History of LGBT: Boston

Libby Bouvier. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

Boston’s European colonial founders lived in a world circumscribed by political and religious attempts to regulate behavior that did not conform to the Puritan belief system. Same-sex sexual acts were regarded as sins, as were sexual relations between a woman and a man outside of marriage. Such transgressions were punishable by fines, whipping, and standing in the pillory.

The Colonial Setting

Puritan settlers established the town of Boston in 1630. The native population called the area Shawmut. The belief systems of Puritans and Native Americans were antithetical. Some local Native American men, including those from tribes related to the Wampanoag and the Iroquois, dressed, worked, and spoke as women and may have been shamans or spiritual leaders. Native Americans lived in close proximity to colonists, but when colonists were not successful in converting natives to Christianity, they pushed the natives into outlying areas of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By the end of the seventeenth century, the region’s native population had been decimated by disease, slavery, and war.

At the same time, Boston’s Puritan leaders were devising laws to govern their colony by combining elements of British common law with Old Testament law. The 1649 Province Laws of Massachusetts classified sodomy as a capital crime. Unless the defendant in such cases pled guilty, there had to be at least two witnesses to the act, an important modification of English law. Few individuals were successfully prosecuted for sodomy in Boston and its surrounding towns. More commonly, men and women were prosecuted for lewd and lascivious acts or unnatural behaviors. In 1649, Sarah Norman was brought before the Court in New Plymouth Colony “for misdemeanor and lude behavior with Mary Hammon uppon a bed, with divers lasivious speeches by her allso spoken.” In another case that came before the same court in 1649, Richard Berry accused Teage Jones of sodomy. Berry later testified that he had made a false accusation and was sentenced “to be whipte at the poste.” Three years later both men “and others with them” were ordered to “part theire uncivell living together” (The History Project, 18-20). Some Puritan leaders, including Michael Wigglesworth (1631-1705) and Thomas Shepard (1605-1649), wrote of lustful feelings toward male students. Wigglesworth kept a diary in which he recorded his feelings. Shepard wrote about “secret Whoredom, Self-pollution, and speculative Wantonness, men with men or woman with woman” (quoted in Godbeer, p. 264).

Colonial leaders also attempted to control nonnormative gender practices. Following the prosecution of several women for wearing men’s clothing, the Massachusetts General Court enacted a law in 1695 prohibiting the wearing of the apparel of the opposite sex. By the early nineteenth century, appearing in public in masquerade (hiding or altering one’s appearance) was also against the law. (Some of these laws continued to be enforced into the 1960s.) Some Boston women may have chosen to disguise themselves as men in order to work in male occupations or join the army. Ann Bailey enlisted in the Boston Regiment of the Continental Army in February 1777 under the alias of Samuel Gay. She was quickly discovered to be female, and for wearing male apparel was arrested and charged with fraud. Deborah Samson, alias Robert Shurtleff, joined the Continental Army in 1782 and served until 1783, when she was discharged honorably.

Transformations: The Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Boston had grown significantly as a seaport with a population of over seventeen thousand. The North End and West End (Beacon Hill) were inhabited by the town’s small African American population as well as by white poor and working-class residents. Both areas were viewed by law enforcement and the growing middle classes as centers of brothels and dens of vice. Two incidents involving same-sex sexual behaviors among members of Boston’s elite, however, achieved notoriety. In 1760, future U.S. President John Adams wrote in his diary of a deacon who was “discovered to have been the most salacious, rampant, Stallion, in the Universe …,lodging with this and that Boy and Attempting at least the crime of Buggery.” In 1771 Adams was the defense attorney in John Gray v. Lendall Pitts. Pitts had mistaken Gray for a woman, and when he learned of his error gave Pitts a beating. A witness testified, “I saw him dressed in women’s cloaths. I saw a couple of young gentlemen gallanting him. Pitts was one….They appeared to be very loving, she rathercoy. I called out to Pitts….He turned a deaf Ear. He cameback and said he had a very clever Girl, and went to her again” (Wroth and Zobel, eds. p. 157-161.). While these kinds of incidents did have legal repercussions, there was a level of tolerance of such behaviors that would change drastically in the nineteenth century.

