South End author Russ Lopez found a room full of admirers and some local luminaries at the library on May 25, all ready to hear about his latest work of urban history, The Hub of the Gay Universe: An LGBTQ History of Boston, Provincetown and Beyond. The reading took place close to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City, the event that provided the fuel for the civil rights battle that led to the legalization nationwide of gay marriage.
David Scondras was there, the first openly gay Boston City Council member, elected in 1983, now living in Worcester. Open Source radio host Chris Lydon found a seat up front, preparing for his own show commemorating the 1969 Stonewall uprising, Beyond Stonewall: From Power to Pride. State Rep. Jon Santiago, the freshman legislator from South End’s 9th Suffolk District, who succeeded Byron Rushing earlier this year, introduced Lopez, and reminded the audience of the important role his predecessor played in making gay marriage legal in Massachusetts.
Lopez, whose earlier books include Boston’s South End: The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood and Boston 1945-2015: The Decline and Rose of a Great World City, worked on the Hub of the Gay Universe for five years. Compiling facts for the region’s LGBTQ history was a challenge. The lack of written records from before the first Europeans arrived made establishing prevailing gender norms tricky, although some native nations welcomed what we now call LGBTQ people, he said. But nothing is known about how Boston-area tribes treated LGBTQ people before those arrivals. “Another major challenge for any LGBTQ history is who to include in it,” Lopez said. “Even those who were regularly having relations with people of the same sex, did not consider themselves to be gay or lesbian.” That is because the idea that someone who has sex with members of own gender was a “distinct type of person,” i.e. gay or lesbian, emerged only in the 1890s, according to Lopez.
Facts about accepted gender norms were further skewed by class and educational differences among LGBTQ people. Those who could write described their relationships in journals and letters, accessible to researchers now, but those who could not left no trace. “That is why my regional history of LGBTQ people begins with the arrival of the Europeans in the 17th century,” Lopez said.
Lopez commented that it sometimes seems as if the LGBTQ community consisted of “newcomers” to the region, and that in the early days of the colony there were no LGBTQ people. But they were always here. How does he know? Laws prohibiting sodomy and cross-dressing, occasionally punishable by death, existed from the time the first Pilgrims set foot on the shores of what is now Massachusetts. “If nobody was doing it, there wouldn’t be any laws against it,” Lopez postulated. Moreover, Pilgrims and Puritans had left England, in part, because they frowned upon the “rollicking pleasures of seventeenth-century England, with its ribald entertainments, sensuous lifestyles and conspicuous consumption; excess that guaranteed damnation.”
Yet, even though homosexuality was considered a grave sin, the definition of homosexuality was flexible and relationships among men (and for that matter, women) could be far more intimate and intense than today’s heterosexual norms would suppose. For example, Daniel Webster referred in his letters to male friends as “dearly beloved” and “lovely boy” and described his close friend, James Harvey Bingham, as the “partner of my joys, griefs and affections.” Others shared a bed and slept in each others’ arms. Painter Washington Alston, moreover, had a romantic relationship with Washington Irving when in Rome in the early 1800s.
From the 1800s on, it was acceptable for the LGBTQ community to meet in numerous places, including poetry readings on Beacon Hill and the Back Bay and, later, in various private venues and places in Bay Village where popular gay venues attracted large crowds from the mid-1900s. Bostonian class distinctions kept apace, according to Lopez’s research, because those cruising in the Public Garden reportedly wouldn’t stoop to getting intimate with those “lower-class types” from around the Common.
Police records provided another source of information about prevailing attitudes, from comments that “we don’t have those kind of people here” to the time around World War I when gay venues were raided and many arrests were made on street corners in and around Scolley Square and East Dedham Street. “But until the advent of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, no one fought back,” Lopez observed; It took a while for the news about Stonewall to even get to Boston. The Boston Globe didn’t report it until 1972.
People of Massachusetts nevertheless became the pioneers of nationwide gay marriage and early supporters of civil unions. As was the case with the abolition of slavery in MA, Lopez says, the change in attitude toward tolerating the LGBTQ community began with the lack of enforcement of certain laws discriminating against them, just as laws protecting slavery had become unenforceable when the idea that people were not property and couldn’t be owned had become accepted.