This sidebar originally appeared in a June, 2004 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
WHEN BERNARD BARAN hit adolescence, he had all but resigned himself to a world of hurt. The teenager’s social pain came not from the pedophilia for which he was later charged and imprisoned, but from his sexual attraction to other men. Being young and openly gay in Western Massachusetts in the early 1980s made Baran a perfect candidate for the position of community pariah.
"It was torture," says Baran, speaking from prison, of his days in junior high. "Every single day it was something — kids picking on you, calling you ‘fag,’ stealing your book bag or your lunch, friends turning on you, beating you up."
Obviously Baran was not the only gay teenager forced to fight off jeers and attacks, but his refusal to use ambiguity or deceit to make life easier certainly didn’t help. He knew he stood out, and he was unwilling to bend just to fit in. Admittedly, he relished a flashier sense of style than his classmates. He donned higher-end brand-name clothes, and matching jeans and denim vests. He even wore Jordache shorts cut so close to the crotch that he knew sidewalk taunts would be unavoidable.
Baran’s blatant sexuality was unusual for the times. For gay men and lesbians, the Reagan years were marked by customary harassment, anti-sodomy laws, and rumors that they were responsible for a strange new disease creeping across the land. Most homosexuals knew better than to broadcast their orientation.
"Most of my gay friends at work were almost without exception closeted during the day, and ‘gay’ starting Friday night," says William Conley about the time he spent working for the Springfield branch of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. He is now a lobbyist for the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "Monday morning came along, and we put on our corporate clothes and went back to the straight business world."
In that world, gay men did not display pictures of their partners on their desks and would speak only in vague terms about their lives — many going so far as to switch to feminine pronouns when talking about weekend dates. Conley was trying to phase such concealment out of his own life, when a media encounter in the late 1980s rendered his endeavor pointless.
Under the shadow of national hostility, Conley gradually became more public as an advocate for gay rights. In Georgia, a gay man had been arrested and tried under a statewide anti-sodomy law. By 1986, the case — Bowers v. Hardwick — had found its way to the Supreme Court, where a 5-4 ruling upheld the law preventing a man from having sex with another man in the privacy of his bedroom. The rising hysteria over AIDS, which in many minds was inextricably linked to homosexuality, had become an enormous roadblock to the nascent gay-rights movement. As the late Randy Shilts pointed out in his seminal work And the Band Played On, the United States was the only nation in the world where AIDS was considered a "gay plague."
While Conley acknowledged that the Bowers decision had little effect on the daily life of homosexuals in Western Massachusetts, he willingly devoted years before and after the ruling to promoting gay-rights legislation on Beacon Hill. His involvement led to an interview for what he thought would be a small piece on his and others’ advocacy work in the local newspaper.