Some middle- and upper-class men in this period adopted a style of colorful and expensive European dress. Portrayed in the popular press as dandies and macaronis, they wore foppish clothes, copied the effeminate styles of English and Parisian fops, and influenced later U.S. and British decadents and aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde. At the same time, a growing middle class allowed more men the freedom to remain unmarried, and bachelorhood became less peculiar. Bachelorhood even attainted a level of public acceptance with the publication in Boston of the Bachelors’ Journal (1828).

Though such behaviors were indulged in by only a small number of men, the trend reflected economic transformations that also contributed to the emergence of more clearly defined separate spheres for women and men. Middle-class men’s lives were spent primarily in the political and mercantile milieu, all-male surroundings, while middle-class women typically spent their lives in a more private world, away from their fathers, brothers, and husbands. In this context, intense same-sex friendships became the norm for both men and women. The Boston Transcendentalist authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau, wrote about their passionate same-sex feelings. Walt Whitman visited Boston in 1860, a few years after publication of the homoerotic Leaves of Grass, and received an enthusiastic reception. Later in the century, however, several Boston Brahmins pronounced Whitman’s work “obscene” (The History Project, p. 50).

Middle-class women tended to their children and households and spent their leisure time with female relatives and women friends. While it is not known to what extent these friendships were sexual, we have considerable evidence that male and female couples expressed their deep and passionate feelings for each other and remained close throughout their lives. Some women, most notably the actor Charlotte Cushman and her circle of “emancipated females,” which included the sculptors Harriet Hosmer and Edmonia Lewis, had the economic independence to live in Europe, where they had the freedom to work as artists and live with other women. Other female couples lived in fashionable Back Bay or Beacon Hill. Long-term same-sex intimate relationships became known as “Boston marriages.” Some examples were the relationships of Annie Adams Fields and the writer Sarah Orne Jewett; the sculptor Anne Whitney and the painter Abby Adeline Manning; and the poet Amy Lowell and the actress Ada Dwyer Russell.

Meanwhile, in male universities such as Harvard, popular theater groups, including the Hasty Pudding Club, often featured female impersonation. Women who attended women’s colleges such as Simmons, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, and Smith commonly formed romantic friendships with classmates and enjoyed satiric masquerading as men, even performing mock weddings.

The nineteenth century closed with the privileged classes enjoying a certain range of lifestyle choices. An important shift, however, took place before the turn of the twentieth century. In 1805 the state’s General Court had amended the law against sodomy, abolishing the death penalty and substituting the sentence of ten years imprisonment. In 1887 legislation was enacted against “unnatural lewd and lascivious acts,” with one section declaring that “it was not necessary to list what these acts were.” This law was used to arrest and prosecute prostitutes as well as individuals involved in same-sex consensual sex. The law also expanded the state’s earlier sodomy statute by including oral along with anal sex.

In the years after passage of the law, the number of arrests for unnatural lewd and lascivious acts rose considerably. Many of those arrested lived in rooming houses in the South End or Beacon Hill and worked as clerks; others were cooks, housecleaners, teachers, hairdressers, musicians, or college students. Ten percent of all arrests in Boston for unnatural acts between 1889 and 1899 were women. In many cases, Boston police entered residences, usually without a warrant, upon observing an unusual number of men entering a building or hearing from informants (such as operatives of the Watch and Ward Society, an anti-vice organization). The police also entrapped men in subway and department store bathrooms and hid in areas of the Public Gardens where they believed that immoral and lewd acts occurred.

By the early twentieth century, middle- and upper-class women such as Eleanora Sears could wear male-styled suits in public without fear of arrest. Poor and working-class women who cross-dressed, however, were subject to arrest. A number of women who passed as men were discovered when they were reported to law enforcement officials by landlords or coworkers or when they had a medical emergency. Some of these women were committed to institutions such as the Boston Psychiatric Hospital. Ethel Kimball, who went by the name James Hathaway and who wed Louise Aechtler in Boston in 1921, was unmasked while attempting to buy a car a year after the wedding. Hathaway was charged with falsification of a marriage license. Aechtler claimed that she had been unaware of Hathaway’s true identity.

The Early Twentieth Century

By the turn of the twentieth century, the medical profession in general and psychiatrists in particular increasingly regarded same-sex sexual acts as symptoms of pathological and deviant conditions. In 1898 The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published an essay by a Massachusetts doctor who recommended that “inverts” in whom homosexuality was innate should be sent to mental hospitals, while “perverts” who demonstrated these tendencies should be imprisoned for the protection of society: “There is a community not far removed …,men of perverted tendencies, men known to each other as such, bound by ties of secrecy and fear and held together by mutual attraction….To themselves they draw boys andyoung men over whom they have the same jealous bickerings and heart burnings that attend the triumphs of a local belle” (History Project, p. 102).

