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Thirty years ago, gay civil rights campaign set the stage for all that followed

Arline Isaacson hugged Norma Shapiro of the ACLU after they learned a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was defeated in the state Legislature in 2007.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2007

When Massachusetts enacted a gay and lesbian civil rights bill 30 years ago, opponents warned about the slippery slope of acceptance.

Senator David H. Locke, a Wellesley Republican, called the bill “the opening salvo in the gays’ march to social acceptance and approval of their chosen lifestyle” and predicted it would lead to legislation “permitting men to marry men and women to wed women.”

In hindsight, the bill’s chief architect, Arline Isaacson, has to agree.

The 17-year-long campaign for the gay civil rights law laid the groundwork and set the playbook for every successful campaign that followed in Massachusetts. The legalization of gay marriage in 2004. Antidiscrimination protections for transgender people in 2012 and 2016. The 2018 defeat of a ballot question that would have reversed transgender protections.


“This was a critically important first step to winning equality, which ultimately led to marriage equality,” said Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

Thirty years after the 1989 adoption of gay civil rights in Massachusetts, the Globe asked key players in the campaign for its passage to revisit that episode — a consequential moment in the gay rights movement whose significance has been obscured by the epochal changes that followed.

Their reflections offer a window into how dramatically our sensibilities and language have changed over three decades. And despite fears about rights rollbacks in the Trump era, their retrospective is optimistic: The societal acceptance long-sought by the LGBTQ community was, in hindsight, remarkably swift and sweeping, and seems impossible to rewind.

“If you had told me or Arline or anybody else in 1990 what the approval ratings would be now for gay marriage — or that a trans civil rights bill would pass and then a repeal effort roundly rejected in Massachusetts — I would have asked what drugs you were on,” said Ellen Zucker, an attorney pushing the bill for the National Organization for Women in 1989.


Barney Frank, who later went on to serve three decades in Congress, was brand new in the state House of Representatives in 1973 and still in the closet.

When activists sought sponsors for a gay rights bill, he raised his hand, assuming he’d be one of many. Instead, he became the bill’s front man, soon to be accompanied by cosponsor Senator Lois Pines.

It was, he acknowledged, “frightening at first.”

“At the time, I was a little concerned about being very prominent, being a 32-year-old unmarried man,” Frank said in an interview. “What are people going to say?”

Until that year, the American Psychological Association considered homosexuality a mental illness. True, Boston had just launched a gay pride parade in 1971 and Massachusetts had elected the nation’s first gay state legislator, Elaine Noble, in 1974. But there were still very real risks of reputational repercussions for coming out in the workplace.

When legislators debated the bill in 1977, Locke lamented that it could force him to hire “someone like Klinger in the ‘MASH’ series,” the Boston Herald reported.

“You know what would happen around here if one of those individuals was actually working in your office,” Senator John Parker, the minority floor leader, chided his colleagues. “You’d be ashamed right out of your shoes. You’d get rid of him, or the voters would get rid of you.”

It took a decade for legislators to pass any version of the bill; then, in 1983, when it passed the House, it lost the Senate by one vote on a parliamentary maneuver. That taught Isaacson, then a new lobbyist, that she had to become a sophisticated player on Beacon Hill.


“It was like a chess game,” Isaacson said.

Given the charged climate, proponents also had to be careful in demonstrating support. To protect closeted gay voters and skittish straight allies, they drafted a second petition with language implying the signers were heterosexual sympathizers. Election mailers were sent in sealed envelopes that betrayed no hint of affiliation with a gay cause.

Otherwise, Isaacson said, “We would be outing people. You could ruin someone’s life back then by outing them.”

Interestingly, some of the fiercest opposition came from legislators representing districts like Jamaica Plain and Somerville that now have concentrations of gay and lesbian voters.

When the bill came close to passage in 1987, Jamaica Plain’s Senator Arthur Joseph Lewis Jr. kept the bill bottled up in a subcommittee, despite support for its passage, even after his gay cousin protested publicly.

And according to news reports, Somerville Senator Denis McKenna, a Democrat, argued against the law in 1983, saying: “The Irish and Italians never asked for a law that would put them above normal people.”

Gay activists tried to steer clear of the discomfiting topic of sex, appealing instead to lawmakers’ sense of fairness. Feel free to disagree with homosexuality, they said, but stand up against discrimination.


That prompted some tortured defenses, even among lead proponents. Noble, the nation’s first gay legislator, was quoted as telling opponents in 1977: “We are not asking you to say homosexuality is OK. We’re asking you to say, ‘I don’t condone that lifestyle but I do not want people discriminated against.’ ”

The Catholic Church respected the distinction, agreeing that gay people should not face discrimination. Still, the church became the leading opponent, maintaining that the bill would endorse an immoral lifestyle. Others argued that it would offer gay people special rights.

“That’s not an unusual tactic,” said Gary Daffin, executive director of the Multicultural AIDS Coalition, “to say that this group wants something special. And, in fact, we don’t want something special; we just don’t want to be treated as if there’s something wrong with us.”

The AIDS crisis that began to surface in 1981 offered opponents a new reason to fear the bill, but it also fueled frustration with institutional indifference, said Michael Bronski, a Harvard University professor and author of “A Queer History of the United States.”

“There’s a general increasing feeling, not only of discontent, but of outright anger,” he said. “Not only aren’t they doing anything about HIV/AIDS, they wouldn’t even give us a paltry stupid little civil rights bill.”

After the legislative session ended in 1987 without passage of the bill, protesters stormed the Senate, shouting at then-Senate President William Bulger and chaining themselves to seats in the gallery. That militance was frowned upon by Isaacson and others who favored a civilized political approach. Crucial to that strategy was normalizing homosexuality by revealing themselves to be wholly relatable professionals and neighbors, just like other constituents.


“Being gay was still something that made people ‘other,’ ” said Daffin. “Because people didn’t know, they created all kinds of images in their head of what a gay person was, how they lived. When in fact it’s quite often as boring as being a heterosexual person.”

Transgender activists revisited that lesson during the ballot campaign of 2018. Faced with the nation’s first statewide referendum on transgender rights, they served as personal ambassadors for their cause, campaigning door-to-door and introducing themselves to their neighbors in a successful effort to defend their rights against reversal.

In both campaigns, activists also relied on heterosexual allies to amplify their cause. When friends and relatives began to speak up for gay civil rights in the 1980s, they showed legislators the bill’s breadth of appeal and impact.

“It totally changed the calculus. It was our margin of victory,” Isaacson said. “It allowed legislators who lived in the suburbs to say, ‘I have a constituent who wants me to vote for this.’ ”

The bill’s enactment in November 1989 followed a 17-year slog of personal persuasion and persistence. Massachusetts became the second state to offer gay civil rights, following Wisconsin in 1982.

Nationwide, LGBTQ rights are still uneven and precarious. Only 22 states today offer similar antidiscrimination protections as Massachusetts. The Trump administration is dialing back protections, particularly for transgender people in schools and the military.

But activists who push for continued vigilance still marvel at the pace of change. Looking back, it wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t ask and didn’t tell. Gay marriage, which was revolutionary in Massachusetts in 2004, has been legal nationwide since 2015.

“I think things are really bad right now. But part of me believes that it’s essentially a historical blip,” said Bronski, the Harvard professor. “There’s no going back.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert