Founder, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)
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John Ward (LAW’76) was a freshman in high school in 1956, when he realized he was attracted to men. At the time, coming out was unimaginable. Psychiatrists viewed homosexuality as a mental illness and sex between men was criminalized.
As a newly minted graduate of BU’s School of Law, Ward became Boston’s first openly gay male attorney in 1977. In 1978, a police sting operation targeted—and entrapped—gay patrons of the Boston Public Library (BPL). In the space of two weeks, 103 men were arrested on charges ranging from indecent exposure to “lewd and gross behavior.” Ward responded by founding GLAD—Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (now known as GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders). A year later, he filed GLAD’s first case, charging the BPL and police officials with violating the civil rights of a man arrested at the library. The case eventually ended in a settlement.
For 40 years, GLAD—and Ward—have been at the forefront of the crusade for LGBTQ+ rights, fighting in the courts to end discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression.
In 1995, Ward became the first openly gay male lawyer to argue in front of the United States Supreme Court. He represented a group of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Irish Americans who wanted to march in South Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The parade sponsors, the South Boston Allied War Veterans, had excluded the group. Overturning the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decision in favor of the group, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the parade sponsors had the right to exclude marchers whose message they reject.
“This case was not going to win,” says Ward. “I did the best I could, and I think I did a good job, and it wasn’t going to win. But it was a first.”
While he eventually left GLAD to move to San Francisco and practice law there (he has since returned to Boston), Ward has continued on as a consultant with the organization. Today, at 77, he is still an activist and a practicing attorney.
Bostonia talked with Ward about his journey from a high school freshman who was terrified of declaring his sexual orientation to four decades of activism as an openly gay lawyer advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ people and more recently, against the death penalty.
with John Ward
Bostonia: You grew up in New York City in the 1950s and attended Catholic schools. How old were you when you realized you were gay and what was that like for you?
It was kind of a discovery. I was a freshman at Regis High School—an all-male Catholic school. I think I was changing my clothes for gym and I looked at the boy in the next locker and I realized, oh, my goodness.
You mean you were attracted to him?
Yes, I’d had glimmers of that in the past, but at that particular moment it was, oh, this is what I want, this is who I am. And so I hid it—and I drank. It was a double life—I was also the president of my class every year and I was the vice president of the student council when I was a senior. I graduated in 1960, and I was the valedictorian.
I wasn’t deceiving people; I just was hiding something. And the thing about Regis was that it was all boys. So there was less social pressure around dating and all that stuff. And it was okay to be smart because everybody took a test and if you passed the test, you got a scholarship. And there really wasn’t any bullying.
There were some, let’s say, problematic priests, but in general, it was a pretty safe place to be.
What did you think would happen if they found out at Regis that you were gay?
I felt I would be kicked out of school.
How did you finally come out?
My 20s were a real struggle. I was very young and very sexually alive, and it was just a complete no. I couldn’t imagine for myself what kind of life I would lead. What can I do? Where can I hide? Where can I be under the radar?
After college—I studied English and the classics at Fordham—I went into the Peace Corps, in Tunisia. I was sent home for alcoholism. They were very kind. They referred me to a Freudian psychiatrist. He didn’t see my issue as alcoholism, but as homosexuality, and the aim of treatment was to cure that.
Did you think you had to be cured?
Yeah, totally. I went to therapy for a couple of years. Of course, it didn’t do any good. I just kept drinking.
Then Stonewall [the 1969 uprising in Greenwich Village that became a catalyst for the gay rights movement around the world] happened. It was the most significant event of my young life. It was an awakening. You said, “Wait a second, there are people who have the same sexual orientation that I do whom I admire.” There were people coming out and doing courageous things and it just totally changed the picture. The picture of a gay man that people had up until then was of someone predatory, or non-gender-conforming, or effeminate. And I didn’t want to be that. Stonewall changed a lot of people’s heads, including mine.
I was drunk during Stonewall, but shortly afterward, in 1970, I began my recovery. When I sobered up, I talked to a shrink and he said, “You really need to accept yourself or you’re going to drink again.”
You came to BU for law school. Were you open about your sexuality at that point?
I dipped my toe in the water there at first. At one point I put a note on the blackboard: “Anybody interested in starting a gay caucus?” But nobody showed up.
But there was a young professor who was teaching constitutional law and I came out to him right away. He was very supportive. His name was Ira Lupu. We called him Chip.
The law school was pretty uptight back then, but not so other parts of BU. There was a group called BU Gays (BUGS), and I met my first real partner there at a picnic in 1974. His name is Don Shewey. We’re still in touch. He’s a therapist, writer, and activist in New York.
How did you end up opening your practice as an openly gay lawyer in Boston?
By the time I was ready to practice law, I was very out. The culture was changing so rapidly. There was something in the air in the early ’70s that made it possible to move in that direction, to have a life. And then being a lawyer gives you a certain degree of credibility.