Not all physicians, however, shared these views. The German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, the leader of the first homosexual emancipation organization, published a letter he had received in 1908 from an anonymous Boston correspondent: “And how many homosexuals I’ve come to know! Boston, this good old Puritan city, has them by the hundreds. The largest percentage, in my experience, comes from the Yankees of Massachusetts and Maine, or from New Hampshire; French Canadians are also well represented. Here, as in Germany, homosexuality extends throughout all classes, from the slums of the North End to the highly fashionable Back Bay. Reliable homosexuals have told me names that reach into the highest circles of Boston.” This letter is not only an evocative description of life in Boston; it is also one of the earliest examples of the written use of the term “homosexual” (History Project, pp. 101-102).

In the early part of the twentieth century, elite men could still engage in same-sex social and sexual encounters in their own homes or in private men’s clubs located in Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Working-class men interested in same-sex encounters frequented more public areas, such as the theaters, bars, and restaurants centered in Scollay Square and the South Cove (now Chinatown). They drew on a code of words and signs to communicate with other gay men. Working-class lesbians in Boston frequented neighborhood bars, taverns, and social clubs, while middle- and working-class women alike attended private parties, which offered some protection from police raids and harassment from straight men.

By the 1920s Boston had several establishments that were known to be frequented by both gay men and lesbians. These included several speakeasies, such as the Brick Oven Tea Room, the Joy Barn, and the March Hare, all located on Beacon Hill. The Scollay Square area, adjacent to Beacon Hill, was another gathering place for LGBT people and a rendezvous point for sailors on shore leave who were seeking male sex partners. Several cheap hotels in the area provided rooms for rent by the hour. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, more establishments began to attract a partially gay clientele. In Scollay Square the bar at the Crawford House was a popular gay venue, as was the nearby Pen and Pencil. Playland, which opened in 1938 in Chinatown, was the first bar in Boston whose customers were predominantly gay. By the late 1950s, Sporters on Beacon Hill had become a predominantly gay bar. Lesbians frequented Cavana’s in the South End, the Empty Barrel in Bay Village, and Phil Harris’s, later renamed the Punch Bowl, in Park Square.

In middle- and upper-class environments such as single-sex colleges and universities, women and men continued to form close intimate friendships and sexual relationships. In the spring of 1920, as a result of the suicide of a Harvard student in nearby Cambridge, evidence was presented to the university administration that there was a group of homosexuals on campus. A secret tribunal called “The Court” interrogated the students and faculty whose names were linked to this gay subculture. By the end of the “trial,” fourteen men (eight undergraduates, one graduate student, a teacher, and four men not connected to Harvard) had been found guilty. All were told to leave the university and Cambridge. While a few of the students were allowed to re-enroll after a year or two, others were never reinstated, and all nine students as well as the teacher had permanent comments placed in their alumni files that indicated that they had committed an act or acts of moral turpitude (Paley).

The Late Twentieth Century: LGBT Movements

In the 1950s, LGBT Bostonians began to organize politically and advocate LGBT rights in public. Boston’s earliest and most notable openly gay man, Prescott Townsend (1894-1973), was born into a Boston Brahmin family and lived most of his life as a bohemian on Beacon Hill, where he was active in local theater productions. In the 1950s, Townsend participated in radio talk shows advocating change in the Massachusetts same-sex sex laws and he lobbied state legislators to repeal laws pertaining to chastity, morality, and good order. In the early 1960s he founded the Demophile Society (a homophile group) and several years later he organized a Boston chapter of the New York Mattachine Society. The chapter lasted only a few years before a split occurred, after which several members formed the Homophile Union of Boston (HUB) in 1969.

In the late 1960s, a new group of Boston LGBT activists, many of them veterans of the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements, established some of the first gay liberation groups in the country. While the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York galvanized national LGBT activism, a generation of LGBT activists had already begun to lay the foundation for the organization and institution building of the 1970s. In Boston, a chapter of the national Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), a lesbian group, was founded in 1969 and is now the only chapter of DOB still in existence. By 1970, the Student Homophile League had chapters at several local colleges and universities in the Boston area.

