“We are destroyed,” said Amy Hoffman, former managing editor and director of the Gay Community News, to a Boston Globe reporter on July 7, 1982.
A six alarm fire* had broken out at 5:30 am on Bromfield Street in downtown Boston, charring several offices, including the Gay Community News (GCN), one of the earliest national gay publications in the United States.
As usual, Amy Hoffman was on the scene.
Hostility was not new to the newspaper. Staffers and volunteers routinely received threatening phone calls. Bullet holes were found in the window and “the office was vandalized many times,” according to Hoffman.
Still, most who worked on the paper were young and not given to worrying about their safety. The exhilaration of meeting new people and working for change outweighed the fear. Besides, as gay people, they were used to living with a certain level of risk.
They reported on people who had disappeared after leaving bars late at night and on kids thrown out of their homes to fend for themselves. On occasion, a writer arrived at the newspaper office wearing bandages from an attack the night before, sometimes at the hands of the police.
The fire however, was a new level of hostility.
Election day, 1980, was rainy and cool. The polls predicted a rightward backlash and were soon borne out.
State after state fell to the GOP and by the end of the night, Ronald Reagan had even carried Massachusetts in the presidential election. But it was the passage of a state-wide proposition that set in motion the destruction of the GCN offices.
That night, Massachusetts voters passed Proposition 2 1/2, which limited property tax increases to no more than 2.5% in a single year.
The measure went into effect in 1982, just months before the GCN fire. Fire and police department budgets across the state were cut in anticipation of lower property tax revenues.
Two years after the GCN fire, on July 26, 1984, the New York Times reported that it and “a string of other fires” were caused by arson in response to Proposition 2 1/2 budget cuts.
Federal officials charged today that a group mostly made up of police officers, firefighters and private security guards set the string of fires three years ago that brought Boston the nationally reported title of ”arson capital of the world.”
The fires were set, according to United States Attorney William Weld, to scare the public into supporting more positions for the Police and Fire Departments after property tax reductions had reduced their ranks.
Federal agents arrested six people in three states this morning, and a seventh surrendered in Boston this afternoon. Two of the defendants were armed when arrested. The five arrested in the Boston area pleaded not guilty at a hearing here today.
This story and many others are captured by Amy Hoffman in her book, An Army of Ex-Lovers, My Life at the Gay Community News (UMass-Amherst Press, 2007). It is a personal account of a very political time. Hoffman writes with warmth and humor about a slice of American history often left out of accounts of the period.
The omission of gay history by most mainstream historians is puzzling since it is populated by colorful, pioneering people who risked everything to live as they were. This makes for good reading.
In An Army of Ex-Lovers, Hoffman delivers an absorbing account of a tumultuous time and illustrates what readers miss when the subject is overlooked.
Along with political events, Hoffman traces her own growth through several relationships with dynamic women who were also playing leading roles in the movement for GLBT rights.
Her struggle for identity was singular in that lesbians will never come out quite the way her generation had to. But it is also a universal story of a young person finding her way in a new city with new friends.
Twenty-nine years almost to the day after the GCN fire, Amy Hoffman met me in a café located in a former brewery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Echoes of the Age of Aquarius were present in the cafe, with its all-natural sandwiches made from local ingredients, but its burnished feel was a dead giveaway to the present era.
Now in her late 50s, with short hair parted in the middle, earrings, and a bright, summer blouse underneath a light jacket, Amy Hoffman looked every bit the magazine editor she is. Located at Wellesley College, Hoffman edits The Woman’s Review of Books, a publication dedicated to “new writing by and about women” since 1983.
Was she scared during those turbulent times?
Not really, at least not until the fire. To an extent, she had been prepared for the battle. Hoffman attended what she now believes was one of the first woman’s studies courses in the U.S. at Douglass Residential College, Rutgers University.
“It was 1971 and I had no perspective on it at the time (that the course and accepting atmosphere were unusual). The most interesting woman on the campus was a lesbian. It was more than a supportive atmosphere, it was encouraging.”
By the time she arrived in Boston, Hoffman had done a lot of thinking about her sexuality and the political situation lesbians and gay men found themselves in at that time. She decided there was much work to do.
Hoffman saw a flier pinned to a bulletin board for a features editor position at the Gay Community News. She had written for Sister Courage, a lesbian publication in Boston, but that was the extent of her newspaper experience.
The Phone Call
When Hoffman called about the position, Rick Burns, then managing editor, answered. He warned her about the low salary (about $60 per week) saying, “It’s hard getting used to being poor.” Hoffman fired back, “Nobody gets used to being poor.” Burns replied with a chuckle, “I guess not, doll.”
They have been close friends ever since. (The book is dedicated to Burns.)
What was the atmosphere like for gay people in the 1970s?
“I try to tell young people. It was weirder than bigotry back then. We were simply treated as if we didn’t exist at all.”
Stories about gay people were ignored by news outlets. Many gay people themselves were silent.
While this is no longer as true as it once was, why does the blackout on gay history continue?
One example is Bruce Shulman’s The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Politics, and Society (N.Y.: Free Press, 2001), which fails even to mention the murders of Supervisor Harvey Milk or Mayor George Moscone, of San Francisco.
After the Fire
GCN survived the fire, even managing to print an issue that same week. It moved to new locations over the years and played a major role in sounding the alarm at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. It sponsored many other cultural events including OutWrite, a conference for GLBT writers. GCN ended as a weekly in 1993.
With An Army of Ex-Lovers, Hoffman is again on the scene as she was the day of the fire, this time rescuing neglected history with candor and humanity.
(Note: *I located a Youtube video of the fire that Amy Hoffman was surprised existed. Permission to use it has not yet been granted.)