Lesbian faced homophobia from mainstream, even racism within LGBT community, during her years in the Massachusetts House as the first openly gay elected official
There often is confusion on who was the first publicly elected GLBT person in the U.S.
Jose Saria was the first to run for office in 1961. A waiter and drag performer at Black Cat Caf? in San Francisco, Saria received 5,400 votes in his bid for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Though unsuccessful in the race, he was the first out community member to run for political office.
It wasn’t until 1974 that an openly GLBT person would be elected to office: Elaine Noble a women’s rights, gay rights and community activist from Boston ran for the Massachusetts House and won.
Overnight, the new Massachusetts state representative became the face of gay politics in America. In 1976, Noble successfully ran for a second term.
In the early 1970s, Nancy Wechsler, a member of the Ann Arbor, Mich. City Council, came out as a lesbian during her term. In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko, an out lesbian, was elected to fill Wechsler’s seat on council.
But it was Noble who opened the door for out politicians at the state level and across the country. Today, she takes a look back at her historic accomplishments.
Dallas Voice: Having been a pioneer in gay rights, how do you feel about where the gay rights movement is today?
Elaine Noble: I could never have dreamed of some of the advances we have made. We have a long, long way to go but we have taken some wonderful and grand steps, like Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage. It makes me very happy.
DV: You and Harvey Milk were the first highly visible, openly gay politicians of the time. Did it ever occur to you that what happened to Milk could happen to you?
Noble: We both know that there were some high risks involved. I think Harvey watched my situation very closely because I was elected in a largely Irish/Catholic town. I was elected in spite of being gay.
In the height of desegregation in Boston, I was riding on the buses with children of color. The gay community was just as racist as the straight community. So I had a lot of issues around race, which Harvey didn’t have. There was a level of animosity in all strata of society against homosexuality. Harvey really was much more dramatic and pushed the envelope in a way. It was more to his style, and he was fearless.
I think we both knew that [one of us was going to die]. You suffer enough bomb threats and craziness with people shooting through your windows and doing damage to your cars, and it just escalates.
DV: Did things get easier or harder for you once you were in office?
Noble: It really got harder in terms of the threats and being a target that was readily available to people.
One day, I was walking to the State House and there was a guy, 85 years old, and he walked up and said, “Rep. Noble.”
And I reached up to shake his hand and he spit on me. And then I turned around and he started doing his diatribe.
I walked all the way home, showered and changed my clothes.
So, even walking to work or riding my bike to work was not terribly safe.
DV: In a time where out gays and lesbians running for public office was unheard of, what inspired you to run?
Noble: My friend, Ann Lewis, encouraged me to run. Ann is very active in Hillary Clinton’s campaign right now. She’s Barney Franks’ sister. We had helped form the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus and at that time we were trying to find women to run.
It was really Ann’s idea. I said, “I don’t know if I’m electable, being gay.” She suggested that it probably wasn’t the case and knew that there was going to be a district that I grew up in, which was adjacent to Barney’s. It was being redistricted.
We had worked on Barney’s campaign that got him elected to the State House. It was really with Barney Frank’s mother and sister that made me take the idea seriously. Also they both thought Barney was gay, and I was sort of a gift to him in a way because I think he was struggling with his own sexuality at the time.
DV: So did it surprise you when Barney Frank later ran against you?
Noble: He didn’t run against me. I don’t know where people got that idea. That’s totally wrong. Barney wanted to create me a district, my own seat. And I told him no. I had given his sister and mom my word that I would never run against him, and I knew the district would be collapsed. Barney went out of his way to say he could make a district for me.
I said, “Barney, I’m done. I’ve hade enough, and I know you’ll care about my constituents and they’ll be absorbed into yours. I don’t care to run against you.”
We milked it for all the press it was worth. I never had the intention to run against Barney or him against me.
DV: So by the time Barney ran, you had pretty much decided .
Noble: I was gone. We had decided that once I got re-elected into my term. And Barney wanted me to stay, but I had had it.
I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I got about four or five hours of sleep [a night]. My phone was ringing constantly from people all over the country who had very frightened voices. There were people all over the country calling and asking if I would come and speak. They’d say, “Well, you have a responsibility to a bigger constituency.”