At the National Mobilization Against the War demonstration on Boston Common, held on 15 April 1970, the Gay Liberation Front carried a banner reading: “BRING THE BOYS HOME NOW, Gay Liberation Front,” causing some consternation among both bystanders and fellow marchers. In June 1970, Boston held its first Gay Liberation Week, consisting of a series of lectures and discussions culminating in a “Love In” on the Cambridge Common. In the early twenty-first century, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride parade is an annual event that attracts over 120,000 people.

By the mid-1970s Boston’s LGBT community had created a significant number of organizations, support groups, and institutions. LGBT activists continued to work toward the repeal of the state’s sodomy and unnatural acts laws. In 2002 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state’s sodomy statutes could not be enforced unless the individuals engaged in the acts had known that they could be seen by others. The June 2003 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas may have nullified the Massachusetts sodomy laws. In 1989 Massachusetts became the second state in the country to pass laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual preference in insurance, credit, and employment. In the mid-1980s, Boston adopted a domestic partnership ordinance. Under this law, a city employee could officially declare a “domestic partnership” and qualify for family employee benefits for the partner, including medical coverage. In 2000, however, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, ruling that only the state legislature had jurisdiction over medical coverage, struck down the law. In 2002, Boston passed legislation prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, and credit.

While efforts to change anti-LGBT laws continue to be a focus of many LGBT people, activists have organized around other issues, too. In March 1971 over one hundred women took over a former knitting factory in Cambridge that was owned by Harvard University. The women occupied the building for ten days to protest Harvard’s control over local housing and real estate. For many, the event was an exhilarating and defining moment in their developing identities as lesbians. Inspired by the takeover, women went on to raise the funds necessary to purchase a building for the creation of a permanent women’s center. The Women’s Center in Central Square, Cambridge, is the oldest continuously operating center for women in the United States and continues to have a strong lesbian presence.

Lesbian activists also opened a women’s health clinic, a bookstore, a credit union, a restaurant, all-women bars, and a Boston women’s monthly newspaper, Sojourner, which survived until 2002. The Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian-feminist group, was formed in 1974 and became active in the black, lesbian, and feminist communities in Boston for several years. Its members wrote the “Combahee River Collective Statement,” which offers an important analysis of the position and role of black feminists and black lesbian feminists in the struggle for liberation. Lesbians and gay men worked together to publish Gay Community News (1973-1998), a national weekly newspaper that published news and articles on a range of often controversial issues. Other groups that started in this period and which still exist today include the Fenway Community Health Center; Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY), and Speak Out (formerly the Lesbian and Gay Speakers Bureau).

Organizations that have had a significant impact locally and nationally include Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). GLAD had its roots in the 1978 sex scandals that took place in the Boston area. There were two incidents: one involved the arrest of over a hundred men in the Boston Public Library rest rooms and another, the arrest of over two dozen men in Revere (a small city near Boston) for alleged involvement with young and underage boys. The Boston/Boise defense committee was formed. Later that year, a Boston conference concerning these arrests led to the formation of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). The group continues to be a controversial element in the LGBT movement. Also that year, in November, GLAD was founded by attorneys and others to defend these men. A major focus for GLAD is currently the struggle for full LGBT civil rights, and its recent work has been centered on the issue of civil marriage.

In the early 1970s Boston’s unofficial LGBT community center was located at the Charles Street Meeting House on Beacon Hill. Many LGBT groups were organized and held their first meetings there before renting space in commercial buildings. Later several LGBT groups, including Glad Day Bookshop, found space in Boston’s central business district at 22 Bromfield Street. Gay Community News (GCN) also rented offices in this building, and GCN was the first home for the Black Gay Men’s Caucus, the Committee for Gay Youth, Boston Asian Gay Men and Lesbians (one of the first LGBT Asian groups in the country, founded in 1979), and the Boston Area Lesbian and Gay History Project, which began meeting in February 1980. One of the earliest groups to respond to the needs of the transsexual community was Gender Identity Service (GIS), which opened its offices in April 1974. GIS’s counseling and medical services were later incorporated into programs at the Fenway Community Health Center.

