As Pride Month begins this June, the LGBTQ community can count among its achievements that the U.S. Congress has more openly gay members than ever before. Thirteen members of the 118th Congress identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, including Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who became the first openly gay U.S. Senator in 2013, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who is the first openly bisexual individual to serve in a chamber of Congress.
Forty years ago, Democrat Gerry Studds helped pave the way for this historic representation by becoming the first member of Congress to come out as gay while in office. He went on to win re-election in his Massachusetts district for more than a decade after. Yet the unprecedented nature of his coming out was somewhat overshadowed by some unseemly details surrounding it.
Studds, who was first elected to the House in 1972, represented Massachusetts’ conservative Cape Cod and island regions. He was first motivated to run for office because he was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War. But his tenure was marred with scandal. Shortly after arriving in Washington D.C., Studds initiated a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old page that included a two-week trip to Portugal. While the relationship was considered inappropriate, the page later described it as consensual, explaining to congressional investigators that Studds “did nothing to me which I would consider destructive or painful.” The news came out in the early 1980s during an investigation of another colleague’s indiscretions with a page.
For years, the playbook for a member of Congress navigating rumors that they had had a relationship with someone of the same sex was to either deny it or describe it as a mistake. Studds did not choose either of those options. On July 14, 1983, he gave a speech on the House floor making his sexual orientation clear:
“All Members of Congress must cope with the challenge of initiating and maintaining a career in public office without destroying entirely the ability to lead a meaningful and emotionally fulfilling private life. It is not a simple task for any of us to meet adequately the obligations of either public or private life, let alone both. But these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as am I, both an elected public official and gay.”
It was a risky move. Back then, “no Congressman had survived a public revelation of their homosexuality,” according to James Kirchick, author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.
The U.S. House of Representatives censured Studds for his relationship with a congressional page, stripping him of committee chairmanships—in Studds’ case, his position as head of a House subcommittee overseeing the Coast Guard.
In the aftermath of his announcement, it was an open question whether Studds could survive politically, particularly in a conservative district that Ronald Reagan had won with 55% support. “There was just a lot of fear in the country, a lot of prejudice surrounding the AIDS crisis,” says Kirchick, who noted that the Cold War also played a role in fueling homophobia. “There was this fear that gay people could not be trusted with national security secrets because they can be blackmailed—even though there was not a single example of a gay person being blackmailed into giving secrets to a foreign power.”
But neither his outing himself nor the censure from his colleagues tanked Studds’ political career. He not only won re-election from his conservative district in 1984, but continued to do so for 13 years, until his retirement in 1997.
Jane Carlee, one of his constituents from Nantucket, Mass. explained why she was standing by him in a Letter to the Editor published in the Aug. 14, 1983, issue of TIME magazine: “As one of Congressman Gerry Studds’ constituents, I can explain why we are ‘surprisingly supportive’ of him. No Representative has done so much to protect our environment or shown so much respect for our wishes.”
The controversy over Studds struck a chord with a fellow gay colleague in the Massachusetts delegation, Barney Frank. They represented adjoining districts, and Frank explained to TIME in a recent phone conversation that the two men would talk about “what it was like being a closeted member of Congress.”
Frank says he had wanted to come out publicly around the same time Studds did, but Studds’ page scandal prompted him to put it off for four years. “I postponed my coming out. I wanted to wait ’til he got re-elected and that [scandal] was no longer an issue.” Frank came out publicly in 1987.
“We were both frankly pleasantly surprised that we did as well as we did afterwards,” says Frank. Their continued electoral successes after coming out were, to Frank, “the first indications that America was not as homophobic as people thought they were supposed to be.”
Studds died in 2006 at the age of 69 from a blood clot in his lung. If Studds were alive today, Frank imagines that he would be heavily involved in climate change policy, given he was known for his key role in protecting the Cape Cod seashore. And he believes being openly gay is an asset for politicians, citing 2020 presidential candidate and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. As he jokes, “By the time I retired in 2012, being gay was much more socially acceptable than being a congressman.”
Write to Olivia B. Waxman at [email protected].