Althea Garrison

With everyone’s minds on yesterday’s general election I thought I’d delve into the world of politics. The Boston Globe has called her the “most perennial of perennial candidates” but her mark on politics is perhaps greater than the credit they give her — Althea Garrison was the first transgender person (that we know of) elected to a state legislature in the United States. Though her tenure was brief, the barrier she broke is undeniable — even if she never meant to or wanted to.

220px-altheagarrisonGarrison was born in Hahira, Georgia on October 7, 1940. At nineteen years old — still living in the closet as a man — Garrison moved to Boston to attend beauty school — but it turned out she didn’t like being on her feet all day. So she enrolled at Newbury Junior College and earned an associate’s degree. She followed that by attending Suffolk University and earning a B.S. in business administration, and then an M.S. in management from Lesley College. After this, she got a certification in management from Harvard University. Afterwards, she decided she didn’t actually need to attend every college in the Boston area, and didn’t earn any more degrees.

In or around 1976, she transitioned into living as a woman and asked the courts to change her name. The court documents read that the name Althea Garrison “is consistent with petitioner’s appearance and medical condition and is the name by which he will be known in the future.” It’s a bit unclear what “medical condition” they’re referring to — and honestly, we’ll probably never know. To this day, Garrison has never publicly acknowledged her transition,

In 1980, Garrison volunteered with Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign. She says, this is when her interest in politics was sparked. When he lost, she reasoned that if she could campaign for him, she could just as easily campaign for herself. In 1981, she began working at the comptroller’s office and campaigned for a seat on the Boston city council. She was not elected. The next year she ran as a Democrat for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and was not elected. She ran for city council again in 1983 and 1985, and then ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives again in 1986. She tried for city council again in 1987 — and then left the Democratic party. She ran for city council as an independent in 1989.

She must have also run for office some other times, because in 1991 — running as a Republican for the city council — the Boston Herald stated she had run for office nine times. Garrison herself thought it was somewhere around ten or eleven. I only count eight, including the 1991 campaign but I’m admittedly really terrible at math. Anyways, in 1991 she came in third during the preliminary election for her district.

In 1992, she hit the campaign trail once more — still as a Republican, and gunning once again for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She took incumbent Nelson Merced to court, challenging some of the signatures he’d used to qualify for the Democratic primary. The court ruled in Garrison’s favor, and Merced was taken off the ballot. Irene Roman became the candidate for the Democratic party. Roman garnered 2,014 votes. Garrison beat her by a narrow margin of 437 votes — totaling 2,451.

Garrison quickly fell under attack. Many criticized that she had won disingenuously because she’d kept Merced off the ballot. (But, really, the court did that.) A reporter for the Boston Herald named Eric Fehrnstrom already had her in his sights. You may recognize his name — he was a top aid for Mitt Romney during his 2012 campaign. Fehrnstrom had discovered the court documents regarding Garrison’s name change — and according to colleagues he was positively gleeful. Two days into her tenure, the Herald published a front page story speculating about her gender.

I should note here, that technically Garrison still hasn’t come out. Even in the face of the ensuing scandal, and the remarkably unkind comments of her political opponents at the time in regards to her gender, Garrison has only ever stated that she is a woman. She has never addressed this, and probably never will address this. And that’s okay. Admittedly, it has made me feel awkward about writing this but at the same time the extremely ugly circumstances of her outing don’t take away from Garrison’s accomplishments, her impressive persistence, or the barriers she helped break down for transgender people in the United States. Because of Fehrnstrom, she’s part of our nation’s strong queer history.

Anyways, Garrison finished her term and developed a reputation for voting in favor of unions, and frequently reaching across the aisle and voting with Democrats. At the same time, she voted against marriage equality, against gun control, and against legalized abortions. When it came time for re-election in 1994, eight unions in Boston strongly backed her — as well as the Massachusetts branch of the AFL-CIO. Nevertheless, she was defeated. Charlotte Golar Richie, the Democratic candidate, won with 2,108 votes to Garrison’s 1,718 — an even narrower margin than her skin-of-her-teeth victory in 1992.

Since that time, Garrison has consistently run for office, running variously as a Republican, a Democrat, and an independent. She has run for Boston City Council in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. She ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2000, 2006, and 2010. She also ran in a special election for state Senate in 2002, and for mayor of Boston in 2001.

She did not win any of these elections. However, she is positioned to take over Ayanna Pressley’s seat on the Boston City Council when Pressley moves to serve in Congress.

In 2018, after 37 years, Garrison has retired from the comptroller’s office. But she has not retired from her political aspirations — despite being up for a position on the Boston City Council, Garrison ran as an independent for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the 2018 general election — which she lost to Liz Miranda.

I know this sounds like a whole lot elections that Garrison didn’t win — but the take away here is that she has never given up. Even when attacked for who she is, she never gave up. And that, if nothing else, broke down barriers and proved transgender people could hold office — allowing for Stacie Loughton‘s election in 2012 and Danica Roem‘s election in 2017 (both of which are whole other stories.)

UPDATE: Since writing this post, Althea Garrison was sworn into her new seat on the Boston City Council on January 9, 2019.

Ma Rainey

MaRaineyIt’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.

Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.

Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.

In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.

When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.

The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.

Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.

Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.

This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.

“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”

ma-rainey-prove-it-on-meParamount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”

1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.

Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year, in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.

In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.