A Noble Cause, But Not for Elaine

Posted September 28, 2004 at 6:43pm

Elaine Noble, the nation’s first openly gay state legislator, has been described by admirers as “trailblazing,” “historical” and “courageous.”

But despite entreaties from several national gay rights groups to take a more prominent role in the current debate over gay marriage, the 60-year-old former Massachusetts lawmaker, who today sells real estate for Coldwell Banker and lives on Florida’s Emerald Coast with her two horses and six cats, said she won’t return to the frontlines anytime soon.

[IMGCAP(1)] “I really have refused to get involved in that issue,” Noble said.

“Everyone gets a turn on this conga line of life,” she noted, adding that though she supports gay marriage it is time to let others “step up to the plate” just as she once did.

Noble’s lower profile hardly means she’s politically inactive, however. She’s currently volunteering on Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign and is raising money for the Democratic National Committee’s gay and lesbian group. She has also served as a co-chairwoman of the the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.

Despite Noble’s current political activity and prominent past, she was hesitant to be interviewed.

“The sun doesn’t rise and set on the press,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “I probably wouldn’t have talked to you if I hadn’t picked up the phone.”

Perhaps there is an explanation for her reticence.

Back in 1974, when Noble was first elected to the Massachusetts state House, she endured death threats and other harassment.

Along the way, she also became an iconic figure in the gay rights movement, at a time when gays were a “bunch of people who [saw] themselves as having cancer,” said former Boston City Councilman David Scondras, who is gay.

That status came at a price.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who served in the state House with Noble prior to winning his seat in Congress, said that after her election “she was really inundated. There were gay and lesbian people turning to her all over the country and she didn’t have the staff to deal with it.

“It was difficult for her emotionally, she didn’t want to turn people down,” said Frank, who was still in the closet when he served with Noble.

Despite the pressures, “when she got to the Legislature she really set an example of someone who could build coalitions,” said former Clinton White House Communications Director Ann Lewis, who was influential in convincing Noble to launch her initial bid for office.

Noble, who was criticized by some homosexuals during her time in the state House for not doing enough to push gay issues, was a key supporter of the gay civil rights bill but said her proudest accomplishment was “creating the ethics committee” and “being the only white person to ride on the buses” when Boston was desegregating its schools in the 1970s.

“The gay community has as many racists as in the straight community,” she said.

After serving two terms in the Legislature representing Beacon Hill and Back Bay, Noble’s seat was eliminated when the state House was reduced from 240 members to 160 (she and Frank were thrown into the same district). In 1978, she ran in the Massachusetts Democratic primary for Senate, but lost to then-Rep. Paul Tsongas, finishing dead last in a field of five.

Noble went to work for then-Boston Mayor Kevin White as head of federal and state relations. But she left City Hall after the White administration became the target of a federal investigation and Noble found herself inadvertently involved in the probe — a development that plunged her into despair.

“I was devastated,” Noble told The Boston Globe in 1991. “I felt like people were talking about me, like I was a pariah.”

But Noble pulled herself together and moved forward. She was treated for alcoholism, started her own consulting firm, and established a for-profit drug and alcohol treatment center for gays and lesbians in Minnesota. Noble even briefly launched “She,” a newspaper for upscale feminists and lesbians, before pulling the plug because “it was just so consuming.”

She also established herself as the go-to person for aspiring politicians in Massachusetts, said Tim McFeeley, an attorney who was active in Boston’s gay community and in Democratic politics at the same time as Noble.

“If you wanted to run, you wanted her support,” he said.

In the early 1990s, Noble decided to throw her hat back in the ring, twice seeking a seat on the Cambridge City Council. Still, everyone in the gay rights movement wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of another Noble candidacy. Her politically pragmatic approach to legislating had alienated some purists in the gay community, Scondras said.

A local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered group — the Cambridge Lavender Alliance — rejected her candidacy “because we no longer had confidence in her or trusted her,” said alliance co-founder Sue Hyde.

“She transformed from a community activist and hero into something other than that,” added Hyde. “It was the only time our organization has declined to endorse a candidate who is open about her sexual orientation.”

The gay weekly newspaper Bay Windows also withheld its nod in 1993, citing Noble’s contradictory actions and meanspiritedness.

“I wasn’t as liberal as the gays in Cambridge where I lived,” Noble explained. “The bottom line is it’s easier to turn on one of your own.”

“She made an incorrect assumption that the progressive community is not fundamentalist, but it is,” Scondras said.

Over the years, Noble continued her advocacy for gay rights, lobbying for domestic partnership legislation for gays and lesbians that eventually passed the Boston City Council in 1993, said Scondras, who introduced the bill.

She also remained active as “a financial mover and shaker” and as a mentor to gay candidates, said Human Rights Campaign President and Executive Director Cheryl Jacques. In 2000, when Jacques, then a Massachusetts state Senator, “came out in office as openly gay,” Noble called her up and said, “We should talk.”

“My partner and I went to her house and had dinner,” recalled Jacques, adding that Noble served “great lasagna,” told stories and reassured her that coming out was “the right thing to do.”

Later, Noble would campaign for Jacques during her unsuccessful 2001 bid for Congress.

Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Noble discovered a bag of “fake anthrax” on her doorstep and decided that “with 9/11 and arthritic bones, now is the time to go.”

So she moved to Florida, and a quieter life.

Although Noble describes herself as perfectly happy with her current situation, some former friends said her diminished visibility in the gay rights movement was a sad development.

“I think that most gay people don’t even know who Elaine Noble is,” said McFeeley, who now serves as executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives. “I think it’s sad not just because of history, but also because she was a very, very good politician.”

That’s a mantle Noble appears uncomfortable embracing, however.

“I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m not good at kissing babies and kissing bums.”