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LGBTQ strides hard-won in Worcester

2018-11-09

Clive McFarlane: LGBTQ strides hard-won in Worcester

We learned recently that Worcester was named among the top cities nationally in protecting the rights of LGBTQ communities.

The honor, awarded by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization, uses a point scale to evaluate a city’s laws, policies and services in making LGBTQ people inclusive members of the community.

Worcester scored a perfect 100 on the scale, but to some this recognition might seem ho hum, given that it is the fourth consecutive year that the city has received a perfect score from the organization. That’s one of the downsides of long-term success; it has the potential to breed complacency.

Complacency, however, is not on speaking terms with 86-year-old Barbara Kohin, a Worcester resident who served a term on the City Council in the early ’70s.

“It’s wonderful,” she said of the city’s fourth consecutive HRC award. “The city has improved a lot (in asserting the rights of the LGBTQ community).”

Ms. Kohin should know.

She was a member of the council in 1974, a time when the LGBTQ community was braving the slings and stones of public scorn to press for their rights. That year, a group petitioned the council, asking that it amend its human rights statues to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people. The motion to adopt the amendment failed by a vote of 7-2.

Ms. Kohin and the late Joseph Casdin, a three-term mayor and the city’s first Jewish mayor, cast the affirmative votes. Both were members of the American Civil Liberties Union and saw their votes, according to Ms. Kohin, as “a matter of course.”

“We didn’t have a choice,” she said.

“We believe in non-discrimination and it was perfectly obvious that we were on the right side.”

The subsequent years have proven her right. According to Tuesday’s election results, Worcester voters by a margin of 67.6 percent to 32.4 percent supported Question 3, a ballot measure prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in public places.

Such support was apparently absent in 1975, when the city’s first gay rights demonstration took place, with about 100 people walking from City Hall to University Park in Main South.

Last year, more than four decades later, our reporter Mark Sullivan interviewed one of those marchers and the event’s marshal, Jolynne Kanerva.

“Scary. Frickin’ scary,” he recalled.

“There were kids out there throwing rocks and eggs. We overheard a cop telling one of those guys who had a brick in his hand (that) he was going to fling at us, ‘It’s not nice to throw things at queers anymore.’ ”

One can understand then the import of a city councilor going on record in support of gay rights in 1974.

It perhaps helped that Ms. Kohin, mother of three, knew firsthand the pain of discrimination. She and her husband, Roger, were physicists, but while he was able to find work in the field, opportunities for her were non-existent.

She told the Worcester Women’s Oral History Project of her disappointment being turned down for a job as a physicist at General Electric, as well as teaching positions at area colleges. She recalled sending out resumes to WPI, Holy Cross and Assumption College.

“They didn’t respond or acknowledge,” she said.

“I remember I thought I’d call up WPI and talk to the physics guy, and he said, ′Well, we do have an opening for a molecular physicist’ and I said, ‘I am a molecular physicist!’ And he said, ‘Really?’ ...You know, I never got an interview.”

Ms. Kohin only lasted one term on the council. And the way she described it in the interview with the oral history project, her election was a “fluke.”

During the primary that year some 34 candidates ran for nine council seats. Three women, including herself, did so well that in the general election the council’s Irish incumbents told their respective supporters not to vote for the other incumbents, she said in the history project interview.

It did not turn out well for the incumbents; four of them lost re-election, opening the door for Ms. Kohin, Barbara Sinnott and Mary Scano to become the first women elected to the Worcester City Council since the implementation of the council-manager form of government in 1949.

“Needless to say, the losing strategy of 1973 was not repeated in 1975, and we three women lost our seats,” she said in a May 2015 “As I See It” column in this paper, noting that Bob O’Keefe, the city clerk at the time, characterized the women’s one-term tenure as “an experiment that failed.”

Yet, failures often fertilize the seeds of future successes, and who is to say that Ms. Kohin’s single term didn’t help pave the way for the women who later served or are serving on the council, and who is to say that her and Mr. Casdin’s losing votes to support gay rights in 1974 didn’t help pave the city’s journey to embracing the rights of the LGBTQ communities today.

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