Elaine Noble: Political Pioneer

Day 10 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Photo Credit: Stan Grossfeld via The Boston Globe.

Before Harvey Milk, Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, and Danica Roem, there was Elaine Noble. In November of 1974, Noble, an out lesbian, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Noble was not the first openly gay person elected to public office, but she was the first elected to a state legislature, in her words, “in spite of being gay.” Earlier that year, on April 2nd, Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay candidate to successfully run for public office in the United States. Running as a candidate for the Human Rights Party, Kozachenko was elected to the city council in the progressive college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, beating her Democratic challenger by a mere 41 votes.

Though gay rights were not the driving force of Kozachenko’s campaign, in her victory speech, she took a moment to acknowledge the significance of her win. “This is the first time in the history of the U.S. that someone has run openly as a gay person and been elected to public office,” she said. “Gay liberation was not a major issue in the campaign — both candidates in this ward said they supported gay rights but 10 years ago, or even three years ago, lesbianism would have meant automatic defeat… Many people’s attitudes about gayness are still far from healthy, but my campaign forced some people at least to re-examine their prejudices and stereotypes.” While her election was reported in national gay publications such as The Advocate, Kozachenko’s milestone flew largely under the radar. “This Time, Gay Candidate Wins as a Gay,” read The Advocate’s headline, though the accompanying article did not explicitly acknowledge the victory as groundbreaking.

Kozachenko, nor Noble, achieved the mythic status of Harvey Milk within LGBTQ history. While Milk’s celebrity is partly due to his assassination at the hands of fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, gender also played a role in his cultural visibility. Milk’s 1977 election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors received national news coverage at a time when Anita Bryant, a former beauty queen turned Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman, used her celebrity and influence to launch an anti-gay crusade called “Save Our Children.” Bryant’s campaign portrayed gay men as child molesters, as she claimed that “gays can’t reproduce, so they must recruit.” She was successful in repealing legislation that protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in Dade County, Florida, and was building momentum, her sights set on the rest of the country. That Milk was an out gay man — the first to be elected to public office in the United States — and giving gay youth “hope” for a better future was central to his message, his election came at a time when gay men were especially visible.

Noble was elected in a largely Irish-Catholic district, the Fenway and Back Bay neighborhood, despite publicly coming out as a lesbian during her 1974 campaign and supporting public school desegregation. Before running for office, Noble helped organize Boston’s early Pride marches, the first of which was held on June 26th of 1971. Under Noble’s leadership, the first march sought to challenge four institutions oppressive to Boston’s gay and lesbian community: the police, the government, hostile bars, and religious organizations.

She also worked with Ann Murray to form the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus. Murray was the sister of future Congressman Barney Frank. Known for his wit, gruff demeanor, and no-nonsense attitude, Frank’s political career began when he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972. When he publicly came out as gay in 1987, while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily do so. It was Murray who convinced Noble to run and that an out lesbian candidate could be elected. She won in 1974 with fifty-nine percent of the vote and was successfully re-elected in 1976.

Noble described her campaign as “very ugly,” however, due to the harassment she faced. She experienced pervasive hostility for being an out lesbian on the campaign trail. Her car and campaign office were vandalized and she received death threats. Due to this intimidation, state troopers were assigned to protect her during the campaign. The harassment didn’t end once Noble was elected. In addition to her lesbianism and support of gay rights, Noble was a staunch advocate for the desegregation of Boston public schools.

In 1965, the Massachusetts General Court passed the Racial Imbalance Act, rendering the segregation of Massachusetts public schools illegal. “Racially imbalanced” schools — those whose number of nonwhite students exceeded fifty percent — were required to desegregate or lose their state educational funding. Boston’s courts ordered schools be desegregated via a system of busing, first implemented in 1974 and coinciding with Noble’s election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Her first term in office (1974–1976) overlapped with the height of the busing controversy, during which protests and riots placed Boston in the national spotlight.

As the controversy unfolded, Noble called for legislation to hasten desegregation. Angering both conservatives and many of her gay and lesbian constituents, she rode the bus with school children to ensure desegregation was properly enforced. Human feces were left on her desk, and a constituent spit on her as she entered the capitol. A writer for Gay Community News, Boston’s weekly gay newspaper founded in 1973, told Noble “you should stick to your own kind or we’re going to get someone else to represent us.” “Well, I believe I am sticking to my own kind,” Noble responded, meaning her “kind” were not strictly lesbians and gays, but all those not afforded equal rights and protections. Noble faced hostility not only from homophobes and racial bigots, but from her gay constituents as well. “The gay community expected me to be on call 24 hours a day,” she later explained. “It was like they felt they owned me.”

After her two terms in the state legislature, Noble left public service. Continued harassment placed considerable strain on her relationship with prominent lesbian feminist Rita Mae Brown, who was at work on the follow-up to her best-selling 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle. Redistricting also meant that, were Noble to seek a second re-election bid in 1978, she would be in direct competition with her colleague, Barney Frank. Noble’s political career, albeit brief, inspired other out lesbians and gays to run for public office, and emboldened those already elected, but closeted, to come out. Allan Spear, a gay legislator elected to the Minnesota State Senate in 1972, credited Kozachenko’s and Noble’s victories with his decision to come out while in office. And both women surely paved the road for Harvey Milk.

Four decades later, on the night of November 7th of 2017, Danica Roem, a journalist running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, made history. In winning her race, she became the first openly transgender person elected to a state legislature in the United States. Roem followed in the footsteps of Althea Garrison, a black transgender woman elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the early 1990s before being outed, against her will, by the Boston media. Garrison, as a result, served only one term. Roem was the first state-elected candidate who openly campaigned as transgender. Her victory was all the more significant because she unseated Republican incumbent Bob Marshall, who described himself as Virginia’s “homophobe-in-chief.” Roem, to the contrary, ran a campaign based on the principles of democracy and equality. On the campaign trail she emphasized the message that: “It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, how you worship or who you love: you have a right to bring your ideas to the table.”

Following Roem’s landmark victory, Andrew Reynolds, writing in the Huffington Post, referred to her as “the transgender Harvey Milk.” But Milk was elected to a local office — not a state legislature. If a comparison must be made, it may be more accurate to call Roem “the transgender Elaine Noble.” Following her 1974 win, Noble made a prescient statement regarding the ability of future LGBTQ candidates to bring their ideas to the shared table of democracy.

“I think I was just one piece in a conga line that led up to this,” she said.