All yesterday I had half-recollections in my head, kind of like an ear-worm but not music, instead a name: Gerry Studds. I kept wondering: why hasn’t his name come up recently, in all the furor about public figures and sex scandals. Was I remembering right — what did happen to him?
I did remember who he was: a Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts; his district covered much of Cape Cod. And he got in sex trouble — but from there it was kind of hazy.
So I looked him up. Turns out he was gay (I remembered that), and — well, some basics first:
He was elected to Congress in 1972. His district is known to outsiders as a place where many well-heeled folks hang out in the summer. But the locals are heavily involved in fishing. And so Studds became an expert on fishing and maritime issues. He also helped preserve many stretches of their beaches.
He was cruising along in Congress until, 1983 there was a high-octane (for the time) scandal involving sex between members of the House and Congressional pages, who were high school aged office staff.
The spotlight fell on Studds, who admitted to having had an affair with a 17 year-old male page, shortly after Studds came to Congress. Another member, Republican Dan Crane of Illinois, was accused of sex with a female page the same age, and he admitted it as well.
It’s worth pointing out that at the time, the age of consent in the District of Columbia was 16, so these encounters, which were described as consensual, were not illegal.
But the uproar outed Studds, who thus became the first openly gay Congressman. It also led to an Ethics Committee recommendation that he and Crane be formally reprimanded.
This wasn’t tough enough for an aggressive, up-and-coming conservative, Newt Gingrich, who demanded that the two be expelled from the House.
Gingrich (who would later have sex scandals of his own) was headed off by the Republican minority leader, Rep. Robert Michel, who proposed instead to “upgrade” the reprimand to a formal censure. On July 20, 1983, Michel’s motion was overwhelmingly adopted; the vote to censure Studds was 421 to 3.
Formal censure in the House is a rare ritual of public shaming; most of those censured were involved in financial corruption (which wasn’t involved here). Crane and Studds were required to come before the House, one at a time, and stand alone as the Speaker read the censure resolution.
That Speaker was the legendary Tip O’Neill, who reportedly did not relish the task and hurried through the brief resolution:
“’Resolved, one, that Representative Gerry Studds be censured; two, that Representative Gerry Studds present himself in the well of the House for the pronouncement of censure; and three, that Representative Gerry Studds be censured with the public reading of this resolution by the Speaker.’”
Which he was. Studds faced O’Neill for the reading, his back to other members, then took his seat. He was later stripped of a House subcommittee chairmanship as well.
Studds issued a semi-defiant statement afterward: “All members of Congress,” he said, “are in need of humbling experiences from time to time.” He thanked his constituents, who he said, had ”helped me to emerge from the present situation a wiser, a more tolerant and a more complete human being.” He called the page encounter “a serious error in judgment.”
Crane said that ”This is one of the most difficult moments of my life.” Admitting he had brought shame on the House, he added, “I want the members to know I am sorry and that I apologize to one and all.”
Afterward, though, both men said they would stay in Congress and planned to run for re-election.
And they did. Crane lost.
But Studds spent much time mending fences back home, fending off charges that he was a child molester and rejecting petitions calling for his resignation. The 1984 campaign was grueling, but his record of work for the fishing industry and beach protection paid off. He was re-elected, though his margin was down from 68 percent to 56.
After that Studds sailed through six more elections, became chairman of the House Merchant Marine Committee, was a frequent critic of the Reagan administration, and a low-key but staunch advocate for gay rights. He retired from the House in 1997, after 25 years.
Crane had been a dentist; he returned to fixing cavities and crowns. In 2004 Studds was among the first wave of those taking advantage of the pioneer Massachusetts law legalizing same sex marriage; he married Dean Hara. Studds died after a pulmonary embolism in 2006, aged 69.
Admission, submission, outing, censure, and judgement by the voters, with different outcomes, but now a common obscurity. I admit I’m mostly interested in Studds and his experience. But for each it’s fair to ask, was justice done here? And would it have been different if Twitter had been around then?