformative,’’ said Ben Klein, who met MacCormack during the founding of the group now called the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth.
At that time, when gays and lesbians had no standing in City Hall, they rarely provided information to the authorities because they feared being outed or harassed. Many believed that violent crimes against gay people went uninvestigated by police.
“It’s hard to imagine, looking back from today, how little access we had in city government,’’ said Kevin Cranston, director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “We very much felt on the edges of our society.’’
When White established the liaison position, MacCormack, an East Boston native and a graduate of St. Dominic Savio Preparatory High School, seemed an obvious choice for the job.
“He had this very strait-laced look,’’ said Klein, now an attorney at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. “At the time, there were just so many stereotypes about gay people and how they dressed and that they were perverts. . . . Robin really opened some eyes in City Hall and the Police Department.’’
MacCormack’s role as liaison allowed gay people to make criminal complaints and provide information to police without outing themselves or putting themselves at risk of harassment.
He urged the Boston Police Department to require that officers log times of departure and arrival when transporting prisoners of both genders; previously, the requirement, meant as a deterrent against sexual abuse, was only used when transporting female prisoners.
Later, he worked as an undercover source during a 1990 bombing in Roslindale that killed one police officer and maimed another, White said.
MacCormack also hobnobbed with politicians: Donnellan was surprised to see a photo of MacCormack at the wedding of a Kennedy.
And US Representative Barney Frank said MacCormack was the first person he came out to.
In a 1980 article in the Globe, MacCormack explained that his goal was to change assumptions about what it means to be a gay person.
“I’m often asked how the gay community is going to react to something,’’ MacCormack said. “And I have to ask, how is the straight community going to react? And they say, you can’t say that; there are so many different people in the straight community. Well, there are, too, in the gay community.’’
But MacCormack was also a guarded person, a trait that became increasingly prominent as he grew older.
“For all of his public role, Robin was extremely private,’’ Cranston said. “He was always kind of circumspect about talking about his personal life.’’
Elimination of MacCormack’s position in 1981, ostensibly due to budget cuts, sparked protests in the city that ended with members of the gay and lesbian communities throwing teabags onto the mayor’s doorstep in Beacon Hill and chanting, “Robin’s job cost less than Kevin’s kitchen!’’
The position was reinstated the next year, with a salary that nearly doubled, but MacCormack did not return to the job.
He managed a couple of bars, then became an armed security guard. Friends from his heyday in City Hall began to notice his absence. For periods as long as a few years, he would not return phone calls and letters from his brother and sister.
The siblings worried about him, but figured that bouts of solitude were part of his nature.
Last year, MacCormack’s landlord stopped receiving rent checks.
Finally, police were called to the apartment to evict him. They found his body in his bedroom.
Donnellan and White said they do not understand why he did not reach out for assistance.
“That stubborn Irish pride,’’ said White. “He wouldn’t ask for help, you know?’’
One of MacCormack’s neighbors, who declined to give her name, said she almost never saw him leave his apartment and doubted that anyone in the building knew him.
Last week, the only evidence that he had lived there was the mailbox for apartment 3: MacCormack had been written in pencil on the mailbox label, erased, but still just barely visible.