In 1974 Boston was the first city in the country to elect an “out” LGBT person to a state legislature. Elaine Noble, a professor of communications at Emerson College, successfully ran for state representative on a platform that promised to expand local neighborhood services for her Fenway district, which had a large population of elderly residents on fixed incomes, students, and LGBT residents. Her election as the first out lesbian in the Massachusetts House was largely won by the enormous efforts of the LGBT community. Noble’s LGBT support had eroded by 1978, when she was considering a run against State Senator Barney Frank (first elected in 1972). Frank had proven his support for LGBT rights. In the end, Noble declined to run and Frank emerged victorious. Two years later, Frank was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and in 1987 he came out as gay. In 1983, David Scondras was the first openly gay man to be elected to Boston’s City Council.

The beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s was devastating to LGBT communities and changed the focus of LGBT activism. Organizations were created to meet the needs of people with HIV/AIDS. The AIDS Action Committee was established in 1983 as part of the Fenway Community Health Center and became a separate organization in 1986. One of the oldest and largest AIDS organizations in the United States, the committee has been a leader in the battle for condom distribution, intravenous needle exchange programs, and an end to discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. In the first decade of the epidemic LGBT people in Boston were often targeted for bashing and other forms of harassment. Some Boston City Councilors proposed a quarantine of people with AIDS and many called for the registration of anyone diagnosed as HIV positive. After more than a decade of resistance from many public officials, Boston began to take major steps in responding to HIV and AIDS. In 2002, for example, the city instituted a program to provide clean needles to all who requested them.

As the AIDS epidemic continued to incapacitate and kill larger and larger numbers of people, some activists began to call for more militant and confrontational tactics. In 1987, following the October LGB March on Washington, activists in Boston and other parts of Massachusetts formed MASS ACT OUT. The specific focus of the group was to fight homophobia and to protest society’s response to the AIDS crisis. In 1988 Boston ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Boston PWA (People With AIDS), and the Women and AIDS Network were also established. In the several years that MASS ACT OUT and Boston ACT UP existed, they initiated scores of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience at federal, state, and local medical institutions, health care agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and government offices.

Boston’s LGBT residents are spread throughout the city and can be found in large numbers in Jamaica Plain, Fenway, Roslindale, Dorchester, Allston, and Brighton. No area of Boston, however, has the population or the wealth of the LGBT community of the South End. The South End’s squares and townhouses reflect an earlier era of affluence, but in the 1960s and 1970s its residents were predominantly poor, immigrants, and people of color. In the early 1970s, LGBT people, primarily white men, began to move into this neighborhood in larger numbers because of the beauty of its architecture, its affordability, and its proximity to downtown Boston. Over time, the South End became one of the most economically and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Boston and an important enclave of the LGBT community, with a gentrified population of predominantly white gay men owning real estate and businesses.

The 1980s was a period of advances for LGBT people in Boston, but it was a time of backlash, too. In 1985, Governor Michael Dukakis, considered a progressive, instructed the state Department of Social Services to remove two young boys from their foster home for no reason other than the fact that the foster parents were a gay male couple. The boys were subsequently placed in six different foster homes. Dukakis’s actions were viewed by LGBT communities as consciously homophobic. At the time, the governor was campaigning to be the Democratic candidate for U.S. president, and as he traveled around the country, LGBT people and their allies met him wherever he went, vociferously chanting the slogan, “Foster Equality.”

The LGBT communities of Boston have made great strides in the past decade. In the early 1990s the Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee added Bisexual and Transgender to their name. In 1994 the state legislature enacted legislation prohibiting discrimination against the state’s lesbian and gay students. Dozens of school districts around the state have started LGBT-and-Allies groups on their campuses.

Several new issues have begun to concern many in Boston’s LGBT communities. These include designing and implementing programs and services to meet the needs of a growing number of older (sixty-five and over) LGBT people as well as a growing population of young (under twenty-five) LGBT people. Violence against LGBT people in Boston continues to be a serious concern. Until full and complete civil rights for all people are achieved in Boston and the United States, LGBT people will be vulnerable to attacks.

The history of LGBT communities in Boston is the history of Boston itself. It may even be seen as the history of the United States. Key themes include cultural encounters and cultural conflicts; oppression and resistance; and intersections of sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, religion, and class. The persistent struggle for LGBT equality in Boston reflects the hope and idealism of a city founded on a commitment to freedom and of a country founded on principles of revolution.