Gerry Studds was a pioneer and an inspiration
Vehicles bearing those black-on-white STUDDS stickers have almost vanished from Island roads, moved away or gone for scrap. Before Gerry Studds retired from the House of Representatives, the bumper stickers were ubiquitous, and because they wore well and the forthright design didn't change from election to election, you couldn't tell whether they'd been on for two years or ten. Now Gerry is gone too.
Gerry Studds's support was solid throughout the 10th Massachusetts Congressional District, but on Martha's Vineyard it was cause for comment if he pulled less than 80 percent of the Island vote. When Studds was in Congress, I did things I can barely imagine doing now: Make campaign contributions. Show up at political fund-raisers. Attend the town meetings that Rep. Studds held regularly around the district, even on Martha's Vineyard, which not only is hard to get to but was also so solidly in his camp that he didn't have to bother. When Gerry retired in 1996 after 12 terms on Capitol Hill, I vowed no bumper of mine would advertise another candidate until I found one I could support as wholeheartedly as I supported Gerry Studds. In 10 years I haven't even been tempted.
I moved into the district in 1985, two years after he came out publicly and became the first, and for several years the only, openly gay member of Congress. Thanks to the shenanigans of former representative Mark Foley, Gerry Studds's coming out has been back in the news, because it was prompted by the revelation of a former congressional page that he and Studds had had a relationship a decade earlier, when the page was 17. The Republicans have been accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy for criticizing Foley but not speaking out in 1983. Huh? In July 1983, Rep. Gerry Studds and Rep. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) were both censured nearly unanimously by the House of Representatives for having a sexual relationship with an underage page. In Crane's case, the page was female. Crane lost his bid for reelection the following year. Studds was returned to Congress in every subsequent election until he retired.
Do the Republicans understand the problem here? Foley's indiscriminate behavior went on for several years. While talking sexy-wexy to underage male pages, he was posing as a defender of children and "traditional family values." He apparently had a pretty serious alcohol problem. And on top of all that, the Republican leadership, which has been rather vociferous in favor of those good ol' "family values," knew what was going on and pretended otherwise.
Gerry Studds's transgression, which he called "a serious error," was a decade old when it came to light. It wasn't part of a pattern of out-of-control behavior. What would have happened had the Democratic leadership found out about the affair in 1973, when Gerry Studds was a freshman representative from Massachusetts? They probably would have keelhauled him and hung him out to dry.
I'm glad they didn't get the chance. True, Gerry Studds was a pioneer and an inspiration for gay and lesbian people all over the country, especially those interested in public service. In the early 1990s, at a Field Gallery fundraiser presided over by the congressman's number one Island fan, the late Betty Ann Bryant, I had the honor of presenting him with an Island Lesbian & Gay Association tank top: emblazoned on the front was "Martha's Vineyard," and the V was a big pink triangle. (At the time you could wear the T-shirt down Main Street, Vineyard Haven, and hardly anybody knew what it meant.) But he was also an exemplary congressman. He knew more about and did more for the coastal waters and fisheries than just about anybody. The waters and fisheries off New England aren't generally thought of as a gay issue. That's one reason Gerry Studds was so important. Heterosexual politicians aren't expected to confine themselves to heterosexual issues. Studds, the first out gay member of Congress, demonstrated that human beings comprise much more than their sexual identity, a fairly self-evident truth that continues to elude many people.
Island voters didn't keep endorsing Gerry election after election because he was gay. He earned those lopsided margins by being smart, committed, knowledgeable, and effective. As an out gay congressman, he did indeed expand the possibilities for outsiders in public life. And he set a high, high standard for public service. Republicans and Democrats alike could stand to learn from his example.
Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for another candidate worthy of my pickup's bumper.
Susanna J. Sturgis is a novelist and editor. She is a former editor of the Calendar section of The Times.