Polari

Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.

Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.

Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….

And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.

Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.

A Julian and Sandy sketch from Round the Horne.

By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.

Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”

Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!

Sydney Cliff Murders

Queer history, as we all know, can be difficult to track down. Sometimes that’s because the language we use now didn’t exist, so it’s hard to identify queer people. Sometimes it’s because people actively tried to suppress the information. And sometimes, unfortunately, its because no one was paying attention. The Sydney Cliff Murders are one such instance — even today, this doesn’t even have a half-assed Wikipedia page. (Yet. I’m betting that will change after this though. Fingers crossed anyways.)

The Sydney Cliff murders were a string of murders from the 80’s through the 90’s against gay men in the of Sydney, Australia which may have had as many as 90 victims — primarily in Marks Park at the top of the Bondi Beach cliffs, which was a popular cruising spot for gay men, but also in some other areas that were popular “gay beats”. The police hardly ever investigated the crime scenes, just took a cursory glances and declared them suicides or accidents. Those weren’t totally off-the-wall or impossible suggestions, but let’s be honest: the police would have actually investigated them anyways if it weren’t for who the victims were and where the victims were. According to retired High Court justice Michael Kirby, the police viewed gay men as low level criminals (even though sodomy was decriminalized there in 1984) and thought that homosexuals should pretty much expect to be hurt or killed.

But it wasn’t a rash of suicides plaguing the gay community of Sydney. It was murder. And, no, it wasn’t a serial killer on the loose or anything nearly that dramatic — it was groups of violent, homophonic teenagers who knew that crimes against gay men would never be taken seriously by the police. For the most part they were right — only a handful were arrested for the murders specifically, though a number were arrested for other crimes and then later were discovered to have been involved in a murder at Bondi Beach. “Poofter bashing,” as it was called, was something of a sport.

The earliest one of these deaths that I can find is that of David Williams. He was found, naked, at the bottom of the cliffs in the area of Manly. His clothes were neatly folded at the top of the cliffs. No investigation was made, no coroner made any report about his body.

Steve and Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson was a 27 year-old American “brilliant” mathematician (some of us can do math! Not me, but….some of us!) who had graduated the University of Cambridge and moved to Sydney in 1986 to be with his partner Michael Noone. He had applied for permanent residency and had nearly completed his PhD at the Australian National University by the end of 1988, when his naked body was found at the bottom of the North Head Cliffs in Manly. His clothes were in a folded pile, with his student ID, a ten dollar bill, and his watch nestled on top of them. Police called it a suicide. Neither Michael Noone or Scott’s brother Steve believed that for a minute and made sure the police of New South Wales knew it.

On July 22, the following year, Ross Warren — a discreet but not exactly closeted television news anchor — disappeared. His car was found near Marks Park, and his keys were found in rocks at the top of the cliffs. Police reasoned he must have accidentally fallen off the cliff into the water, and on July 28 they announced they expected his body would wash up soon. It didn’t. Nevertheless, police declared that his death had been accidental, there was no foul play, and he also hadn’t faked his death. His mother Kay began writing frequently to the police, insisting they actually investigate his disappearance. Warren’s body has still never been found.

On November 23 of 1989, John Russell — a local Sydney bartender — was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs on the Bondi Beach side of Marks Park. Police investigated enough to discover he had a high concentration of alcohol in his system, and ruled he had accidentally fallen off the cliff. Not quite a month later, on December 18, Alan Boxsell was attacked by a group of teenagers in Marks Park. He managed to flee his assailants and even, surprisingly, reported the attack to the police. He identified some of the bashers. Days later on December 21, David McMahon was assaulted by a group of teenagers in almost the same place where Russell would have fallen from — one of the attackers even suggesting “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other one off.” McMahon managed to escape, and identified some of his assailants to police. Some of them were the same people identified by Boxsell. None of them were arrested due to a “lack of evidence.”

In 1990, a Thai man named Krichakorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked with a hammer and knocked off the cliff. This one — as a nice change — was investigated and three teenagers were arrested. They would be known as the “Tamarama Three.” Despite the fact that one of those teenagers was reported saying to the police “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge” the police didn’t begin investigating the rash of murders.

Five months later, in December of 1990, eight boys discovered a phone number written in the toilets in Alexandria Park, and used it to lure Richard Johnson to the park after dark. There, they beat him to death. The eight boys — who would be called the “Alexandria Eight” were arrested and eventually convicted of the crime. Homicide detective Steve McCann secretly recorded conversations the boys had with each other and other inmates — they bragged about killing gay men at the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Despite this, only McCann was interested in looking into the deaths of gay men in that area. His investigation was hampered by resistance from his fellow police officers. He turned to lawyer, and official liaison between the New South Wales police and the gay community, Sue Thompson for help but even so there was only so much they could do. Through their investigation they learned that “poofter bashing” was something of a widespread sport — a gang of at least thirty teenage boys and girls, called the “Bondi Boys” frequently engaged in it as a form of initiation.

