Rep. Gerry Studds, 1937-2006
Gerry, unlike Foley, had the courage to face his problem with dignity and accept his censure with grace. He used it as a wakeup call to grow into both personal acceptance of himself as a gay man and a strong advocate for our equality under the law.
I will never forget the image of him summoning the Congressional liaison team of the office of the Commandant of the Coast Guard into his office after it was made known that the Commandant was joining in with the Navy Secretary's illegal use of official military means to encourage and enable military personnel to lobby Congress during the gays-in-the-military battle of 1992-3 and that the Coast Guard commandant had personally invited Gary Bauer to deliver an inflammatory prayer breakfast speech on the subject in the wake of bigoted servicemembers' attacks on both civilian and military people perceived to be gay in that time of heightened emotion -- and that the commandant had worded the invitation to the prayer breakfast to his subordinates in the D.C. area in a "must attend" manner that was impermissable given its religious nature.
The two handsome liaison officers in their impeccably tailored dress whites squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs in Gerry's office where they were unceremoniously commanded to sit as Rep. Studds read the salient portions of the Constitution to them, lecturing with particular emphasis on treason involving the military overstepping its bounds by trying to usurp civilian control of the military.
Gerry's was no idle instructional reading. As chairperson of the subcommittee overseeing the Coast Guard, he held their purse strings. The message was not lost on the commandant.
I remember, too, Gerry's gentle power when he visited the Holocaust Museum on the pre-opening day set aside for Congressional preview. At the time, visitors were randomly assigned the name, picture, and brief biography of a person who actually experienced life in the Holocaust as they were just before the Nazis came to power.
As luck would have it, the machine issued Gerry the information of a young gay man whose birthday he shared but who was just barely a generation older than Gerry.
Gerry took the elevator to the exhibit's fourth floor beginning, lingering over the dense information about how the Nazis seized power and remarking about similarities to the present day. He spent extra time at the portion exhibiting pink triangle artifacts.
At stations along the museum's tour one put the information pass of the person one was assigned to follow into machines that updated the information as the Holocaust years progressed. Gerry put the ticket into the machine every time with great hope, seeming to hold his breath as he read the fate of "his" shadow fellow each time.
One by one, the machines informed everyone else in Gerry's tour group that the person they were assigned had perished but, in a seeming miracle, the young man Gerry was assigned survived.
Then, in the bleakest part of the museum came the last machine telling of any remaining peoples' fates in the last days of the Holocaust. Gerry put his card in the machine and it printed out a short statement telling of his young man's capture, internment, and demise in a death camp just days before its liberation. Gerry began to cry, quietly saying over and over, "It could've been me. It could've been me."
He kept the young man's information pass and, I've been told, referred to it throughout his life after that, using it as an inspiration to make positive change.
Rep. Gerry Studds had the courage to be real, to feel, to grow, and used his life's experiences in the service of others. The angels will welcome him and, I imagine the spirit of the young Holocaust victim he held in his heart will be among them.