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Who the F Is … Political Pioneer Elaine Noble?

Who the F Is … Political Pioneer Elaine Noble?

Who the F Is … Political Pioneer Elaine Noble?

After an election in which the rare good news was out lesbian Maura Healey's election as Massachusetts attorney general, we look at a woman who paved the way for other LGBT people in politics.

Who she is: The first out gay or lesbian person elected to a state legislature.

What she accomplished: Before Maura Healey, before Tammy Baldwin, even before Harvey Milk, Elaine Noble was making election history. A Democrat, she was elected to represent a Boston district in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974, when no out lesbian (or gay man) had held a state-level office. It wasn’t an easy feat to accomplish. “I was elected in a largely Irish Catholic town,” she said in a 2007 interview with journalist Larry Nichols. “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.” Plus, she said, “There was a level of animosity in all strata of society against homosexuality.”

She had been encouraged to run by political activist Ann Lewis, the sister of another gay pioneer, Barney Frank, who wasn’t out at the time. “We had helped form the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus and at that time we were trying to find women to run,” Noble told Nichols. “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.”

She was a gift to other gay politicians as well. Her election inspired Minnesota state senator Allan Spear, who had been closeted when first elected in 1972, to come out as gay. Because of her, he knew that “if I did come out, I would have company, even though she would be a thousand miles away,” he wrote in his autobiography. Coming out did not hurt his career; he was reelected several times before retiring in 2000. Milk also watched her campaign closely, although his style differed from Noble’s. “Harvey really was much more dramatic and pushed the envelope in a way,” she told Nichols of the late San Francisco city supervisor. “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.”

Noble won a second term in the House in 1976, and she was part of the first gay and lesbian delegation to visit the White House (during Jimmy Carter’s presidency), but her experience in politics left her drained emotionally. In addition to being the target of bomb threats and vandalism, she was spit on by constituents and had excrement left on her desk. There was a strain on her relationship with writer Rita Mae Brown, and the women parted company in 1976. “Rita couldn’t take [the harassment] any more, and I don’t blame her,” Noble told Elizabeth Deane, a writer and producer with Boston public TV station WGBH. Another reason she decided not to seek a third term was that Massachusetts redistricting put her in the same district as her great friend Barney Frank, and she refused to run against him. She did later run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate and the Cambridge, Mass., City Council. In her post-political career, she helped found the Pride Institute, a gay-supportive drug and alcohol treatment center in Minneapolis. She eventually moved to Florida, where she has sold real estate, worked as a substitute teacher, and been active in the local Democratic Party. She continues to live quietly there today, and she has made occasional public appearances for her favorite causes, such as a 2009 fundraiser for a Palm Beach LGBT center. “The sea changes of recent years on gay issues have brought her great happiness,” Deane wrote in 2013, “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.”

Choice quote: “I think I was just one piece in a conga line that led up to this.” — Deane to Nichols, on her role in LGBT progress

For more information: Nichols’s article, part of an LGBT history project coordinated by the Philadelphia Gay News and syndicated to other gay newspapers, is available online here. The Advocate has a story on her appearance at the 2009 fundraiser. Deane’s article is available here, along with a link where you can view the WGBH documentary A Woman’s Place Is in the House: A Portrait of Elaine Noble.



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