To understand the relationship between Mayor Tom Menino and Boston’s gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender communities, you need look no further than the the 1980 movie “My Bodyguard”.
The plot goes something like this— quirky, eccentric, new kid Clifford Peache is bullied relentlessly by a band of high school criminals. These thugs rule the school with power they have gained by painting schoolmate Ricky as murderous monster just steps away from killing them all. Victim Clifford goes directly to Ricky, they form a friendship, the truth of Ricky’s goodness emerges and he becomes the school’s protector, vanquishing and banishing the bad boys, while forming a deep friendship with Clifford.
Swap Clifford with the LGBT community, and Ricky with Tom Menino, and the story of how Menino became our community’s hero and protector is clear.
Menino, as reported many times, may have been a bully. But he was our bully.
As a Boston City Councilor in the 1980s, Menino worked closely with gay people who worked in city government. He also interacted regularly with the gay neighborhood groups. It’s no surprise that this community, one that often lived in fear, rewarded Menino, the blue collar policy guy from Hyde Park, with unwavering loyalty. As Menino grew in power, his most trusted inner circle always had at least two gay people at the table. And he never took the community’s support for granted—he fought the battles brought to him, and looked for others.
The first high profile LGBT issue was an unlikely fight with the most powerful political neighborhood in Boston—Southie.
He was asked at one of the first neighborhood meetings he attended as mayor if he would march in the traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The organizers, the Allied War Veterans Council, had won a US Supreme Court ruling for the right to exclude gay groups from the parade. Menino told me that he glanced at his chief of staff—openly gay Anne Maguire—and blurted that if gays can’t march he won’t march. “You should have seen the look on Ann’s face,” he said. He had just told South Boston off. For Menino it was a double win—doing the right thing and avoiding parades, which he said he hated. He said he never worried about the political backlash. He never marched.
The Boston Pride Parade, celebrating LGBT pride each Junes, was a different story. Menino often referred to the parade as “my parade”. In a country where many gay groups fight to fly a rainbow flag on city flagpole, Menino raised the rainbow flag at City Hall Plaza each year with pomp, led the Boston parade and allowed uniformed Boston Police officers to march. He opened Boston City Hall and hosted the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth’s (BAGLY) annual gay prom for teenagers at Boston City Hall. These public actions were supported by political action—Menino supported the distribution of condoms in Boston Public Schools, and supported anti-bullying legislation.
Regular-guy Menino’s support of marriage equality was an important cog in the machine that delivered gay marriage. He never wavered in his support, lobbying state lawmakers during the state house battles and later as co-chair of "Mayors for the Freedom to Marry", helping big city mayors get on board. On Monday, May 17, 2004, Menino proudly escorted the lead plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, Hillary and Julie Goodridge, with their daughter Anne, to the Marriage License window at Boston City Hall to receive the city’s first marriage license for a same-sex couple.
Eight years after Massachusetts became the first state in the union to recognize same-sex marriage, Menino was still on guard. In 2012, the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A was preparing to open its first restaurant in Boston proper. Menino learned that Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy was passionately against gay marriage and made contributions to anti-gay organizations and causes.
Mayor Menino sent the following letter to Cathy:
In recent days you said Chick-fil-A opposes same-sex marriage and said the generation that supports it has an 'arrogant attitude.
Now -- incredibly -- your company says you are backing out of the same-sex marriage debate. I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston."
You called supporters of gay marriage 'prideful.' Here in Boston, to borrow your own words, we are 'guilty as charged.' We are indeed full of pride for our support of same-sex marriage and our work to expand freedom to all people. We are proud that our state and our city have led the way for the country on equal marriage rights...
There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it.
No doubt an overreach on the Mayor’s part—threatening all sorts of unconstitutional action against a business due to the owner’s political beliefs—but classic Menino. He later backed off the threats, a national dialogue was launched, and there is no Chick-fil-A on the Freedom Trail.
All of this made Menino a rock star in the LGBT community. Standing ovations, and often tears, greeted him as he led the Pride Parade, or spoke at the Fenway Health or Human Rights Campaign galas. He accepted it humbly, often just saying he was just “doing the right thing”—but the joy he felt from it was unmistakable.
Menino was our bully. Our guy. Our hero. He made things better.
Sue O'Connell is the co-publisher of Bay Windows and the South End News.