As an aside, there’s a lot of victims or possible victims here. I could not talk about them all while also talking about the police action (or lack of action, as the case may be) and keep this post to a relatively reasonable size. But I don’t want to overlook them, as so many of them have been continuously overlooked. So I am promising that there will be a follow-up post (posts?) about the victims. All 88 if I can find all of their names. I’m still making working on that list. Anyways, back to what the police were doing….

Steve Page and Sue Thompson

By 2000 — after eleven years of hearing from Kay Warren — one of her letters (which contained copies of all of her previous letters) caught the attention of the police. It was handed off to Detective Steve Page. He noticed what McCann had noticed — a lot of gay men were dying or disappearing around Marks Park. He picked up where McCann’s investigation had left off. Page was able to prove, through reenacting the scene with a dummy on December 9 2001, that John Russell was thrown from the cliff he was found at the bottom of — there was nothing accidental about his death after all. This opened the doors on many more closed “investigations” (if you can really call them that). Revisiting these cases was a major undertaking, and so it became a full-fledged project named Operation Taradale. The task force interviewed the Tamarama Three and the Alexandria Eight — all of whom denied any involvement in killing John Russell, Ross Warren, or any of the others

In 2012, at the request of Steve Johnson — now a wealthy former AOL executive — and his family, an inquest was made into the death of Scott Johnson. It was determined that the original investigation had not been thorough, and that the death should be re-investigated. As a result of this, the New South Wales police began Operation Parrabell, a review of 88 investigations into various deaths of gay men — trying to determine if the crimes should be classified as hate crimes. That list of 88 deaths is based on recommendations by Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen going as far back as David Warren’s death, but Parrabell met criticism — even from Sue Thompson — for their methodology. Of the 30 unsolved deaths in that list, she and Tomsen found compelling evidence of foul play in 22 cases. The Operation Parrabell task force for unsolved homicides accepted eight of those as potential anti-gay hate crimes that needed to be investigated. Those eight did not include Scott Johnson.

In 2015, another inquest into Scott Johnson’s death was made — also recommending the case be investigated again, as a homicide. In November of 2017, a third inquest formally declared that Johnson had been the victim of a hate crime. As a result, the following month a reward of one million Australian dollars was offered by the Australian government for any information leading to conviction. With no information forthcoming, the Johnson family doubled the reward in March 2020 — and in May, a man named Scott Price was finally arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson.

These cases inspired a television miniseries in Australia called Deep Water. A documentary was also made that year, to go alongside the fictionalized show, called Deep Water: The Real Story.

As of now, 22 of the Sydney cliff murders remain unsolved. A parliamentary inquiry regarding the New South Wales police’s response to hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals in Sydney between 1970 and 2010 is currently underway. We may never see justice for all of those many queer individuals who were lost in these murders, but I take some comfort in knowing that, finally, there are at least some people who are trying.

Heroes of Stonewall: Sylvia Rivera

0w5sda97-75dv-q78d-s6ky-6zbn3d195rj8-1541658467Of all of the heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community who fought for us at the Stonewall Riots, I personally think that Sylvia Rivera may have had the most important impact on our community — however, she may also be the most controversial. Though we view her as a hero and champion for our community now, she was not always looked on so fondly.

Sylvia was given the name Ray Rivera when she was born on July 2, 1951 and was of both Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family. Her mother committed suicide — orphaning the young Rivera at only three years old. And so she was raised by her grandmother, who vocally disapproved of how effeminate “Ray” was. This disapproval became even worse when Rivera began to wear makeup in the fourth grade — as a result, she was living on the streets at eleven years old, surviving only by making money through sex work. She was taken in by a group of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia that she would carry for the rest of her life.

Rivera developed a very, very fluid sense of gender identity throughout her life. She would alternate between referring to herself as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen, a street queen, and a transvestite (while that was still the popular term in usage, anyways.) Consistently, however, she shirked labels whenever possible. In one interview she stated, as a response to the gender identity question: “I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”

Rivera took to activism early, before the Stonewall Riots, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and protested against the Vietnam War, and was involved in youth activism with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. She was particularly vocal, however, about queer homeless people of color — who she felt were being left behind by a gay community that only wanted to assimilate into the mainstream. She frequently struggled with substance abuse and homelessness herself, so she sought to give a stronger voice to those who — like her — suffered from racism, poverty, as well as inmates, drag queens, and other often ignored sections of the queer community. (Some of these groups, I might add, are still often ignored — we could use another Sylvia Rivera!)

