Former Massachusetts Democratic representative was the first out gay member of Congress
Gerry Studds, a former Massachusetts Democratic representative who was the first member of Congress to declare himself gay, died this past Saturday in Boston. Studds, who was 69, died as the result of complications from two blood clots, the first of which was found in his lungs after he collapsed on October 3, according to Dean Hara, his husband since 2004.
Studds, who represented a district that included suburban communities on Boston’s South Shore, the old industrial and whaling community of New Bedford, and idyllic resort towns on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, was first elected in 1972. Studds once told gay journalist Rex Wockner that his was the only congressional district in Massachusetts that voted for Richard Nixon over George McGovern the year he was elected its first Democratic representative.
After Barney Frank joined Studds on the Massachusetts delegation in 1981—and both men came out later in that decade—the Bay State enjoyed the distinction for years of having the only two openly gay members of Congress.
For Studds, however, coming out publicly was something well short of pleasant. In a case that has uncomfortable resonance today, Studds was reprimanded after a House ethics committee found that he had engaged in an affair 10 years earlier with a 17-year-old congressional page. The relationship came to light after explosive charges had been raised about widespread sexual dalliances among members of Congress, staff, and pages.
In the end, the ethics committee found evidence of such conduct only on the part of Studds and Daniel B. Crane, an Illinois Republican who had an affair with a 17-year-old female page in 1980.
Studds was defiant, saying that the relationship had been consensual and that the investigation raised “fundamental questions with respect to the right to privacy and procedural fairness.” On the floor of the House, he discussed the difficulties of performing public service ‘’without destroying entirely the ability to lead a meaningful private life. But these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as am I, both an elected public official and gay.”
According to a New York Times account from the time, the House was hushed when Studds completed his remarks, and then several colleagues made their way to his side to offer him their hand in support.
Studds was subsequently re-elected six more times, before retiring in 1996 to his home in Provincetown. The Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, so designated by Congress in 1996, the last year he served, comprises an area of more than 800 square-miles due north of P-Town’s Race Point Beach.
Senator Ted Kennedy, acknowledging the work Studds had down for the protection of New England fisheries, released a statement Saturday, saying, “Gerry’s leadership changed Massachusetts forever and we’ll never forget him.”
Frank told the Boston Globe, “He was a very formal and reserved guy. One of the ironies of his life was that he was one of the most private people I’ve ever met who was in that kind of public position.”
Studds, whose first name, despite its spelling, was pronounced “Gary,” was born in Mineola, New York, and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Yale. After working on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, he spent several years at the state department.
The Lowell Sun reported this week that for the first time in history, the federal government will deny death benefits to the spouse of a member of Congress. Hara, Studds’ 49-year-old husband, is ineligible for one of the perks of being married to a retired federal lawmaker at the time of his or her death—the ability to collect more than half of the deceased spouse’s generous annual pension. Studds’ pension amounted to more than $114,000 a year.
“A gay spouse will not receive any sort of pension or annuity or anything like that,” Chad Cowan, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, told the Sun. “It’s not anything that anybody in our office has seen before.”
Under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the Studds-Hara marriage is not recognized by the federal government the late congressman served most of his adult life.