The resignation of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has left members of the local LGBTQ community concerned that his legacy as a staunch advocate of marriage equality and progressive politics will be overshadowed by the scandal that led him to step down.
The first openly gay Senate president in Massachusetts, Rosenberg, 68, was a political force on issues of LGBTQ equality for decades.
“While Stan didn’t wear his being a gay man on his sleeves and it was only relatively recent that he came out, that is significant,” said Carl Sciortino, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee and a former state representative. “We haven’t had many Senate presidents or speakers of the House in the entire country that were openly gay.”
On May 2, the Senate Committee on Ethics released a scathing 112-page report, which found that Rosenberg failed to protect the institution and its staff from his husband, Bryon Hefner, 31, who has been criminally charged with sexually assaulting three men and sending naked photos of another.
The ethics report noted that Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, had given Hefner “unfettered” access to his official e-mail for years, and said that Rosenberg knew “or should have known” that Hefner was sexually and racially harassing Senate employees.
Hefner allegedly bragged about his influence as a result of his spouse’s high-profile role.
The investigation into Hefner’s conduct began after alleged victims spoke to the Globe, revealing incidents of sexual assault and harassment by Hefner. In the wake of the Globe stories, Rosenberg stepped down from the presidency in December and separated from Hefner not long after.
Though the report concluded that Rosenberg didn’t break Senate rules, it found “failures of judgment and leadership” by the president, who neglected to act on warnings about Hefner’s behavior for years. Rosenberg resigned from the Senate on May 4.
It was a precipitous fall for a powerful politician who was first elected to the Massachusetts state Senate in 1991, and was unanimously voted in as president in 2015. Rosenberg’s decades of work on LGBTQ-related issues and legislation make his downfall — and the disturbing circumstances surrounding it — especially difficult for institutions that serve the state’s gay and transgender communities.
“When you think about these role models that exist within marginalized communities and how you look up to them, they’re very much a symbol,” said Tanekwah Hinds, women’s health program coordinator at Fenway Health. “We want these symbols because often times we’re not represented. While that’s important, it’s important to separate their work from themselves. You can also say that despite this work, that doesn’t make it admissible for them to do x, y, and z.”
Beyond the allegations that rocked the Senate and the wider political landscape, some were further dispirited to see the relationship between Rosenberg and Hefner implode in such a ugly and public way.
The two men met in 2008 when Hefner had a summer job in Rosenberg’s office. Married in September 2016, the two bonded over a similar trauma, a childhood in foster care.
In a 2014 interview with the Globe, Rosenberg said Hefner encouraged his decision, in 2009, to come out publicly as a gay man when he was in his 50s and stood by him through his battle with cancer.
Some felt Rosenberg chose his spouse over his responsibility to constituents.
“It’s sad. His relationship undermined all the great things he did,” Randy Carelli, 73, said of Rosenberg.
One of the original members of OutVets, a local nonprofit organization founded in 2014 which honors lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender military veterans, active service members, and their families, Carelli was one of several clubgoers at the Alley Bar in Boston on a recent evening.
“[Rosenberg] made big mistakes,” he said.
Carelli doesn’t know Rosenberg. But the Vietnam veteran knows what it felt like to come out of the closet later in life. It’s a complicated journey.
“When someone spent decades of their lives building up their identity in the closet, coming out is still a very big deal,” said Sciortino, of the AIDS Action Committee. “The people who are involved with helping you come out still have a very important place in your life.”
The world was a markedly different place when Rosenberg first went into politics, joining the Legislature as a member of the House in 1987, two years before Massachusetts became only the second state in the country to pass a law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In those days, they were moving away from the term “homosexual,” but “gay” still made people uncomfortable, and “lesbian” was just being introduced into political lexicon in the Legislature, said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
She said Rosenberg stood by policies that advanced the rights of LGBTQ people every step of the way.
“He’s accomplished so much and really has been an incredible leader for our community,” Sciortino said. “The fact that he resigned reinforces in my mind that he has integrity. He knows mistakes were made and he’s being held accountable for them.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.