Rivera was a regular customer of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and was frequently there with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Although Rivera stated in interviews in the 90’s that she was present when the riots began, most other accounts — including Johnson’s telling of it — indicate she arrived after the riots began. In fact, by some accounts, she may not actually have been present the first night of the riots at all — though Johnson made sure Rivera was aware of the riots that night, it’s unclear if Rivera actually showed up until the second night of the riots. She was certainly present at that point.

Following the riots, Rivera worked alongside the Gay Liberation Front — and with their next iteration, the Gay Activists Alliance. In 1971, she campaigned with them to pass a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. However, despite her hard work, the GAA made deals that stripped the language protecting non-gender conforming individuals, like drag queens and transvestites. The argument was that it would not be possible to pass the bill with “extreme elements” included — but the GAA rapidly became more conservative, and began to outright exclude any protections for the more “radical” portions of the LGBTQ+ community. The leadership of the GAA would have Rivera plan and front rallies — until the media showed up, when the straight passing members of the organization would essentially push her aside. Eventually, Rivera was all but pushed out of the organization. When recalling this in an interview years later, she’d add “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”

In 1970, River and Johnson worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide support and advocacy for young homeless queer people. In 1972, STAR even managed to open housing for homeless queer youth — with rent paid mostly from money that Rivera and Johnson earned as sex workers. According to Rivera, aside from trying to help those who needed it, they were trying to help move the community away from the mafia-controlled bar scene.

In 1973, at a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally Rivera gave an impassioned speech in which she warned of heterosexual men who preyed on the transgender community, and also declared that queer inmates looking for help “do not write women. Do not write men. They write to STAR.” Despite that — and how revolutionary an organization STAR was — it was short lived, partly because of Rivera’s passion. At the same rally, Rivera and Lee Brewster interrupted Jean O’Leary‘s speech. Rivera argued, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”

sylvia-rivera-marsha-p-johnson
Rivera and Johnson

Following the rally, Rivera attempted to commit suicide — but was found and saved by Marsha P. Johnson. Unfortunately, that outburst cost Rivera much of her remaining support in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. STAR closed within the year. Rivera took the better part of the next 20 years off from activism, feeling totally abandoned by her community. She did — on certain occasions in the ’80s — speak up on behalf of those left homeless by the AIDS crisis.

In July of 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled the death a suicide — something Rivera, among others, insisted was false. Rivera stated that she and Johnson had made a pact to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ together.” In May of 1995, Rivera attempted to commit suicide in the Hudson River. The attempt failed, but afterwards she got back into advocating for the most vulnerable in the queer community — much to the chagrin of other activists in the community. Most of the focus of queer activism at the time involved fitting the homosexuals into existing legal structures — getting marriage equality, overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passing the Matthew Shepard Act, etc. These were not Rivera’s priorities, and she made it quite well known.

She was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for most of the mid-90s for angrily insisting that they provide housing for homeless queer youth during the frigid winters. She attacked the Empire State Pride Agenda for not being inclusive of transgender issues. She also made something of an enemy of the Human Rights Campaign, because — as she would tell Michael Bronski: “I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore — it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”

the-crusade-of-transgender-activist-sylvia-rivera-6-1Despite her friction with many queer organizations, Rivera was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and often helped to feed the poor and homeless through their food pantry. In 2000, Rivera traveled to Rome, Italy for WorldPride. There she was called “the mother of all gay people” and participated in the Millenium March. In 2001, Rivera attempted to revive STAR as a political organization — changing the “T” to stand for “Transgender,” which was beginning to come into common usage. The new STAR, under Rivera’s leadership, pushed for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Non-Discrimination Act, as well as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill. They also fought for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000.

Sylvia Rivera suffered from liver cancer at the end of her life. Before her death — on her deathbed — she negotiated with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz, leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, to ensure they would be more inclusive of transgender people and issues in the future. She passed away on February 19, 2002.

by Luis Carle
Rivera’s portrait in the National Gallery — also featuring Christina Hayworth (left) and Rivera’s partner Julia Murray (right) — which shows them at New York Pride in June of 2000.

After her death, she became much more appreciated by the queer community. The year of her death the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established, to help fight against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The MCC in New York built a shelter for homeless queer youth, which is named Sylvia’s Place in her honor. The New School named their social justice hub the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, putting her name alongside James Baldwin and Grace Lee Boggs. The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Street in New York was also renamed in her honor, coming to be called “Sylvia Rivera Way.” In 2015, she became the first transgender (well, genderfluid?) American citizen to have a portrait placed in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian. It was recently announced that she — along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson — will soon be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village

There have even been some fictional depictions of Rivera. In 2002, she was depicted in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol 1. In 2007, a musical called Sylvia So Far premiered in New York, based on Rivera’s life. She is also depicted in the short film Happy Birthday Marsha!

