Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gerry E. Studds: on the wrong page

Image from

Successfully overcoming a sex scandal in 1983, Gerry Eastman Studds had the misfortune to see his old misconduct recalled by a similar scandal that affected Congress 23 years later.

Born in Mineola, New York in 1937, Studds earned two degrees from Yale University. He briefly taught at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and also worked as a foreign service officer with the Department of State. Studds began his transition to government work in the 1960s, serving as a member of President John F. Kennedy's staff from 1962 to 1963 and a legislative assistant to New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr. in 1964. Studds was also a New Hampshire state coordinator of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy's bid for President in 1968.

In 1970, Studds ran as a Democrat for a seat in Congress to represent a Cape Cod, Massachusetts area district. Though he narrowly lost the race in that year, he was elected in 1972, the first Democratic congressman to be sent to Washington from the predominantly conservative district in 50 years. Studds solidified his popularity with constituents by sponsoring several laws to protect the seashore and create national parks along the Massachusetts coast. An advocate of the fishing industry, he successfully lobbied to prevent foreign fishing boats from operating within 200 feet of the U.S. shore. He also proved a staunch opponent to President Ronald Reagan, opposing support for Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which he dubbed the "Edsel of the 1980s." He contested claims that El Salvador was improving human rights and led 93 congressmen in cosponsoring a bill to ban military aid to the country.

The turn in Studds' political fortunes came about almost accidentally in 1983. A House ethics committee conducted a one-year, $1 million investigation into sexual relationships between congressmen and pages in the Capitol after two former pages brought up accusations of wrongdoing. The committee found no evidence to substantiate those pages' claims. However, the probe did net three people in unrelated incidents. One was Daniel Crane, a Republican congressman from Illinois, charged with having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female page in 1980. Another was James Howarth, former majority chief page, who was charged with having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female page and purchasing cocaine in a Capitol cloakroom. The third was Studds.

Studds was also charged with having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old, a male page he met in 1973. The page said that he had gone to Studds' apartment with other congressmen and ended up staying up until nearly 4 a.m., drinking and discussing different topics. When the page noted that Studds was too drunk to drive him home, Studds suggested that he stay overnight. The page said they then engaged in sexual activity, and that the two had other trysts and went on a two-week trip to Portugal together.

Studds and Crane both admitted to the charges when they were revealed in July of 1983. "It is not a simple task for any of us to meet adequately the obligations of either public or private life," said Studds. "But these challenges are made substantially more complex when one is, as am I, both an elected public official and gay." He was the first member of Congress to publicly admit that he was a homosexual, and declared the relationship with the page "a serious error in judgment." He also admitted to making advances on two other male pages in 1973.

The ethics committee determined that while the sexual relationships between the congressmen and the pages were a "serious breach of duty," they were legal and consensual. It recommended that Studds and Crane be reprimanded, the lowest form of punishment. However, conservative members of the House urged a stronger punishment in the form of a censure. Newt Gingrich, a Republican congressman from Georgia, threatened to pursue the expulsion of Studds and Crane if the ethics committee didn't reconsider its recommendation. In July of 1983, both Studds and Crane were censured, with a 420-3 vote in Studds' case. As a result, Studds lost his chairmanship of his subcommittee on the Coast Guard.

Studds refused to resign or apologize after the scandal, saying the investigation had been an invasion of his privacy. He was met with support in his district, but also some challenges. In August, opponents presented two petitions with over 800 signatures seeking his resignation. During the Democratic primary for the 1984 elections, challenger Peter Flynn - the sheriff of Plymouth County - described Studds' affair as "child molestation."

Nevertheless, Studds went on to win the primary, as well as the general election against moderate Republican challenger Lewis Crampton. He was the sole survivor of the page scandal. Crane was defeated in his re-election attempt, and Howarth resigned from his position in November of 1983.

Following his outing, Studds became noticeably more supportive of measures for homosexual rights. He pushed for AIDS research, and also supported letting homosexuals serve in the military. In 1989, he released a Pentagon report saying that a person's sexuality was "unrelated to job performance in the same way as is being left or right handed." He regained a chairmanship on the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries between 1993 and 1995. In one hearing, he challenged the Coast Guard policy of excluding homosexuals, as the service was under the Department of Transportation but had implemented the policy to keep consistent with the military branches. Studds said it was strange that he could supervise the Coast Guard but not sail with them.

Studds opted not to run for re-election in 1996, the same year a marine sanctuary off Cape Cod was named for him. Following his retirement from Congress, he worked as a lobbyist for fishing and environmental causes. In 2004, he took advantage of Massachusetts' legalization of same-sex marriage and wedded his longtime partner, Dean T. Hara.

In 2006, a scandal similar to the 1983 one hit Congress when it was revealed that a Republican congressman, Mark Foley of Florida, had written sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to male pages. The incident brought back memories of Studds' censure, as well as charges from conservatives that Democrats had glossed over Studds' misconduct and criticism that Studds had not resigned as Foley did in September of 2006. Studds did not have much time to respond to the renewed interest in his misconduct; just weeks after Foley's resignation, he died in Boston of a vascular illness.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Republican Gains Offset by Gubernatorial Losses" in the Harvard Crimson on Nov. 5 1970, "Financing El Salvador's Reign of Terror" in the Harvard Crimson on Mar. 5 1981, "Overcoming the Doubts" in Time on Aug. 9 1982, "The U.S. Stays the Course" in Time on Feb. 28 1983, "2 Congressmen Admit to Affairs with Pages" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jul. 15 1983, "Stronger Punishment Sought in Sex Scandal" in the Deseret News on Jul. 19 1983, "Housecleaning" in Time on Jul. 25 1983, "Hard Choices on the Hill" in Time on Aug. 1 1983, "Studds' Resignation Sought" in the Evening Independent on Aug. 16 1983, "Studds 'Overwhelmed' by Support" in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 20 1983, "House Employee Quits in Sex Case" in the New York Times on Nov. 16 1983, "Foe of Studds Says Issue is 'Child Molestation'" in the New York Times on Jun. 27 1984, "The House: A Silver Lining For the Democrats--Sort Of" in Time on Nov. 19 1984, "Gerry Studds Dies at 69" in the New York Times on Oct. 15 2006, "First Openly Gay Person Elected to Congress Dies" in USA Today on Oct. 15 2006, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military by Randy Shilts

No comments: