Gay and Lesbian Pride Month is here—arriving just weeks after NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay in a widely praised Sports Illustrated essay. Next month, Delaware will become the 11th state in the country along with the District of Columbia to allow same-sex marriages. With the majority of Americans now supporting gay marriage, it’s easy to forget the barriers and battles of just a few decades ago. Our video this month takes you back to the gritty streets of 1970s Boston, an era when it was unthinkable that an openly gay politician could run for public office…and win.
Elaine Noble took her seat in the Massachusetts Legislature in 1975, representing Boston’s Fenway and Back Bay neighborhoods. It was less than five years after New York’s Stonewall Riots and three years before gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was shot to death in City Hall.
Noble put herself—and possibly her life—on the line when she ran, and she lived with threats and harassment that she expected would only increase when the WGBH documentary A Woman’s Place Is in the House: A Portrait of Elaine Noble aired. She was the first openly gay candidate in the country to win a state office—but as you’ll see, her focus was on helping her constituents.
When she is asked on election night what the moment means to her, she deflects the expectation that she’ll say it’s a victory for the gay and lesbian community. “It means I have a job,” she says in the film, smiling. And the first thing she’ll do? Call her mother.
Noble was determined not to be a one-issue candidate, and you’ll see that she has a remarkable ability to connect with people on district problems large and small, and a desire to help that comes from the heart. Her trailblazing role put her in the national spotlight, and calls for help came from people—many closeted and feeling isolated—from as far away as California. There were threatening calls as well, often in the middle of the night, and Noble’s car was vandalized.
Even within the women’s movement, she had to fight for gay rights. In the film, Noble refuses to accept a speaking invitation from the National Organization for Women unless NOW publicly apologizes to her and her gay sisters for its attempt a few years earlier to distance NOW from lesbian causes. (NOW founder Betty Friedan and others were concerned that being linked to lesbians politically would weaken their cause.)
For Noble, this was not only political; it was intensely personal. She was then living with the feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown, whom you meet in the film. Brown had resigned her job at NOW in 1970 over this issue.
Noble and Brown parted ways in 1976. “Rita couldn’t take it [the harassment] any more,” Noble told me in a recent interview, “and I don’t blame her.”
Noble served for two terms, but when redistricting would have forced her to run against her friend Barney Frank in 1978, she declined to enter the race. After an unsuccessful run for the US Senate, she eventually left public life. She was exhausted, she told me, and ready for a quieter time.
She’s retired now and living with her partner in the Florida panhandle—“another adventure,” she says. She is a substitute teacher (“teaching was my first love”), sells real estate, and rides her beloved horses. She’s starting to write about her experience in the movement, but insists she was just “part of the Conga line” that moved the issue forward. “You do what you can and then move on.”
As for the WGBH film, she looks back on it with pride, though threats against her escalated after its broadcast, as she feared. “[Producer] Nancy Porter and [associate producer] Rebecca Eaton made me feel comfortable,” she says. “I never felt a hidden agenda.” Thinking back on her younger self, she adds, slightly ruefully, that she’s “a little more guarded now.”
The sea changes of recent years on gay issues have brought her great happiness, as well as deep gratitude to those who supported her, including Barney Frank’s sister Ann Lewis, who encouraged her to run all those years ago. No doubt Noble would get a good laugh from Frank’s recent quip about his marriage in 2012 to his longtime partner Jim Ready: “As I left office, it struck me that my marriage to Jim was more socially acceptable than my being a congressman.”
Elizabeth Deane is a longtime producer and writer for WGBH
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