Despite all that Rivera did, the communities she specifically fought for — the poor queer — mostly transgender — youth of color are still by far the most vulnerable in the queer community. They are the most likely to be homeless, most likely to be uneducated, most likely to be unemployed, and most likely to commit suicide. It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. It’s been 19 years since she was called the “mother of all gay people” at WorldPride. Now that WorldPride is going to be in New York City, honoring that momentous event 50 years ago, let’s not forget what Rivera was actually fighting for and truly honor her legacy by keeping that fight going.

Dung Hà

ztpnnspbDung Hà was an infamous Vietnamese gangster (whose real name was Vũ Thị Hoàng Dung) who reached the peak of her influence during the ’90s.

She was born in 1965 in Hai Phong, North Vietnam. The part of the city in which she lived was a bustling urban area, where she regularly witnessed crimes — some of which were committed by her numerous older brothers and sisters. Apparently, this inspired her. She dropped out of school at a young age and became a career criminal. She started small, with pickpocketing and robbery.

In 1986, Dung Hà was caught robbing a pedestrian and arrested. She spent twelve months in prison, but resumed her illicit activities as soon as she was released. If anything, going to jail made her more involved in crime. She started having a romantic affair with a local crime boss — Hùng Chim Chich (“the Warbler”) Their love story — if you want to call it that — became relatively famous but he started losing money and influence due to a drug addiction. Dung Hà took over his casino businesses, and left him before he died from AIDS-related complications.

When she was 26, she began a relationship with another area crime boss named Hùng Cốm. (I guess she kind of had a type — local crime bosses named Hùng who had more influence than she did.) Hùng Cốm was basically the scariest crime boss around Hai Phong at the time, and rumors said he could not be defeated. The two went on a massive crime spree together and also opened a handful of casinos.

And then Hùng Cốm got arrested. Dung Hà orchestrated an elaborate scheme to free him and help him get to a train that would take him to Hong Kong. She convinced several of his followers to help her, and had agreed to let another convict named An Dong out of prison if he helped as well. She bribed some of the prison guards so that they would let her bring her lover a “farewell gift” — the guards didn’t realize that gift was actually a bunch of grenades. (I mean, what else do you get a crime lord on a special occasion?) Though that part worked, the rest of the plan rapidly fell apart — the gates were too tightly guarded, the grenades turned out to be duds, and An Dong was shot to death in the escape attempt.

Though the plan failed miserably and Hùng Cốm ultimately hung himself rather than face execution — but it had managed to earn Dung Hà a great deal of respect nevertheless. She became, essentially, the queen of crime in northern Vietnam — establishing a rivalry with Năm Cam who ran a criminal empire in the southern half of the country.

dungha15ff63Now, according to total hearsay, after the death of her lover Dung Hà was incapable of ever loving another man and that is why her next love affair was with a woman. That smells like fairly standard bi-erasure to me but I suppose that’s just an opinion. Anyways, Dung Hà cut her hair extremely short and was frequently seen with a beautiful, dark-haired girl who was taller than her and was extremely affectionate towards her. The woman was named Phuong but I cannot find much more about her except that she came from a nice family. She ditched our intrepid queer crime boss when Dung Hà got arrested in 1995. Phuong was, as far as I can find, the last romance of Dung Hà’s life.

Though she was sentenced to seven years in prison, she was released after only three years. Unfortunately, she was under intense police scrutiny and her criminal activities — and therefore her profits — suffered as a result. So Dung Hà decided to pack up and relocate….

….to Saigon, in the southern half of the country. Now, shortly before this, another gangster called Hải Bánh had moved south and joined forces with Năm Cam and he was all about that. He was hoping to get Dung Hà to help him expand his casino business. Unfortunately, Dung Hà had gotten pretty used to being her own boss — and, like, that’s the dream, right? So she was not giving that up. She started a new gang and began intentionally disrupting Năm Cam’s businesses — particularly his casinos.

On September 9, 2000 this new gang interrupted a business run by Hải Bánh — throwing shrimp sauce, snakes, and human feces into the middle of a dance floor. Hải Bánh was furious, and Năm Cam had had enough. Less than a month later, hired guns found Dung Hà and shot her in the head at point blank range.

But Dung Hà would end up with the last laugh — her murder led to increased scrutiny against both Năm Cam and Hải Bánh and would ultimately lead to the collapse of both their criminal organizations. Năm Cam, among several others, was given the death penalty for his involvement in her death. Meanwhile, Dung Hà’s body was brought back to Hai Phong where a truly massive funeral was held in her honor and her ex-girlfriend Phuong is reported to have been seen weeping at the event (as if they hadn’t been broken up for five years at this point but what do I know?)

So that’s the story of Vietnam’s “lesbian” gangster. I wouldn’t call her a queer hero, but she sure makes for a fun story!

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.