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A Tribute to Eric Rofes

To the editor:

The Boston lgbt community lost a titan of the early movement days of the 70’s and 80’s with the passing of Eric Rofes on June 26th. Though Eric moved away from Boston over 20 years ago, his legacy lives on in this town. When he began his community organizing activities as a member of the Gay Community News collective in the mid-70’s, gays and lesbians were at best a marginal presence in city politics. There were no openly gay or lesbian people in positions of power, and most of us were wedged tightly inside closets.

The Boston community faced a crisis in 1978, in the aftermath of Anita Bryant’s destructive anti-gay jihad in South Florida. Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne targeted gay men in a witchhunt which played on stereotypes of gays as child molesters. Police mounted entrapment style sting operations against cruising at the Boston Public Library. The religious right fielded a candidate, Howard Phillips, in that year’s US Senate contest, and Anita Bryant herself planned a campaign appearance on his behalf in Boston. The community was bitterly divided over whether Bryant’s appearance even merited a protest.

But farreaching political change beckoned as the 70’s gave way to the 80’s. In 1981, the City voted to scrap its system of electing all City Councilors at large; instead constituting the City Council by 9 district seats, with 4 Councilors to be elected at large. Moreover, a wide-open Mayor’s race loomed when Mayor Kevin White announced he would not seek reelection in 1983, after 4 terms in office.

A true visionary, Eric seized the historic opportunity to bolster the community’s political position. Amazed at all the fresh faces he saw at a concert of the new Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, Eric decided that activists needed to widen the scope of the organized movement. He founded the Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance in 1982 as a forum for diverse points of view, and unified action on issues of common concern. In so doing, he laid the basis for a vigorous and unprecedented level of participation by gays and lesbians in city politics.

The 1983 elections ushered in major political changes that would have seemed unimaginable just 5 years earlier. Openly gay David Scondras was elected to the Boston City Council, and the newly elected Mayor Ray Flynn, reached out to the community in assembling his administration. A crowning achievement came with the passage of the Boston Human Rights Ordinance in 1984. Ever since, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people have been major players in Boston political life.

The City and the community have come so far since 1978 that it is difficult to imagine a time when we were so politically marginal and under siege. Yet there is no mystery in how we were able to come so far so fast (in historical terms.) We are standing on the shoulders of giants like Eric Rofes. He had the vision to propel us forward to a better future at a time when only such farsightedness could give any reason for hope. We are much in his debt; his passing is a loss to us all.

Don Gorton

Chair, the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance 1988-1994

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