Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gerry Studds came out as gay after he was censured by the U.S. House of Representatives on charges of sexual misconduct with a male congressional page. Studds’s coming out made him the first gay member of Congress to do so and the first gay or lesbian officeholder at the national level.

Summary of Event

Gerry Studds served twelve terms in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1973 and 1996, representing southeastern Massachusetts. He was the first out gay member of Congress and a leader in issues concerning HIV-AIDS, women’s health, civil rights, and the environment, and in maritime issues. [kw]Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress (July 14, 1983) [kw]Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress, Studds Is First (July 14, 1983) [kw]Gay Man in the U.S. Congress, Studds Is First Out (July 14, 1983) [kw]U.S. Congress, Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the (July 14, 1983) [kw]Congress, Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. (July 14, 1983) Politicians;gay [c]Government and politics;July 14, 1983: Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress[1560] Studds, Gerry

Studds was born in Mineola, New York, and was a namesake of distant ancestor Elbridge Gerry, who had been vice president under James Madison. Most of Studds’s boyhood was spent in Cohasset, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale University in 1959 and earned a master’s degree in teaching two years later. His political ambitions were founded in 1960’s Washington, D.C. He served as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State and as a staff member with then-president John F. Kennedy’s Domestic Peace Corps. He also was a congressional liaison for the Domestic Peace Corps. Opposition to the Vietnam War lead him into politics and a run for Congress in 1970.

In his 1970 campaign, Studds narrowly lost to a Republican incumbent. He spent the next two years learning the district’s constituency. He studied the fishing industry and learned the Portuguese language of the local fishing community, earning their support. Studds won the 12th Congressional District in 1972, the first Democratic representative in more than fifty years. His devotion to a moral commitment in foreign policy captured the attention of many Republicans who became weary of Richard Nixon’s handling of Vietnam. Little did voters know that they cast votes for the first gay U.S. congressmember.

After being sworn into office, Studds received assignments to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries and the Foreign Affairs Committees. Studds’s leadership on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee was strongly felt, as he helped set a 200-mile ocean fishing limit and helped pass the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

While on the House Subcommittee on Health and Environment he advocated health-care reform, fought for expansion of AIDS-research funding, and ensured the availability of Taxol medication for ovarian and breast cancer treatment. More important, Studds never lost touch with his district and its needs. He visited every town several times a year, fielding questions and reporting on legislative votes. His congressional service was marked by hard work, honesty, and respect even from those who opposed him politically.

In 1983, Studds was forced to come out of the closet after public allegations were made that he had had a sexual relationship with a teenage boy, a seventeen-year-old congressional page, ten years prior. He was one of several members of Congress whose sexuality had been revealed. Among the others were Frederick W. Richmond (D-N.Y.), Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.), and Jon C. Hinton (R-Miss.).

The case against Studds that was prepared by committee counsel Joseph D. Califano and presented to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, involved another representative as well: Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.), a conservative Republican who had sexual relations with a seventeen-year-old female page. In Studds’s case, the committee report stated the page traveled with Studds to Europe, accompanied him to restaurants, and visited the representative’s home in Georgetown. Both Studds and the male page agreed that the relationship was consensual, that it did not involve coercion, threats, or preferential treatment.

On July 14, 1983, the House voted to censure both Studds and Crane, marking the first time House members had been censured for sexual misconduct. Surrounded by supporters, Studds publicly acknowledged his homosexuality and responded in the Congressional Record to allegations made against him. He affirmed his humanity as a gay man and stated that he had made an error in judgment by having the sexual relationship with the page.

While many viewed Studds’s response as unrepentant and arrogant, it was in large part favorably received by his constituents. While one newspaper called for his resignation, most Cape Cod residents said it would not affect their support for Studds. Many House colleagues still viewed him as the most effective representative of the Massachusetts delegation.

The censure cost Studds the chairmanship of the House Coast Guard and Navigation Subcommittee, briefly, but he emerged relatively unblemished. He returned to Massachusetts soon afterward and held a series of town-hall discussions throughout the district. On January 31, 1984, he confirmed that he would run for re-election.

Studds was the first out gay man to run for re-election to Congress. (The first out gay man to run for Congress—but lose—was Franklin Kameny in 1971.) Studds’s campaign was a bumpy ride for the six-term incumbent. Democratic primary challenger, Sheriff Peter Flynn of Plymouth County, Massachusetts, said the congressmember’s sexual relationship with the male page was “an act of child molestation.” Republicans, too, did not hesitate to raise the issue of homosexuality and “family values.” However, Studds prevailed, and he again returned to his seat in Congress.

At the height of the HIV-AIDS crisis, in May of 1987, Representative Studds stated that the U.S. government should follow the lead of the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Switzerland and mail HIV-AIDS information to all U.S. citizens. Soon afterward, his office mailed the U.S. Surgeon General’s explicit, thirty-six-page brochure on AIDS to all 268,000 households in his district. Studds urged other members of Congress to do likewise.

In the late 1980’s, Studds lead the move to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. Near the end of 1989, two secret reports from the Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center (1988, 1989), commissioned by the Pentagon, were leaked to Studds’s office, and Studds quickly made them public. Both reports revealed that there was no conclusive evidence to support the ban and that the services should move to integrate gay and lesbian personnel. The reports flew in the face of standing military practice, but the Pentagon did not further engage in the policy debate.

Studds was one of a score of Democrats who decided to leave Congress in 1996. Studds told The Washington Post in October, 1995, that the Republican program left him somewhere between incredulous and nauseous. He would not leave, however, without one last fight against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that had been introduced by Representative Bob Barr of Georgia. Studds, along with Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) led an attack against the proposed act, but they could not prevent DOMA from being passed (September 10, 1996).

Significance

Gerry Studds described himself as a “congressman who was gay,” and not a “gay congressman.” He believed one’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to whether or not one succeeds in their profession. He argued that representatives need to focus on a wide variety of issues rather than be a crusader for one. A constituent’s vote, he said, should not be based on whether they want a gay or lesbian person in Congress, but instead on whether or not that candidate could represent (or keep representing) them well.

Most important to Studds was that he wanted acknowledgment that his words and life had meaning to other people, and he wanted members of Congress to listen more carefully to gay and lesbian issues. As with Elaine Noble, the first lesbian elected to statewide office (Massachusetts, 1974), Studds was a pioneer and leader in gay and lesbian politics. Politicians;gay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bush, Larry. “Electing to Speak Out: Congressman Gerry Studds.” The Advocate, September 15, 1983, 15, 52-53.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Personal Thoughts on Coming Out: Congressman Gerry Studds.” The Advocate, October 29, 1983, 19-23.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chibbaro, Lou. “Rep. Gerry Studds Becomes First Member of Congress to Come Out.” The Blade, July 15, 1983, 1, 11.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hertzog, Mark. The Lavender Vote: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals in American Electoral Politics. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rayside, David. On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walter, Dave. “Interview with Rep. Gerry Studds.” The Advocate, September 23, 1985, 18-19.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yeager, Ken. Trailblazers: Profiles of America’s Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials. New York: Haworth Press, 1999.

1971: Kameny Is First Out Candidate for U.S. Congress

November 7, 1972: Jordan Becomes First Black Congresswoman from the South

May 30, 1987: U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay

June 27, 1988: Report of the Presidential AIDS Commission

May 24, 1993: Achtenberg Becomes Assistant Housing Secretary

November 30, 1993: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy Is Implemented

September 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act

January, 2006: Jiménez Flores Elected to the Mexican Senate

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