I came out as a gay lawyer by putting an ad in Gay Community News saying, “John Ward, Attorney, Serving the Community.” That’s all it took. Most, but not all, of my clients were gay.
The first openly gay lawyer in Boston was Katherine Triantafillou, who went on to become a city councilor in Cambridge. I was the first openly gay male lawyer in Boston, as far as anybody can tell.
How did you decide to dedicate your career to fighting on behalf of LGBTQ+ people?
I have something in my gut that identifies with the underdog and is offended by unfairness and injustice. I didn’t know that I really wanted to be a lawyer until maybe October of my first year at BU, when it quietly dawned on me that I was in the right place. I did not think it was possible for me to be an openly gay lawyer until I met one, Tom Coleman, in Los Angeles, and he gave me the courage to give it a shot. Once I started representing LGBTQ+ folk, I knew I was in the right place. Same is true of the death penalty defense I did in California; it was an opportunity to live out my passionate opposition to the death penalty.
How did you get involved in the Boston Public Library case?
There were all these entrapment things going on at the library. We had a demonstration, we picketed outside the library. And all these people showed up. And it just dawned on me—I said, “Holy cow.”
I realized, gosh, there’s energy here and why don’t we tap into it? I knew that what I could do was file an application for this group called Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders as a 501(c)(3)—a nonprofit organization.
And if a case came along that looked like it had some public interest, I would call it a GLAD case and just do it. In the courts, particularly in the Supreme Judicial Court, we were getting a sympathetic hearing. The culture was changing and that really influences the law. You’re riding the wave of change, and there were defeats, but it was like, this is not quixotic, this is going to work.
I got involved with criminal law because I was representing these guys that were caught in the woods having sex with each other and I said to myself, that’s not a crime.
In earlier times people would just plead guilty and hang their heads. The worst part of those arrests was that it would be published in the local newspaper. And if you were a teacher, you’d lose your job. There were suicides over these things. Everybody was isolated and ashamed.
You’ve talked a lot about your interest in finding common ground and bringing people together who haven’t talked to each other.
Yeah, I’m not always very good at that. For years I was of counsel to a criminal law firm, Zalkind Rodriguez. I’ve had a pretty close relationship with them since the ’80s. And it’s been really interesting—all of us getting to know each other on a deeper level and watching how that changed everybody’s perception—and not just theirs of me. There’s a lot to be said for people actually getting to know each other.
And it’s certainly been my experience that over the years, a zone of comfort has evolved. We live in Roslindale. Roslindale in the ’70s wouldn’t have been the world’s most welcoming place, but now it is. Also the thing that’s changed people’s perception a lot is marriage. I got married about five years ago. We had an Episcopal priest marry us and I’m a practicing Catholic. I was 72 years old at the time.
People understand marriage. It’s common ground because marriage entails struggles and ups and downs. And it’s a long-term commitment. People can also understand now that a lot of LGBTQ+ folks have kids. It’s all just common ground. It’s not the only way, but it’s one way.
Why do you believe that it’s so important to have a diverse workplace?
When I lived in Central Square, in the ’70s and early ’80s, there was more racial diversity, in terms of who lived next door to whom, than just about anyplace in the country. It’s hard not to see people as individuals when they’re your neighbors. Creation and maintenance of safe or safer places, including workplaces, makes it safe or safer to experience “otherness” as well as sameness, which I think is the only way to heal the isms that are just as lethal in their way as the climate emergency. I am not naive and know that this is not easy work, but it is absolutely essential.
Are you worried about rights for LGBTQ+ people being threatened today, under the Trump administration?
Yes, I think there’s a real danger of rollback. Obama had extended the categories of protected class under federal regulations to include LGBTQ+ folks. And Trump just rolled that back. There are huge cases in front of the Supreme Court this year, including one about whether the Employment Non-Discrimination Act includes whether sexual orientation is a protected category. All or almost all the Courts of Appeal that have considered the question have said yes, but I think the Supreme Court will probably say no. I think they’re going to throw the transgender people under the bus. I hope I’m wrong.
So there’s this retrenchment. Also, they’ve figured out how to wield the free exercise clause of the First Amendment as a sword. In other words, because I don’t believe in your conduct, I can’t make you a wedding cake. The other thing, the internal issue that I’m really concerned about, is that a lot of us in the LGBTQ+ community have found a place of relative safety—we’ve secured our employment and many of us are doing well—but I think in order for this movement to be really meaningful, we have to reach out to people who are vulnerable, based on their sexual orientation, but also just in general, especially to the complacent.
I think we have to be wayshowers about what a better world would look like. I know it sounds idealistic, but nevertheless, I don’t think it can just be, “Okay, we got ours, now the hell with everybody else.” The sexual orientation thing is one part of the bigger struggle for human liberation.