One Boston? … And Justice for All

How Tom Menino tackled racial diversity and gay rights during his tenure as mayor of Boston.

By | Boston Magazine |

tom menino race diversity gay rights

Photograph Courtesy of Isabel Leon/Office of the Mayor

One Boston?

Menino inherited a city reeling from the memory of racial conflict.

During Tom Menino’s tenure, Boston became a majority-minority city. Today 53 percent of the city’s citizens are from communities of color. Menino tackled diversity with the same pragmatic approach he used in all of his governance. Kelly Bates, who heads the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research at Emerson College, notes that Menino pushed to have community centers, pools, libraries, and parks carved out in some of Boston’s neediest neighborhoods. In other words, as the Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser says, “He focused on city services rather than on racial divisions.”

Over the years, that translated into votes. Menino enjoyed broad electoral success, and in his final two reelections, he won at least 70 percent of the vote in the city’s most minority neighborhoods. Those figures are even more remarkable given that, as UMass Boston political science professor Paul Watanabe says, Menino is “not somebody who has been seen as making a particular effort to cultivate the African-American or Latino or growing Asian-American segments of the city.”

Many minority leaders feel that people of color slipped off Menino’s radar. Indeed, one survey of city workers conducted by the blog Blackstonian found that only 22 percent of city department heads were non-white, and that few people of color held top positions. “We had a lot of high hopes for him,” says Pastor Bruce Wall, who supported Menino during his first campaign, only to become disenchanted with what he calls the mayor’s rhetoric on race. “Mayor Menino seemed to shy away from strong black talent.”

That perception, of course, is hardly new for the city of Boston. A 2010 survey conducted by the Commonwealth Compact project at UMass Boston found that Americans consider the city to be one of the least welcoming to people of color in the country. “The reality is we do suffer from the reputation of racism,” says Georgianna Meléndez, of the Commonwealth Compact. “It keeps people from coming and staying here. And as long as our leadership is not diverse, it’s not going to change.”

Next: Menino and LGBT Equality »

tom menino race diversity gay rights

Photograph by Amy J. West

And Justice for All

When it came to equality for gays, lesbians, and the transgendered, Menino was ahead of his time.

Other politicians’ feelings about their LGBT constituents may have “evolved” over the years, but Tom Menino has been a stalwart supporter of gay rights since the day he took office. He has famously refused to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade because its organizers don’t allow gay-rights groups to participate. And it was 15 years ago that he extended benefits to the same-sex partners of city employees. He also supported gay marriage in 2003 and, last year, made national headlines when he spoke out against the homophobic actions of executives and foundations affiliated with Chick-fil-A.

“It is hard to imagine that LGBT people could have had a more rock-solid and devoted supporter for our lives,” says Ben Klein, a senior attorney at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. “His support for our community and his understanding of our lives is deep, and it’s always felt unconditional.”

Many in the community trace that commitment to Menino’s 40-year friendship with Harry Collings, a close colleague and confidant, whom he first befriended while working at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Collings was one of many openly gay and lesbian staffers whom Menino pulled into his inner circle. “He’s always said it’s been easy,” Collings says, “because it’s the right thing to do.” After Menino became mayor, recalls Bay Windows copublisher Sue O’Connell, a veteran city staffer told her there were so many gay men at City Hall, “you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting one.”

In truth, Menino has been such a consistent supporter of gay rights that it’s rarely acknowledged. But O’Connell says Menino’s actions and policies should never be overlooked. “We would not have same-sex marriage in America if not for Tom Menino,” she says. “Boston has been an incubator for those ideas.”



For more of our look back at Mayor Menino’s time in office, check out “A Mayor in Full.”

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