I was pulled in a thousand different ways. It was not going to have a happy ending, and I was smart enough to know that.
I thought, “Well, I’ve done my best. It’s time for me to move on to the next step in my own life. I’ve paid my dues.”
DV: Do you think Barney Frank would have been as successful if he had been out from the beginning?
Noble: To be honest, Barney would be successful if he were from outer space. He’s just one of those rare individuals who had natural leadership ability and [was] so, so bright.
He and his sister share an ability to think strategically under fire like no other two people I have met in my life.
They’re never wrong that way. Not that they don’t make mis-takes.
I think Barney would be successful no matter if he was in the closet or not. He just has that talent.
DV: Boston had a lot of social issues going on at the time, both sexual and racial, especially with the issue of desegregation of the public schools. Did the heightened awareness of civil rights issues in the city have any impact on your campaign?
Noble: I think in the short term, it probably hurt, but it was part of my values system.
I was an educator. I asked for an assignment on the education committee at a time where people were leaping off of it, and I used a lot of my campaign workers to stand at the bus stops to make sure children got on and off the busses safely.
Members of the gay community and a writer from one of the gay newspapers met with me privately and asked me to drop my stand of desegregation of schools. They threatened me and told me if I didn’t do this that they would get another legislator, and I suggested that they do just that.
It was pretty heavy duty. The gay community can be just as racist as the straight community and, remember, it was Boston in the ’70s.
DV: Do you think that GLBT advocates are more or less active than they were in the ’70s?
Noble: I think that they’ve gotten more politically sophisticated and have connected the dots seeing that choice and freedom is for everybody or it’s for nobody.
DV: What do you think when you see anti-gay sentiment today, given how much more informed the general public is compared to the ’70s?
Noble: I think, in a way, we have become stronger as a community nationwide and worldwide. When we become stronger, the opposition feels entitled to step forward. There is this rigid entitlement that comes with people that think that their view of the world is the only view that one should embrace. It’s sort of a Nazi thinking or conservative thinking.
I shouldn’t equate the two because conservative thinking doesn’t mean Nazi thinking. Some people might think it is, but I don’t. There are extremes everywhere and when you threaten someone’s world and gay rights threaten a lot of people who are not secure in their own world there’s always a backlash. Just like with the violence that came with people of color saying, “You’re not going to do this anymore.” I think it’s the same.
DV: What do you do to keep yourself occupied today?
Noble: I’m retired. I’m living in Florida. I go back and forth to Massachusetts. I don’t like the winters. I live in a part of Florida where I can have my horses and animals. I live a very engaging and quiet life with my gay and straight community. I’m active in the Democratic Party in Florida.
DV: And what about Massachusetts?
Noble: You know, I’m sort of like the grandmother to everybody. When I can help, I’ll help. But the best thing I can do is to just be supporting in the background and raise money.
DV: How do you relate to the activists groups of today?
Noble: I think it’s great. It’s wonderful. The more the merrier. People who have a political agenda will call and say, “Can you help us?” I’m willing to help anyone who’s a member of our community. I’m just so excited to watch the progress being made. It’s thrilling really.
[When I was elected], the National Gay Task Force was just getting started. Now it’s in Minnesota and several different states. That’s wonderful. It’s the same thing with the Human Rights Campaign. They all seem to compliment each other.
We all complain and grumble. In the end, I think we have a sophisticated group.
DV: Do you think the political foundation you laid in Massachusetts is one of the reasons it’s the only state that legally allows gay marriage?
Noble: I can’t say that. I think I was just one piece in a conga line that led up to this. People like Joe Berry, who’s involved in the Bar Association; the Partners Group, which is a group of very sophisticated legal minds; and Barney’s help contributed greatly.
I think there’s a whole necklace of wonderful people in Massachusetts that made their contributions and I’m just one of many. Nothing happens because of one person. It happens with the culmination of a lot of people’s work.
And they have taken the sting out in the early days of being gay. When I was in the legislature, many of the representatives and senators would say, “You’re the first homosexual I’ve ever met.” I’d say, “That’s not true, I’m just the first one that said I was. You know them because they live all around you. They’re your neighbors. They live in your family.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 12, 2007