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Prescott Townsend, an Early Gay Rights Activist, Honored With Boston Tour

Prescott Townsend, an Early Gay Rights Activist, Honored With Boston Tour

Prescott Townsend and Beacon Hill

Townsend was active in the Mattachine Society, produced avant-garde plays, and embraced the post-Stonewall LGBTQ+ movement.

A groundbreaking Boston gay activist is being recognized with a National Park Service tour of his neighborhood.

Prescott Townsend “lived an exuberantly out gay life that flew in the face of the social and legal boundaries of his time,” Boston public radio station GBH reports. He spent most of his life in Boston’s Beacon Hill area. He lived from 1894 to 1973 and attended New York City’s first Pride parade, held in 1970.

The park service’s first tour centered on Townsend took place last weekend. The tour will be offered again, although a schedule hasn’t been determined.

Townsend was born into an old, wealthy Boston family. He came out as a teenager, and his parents were accepting but told him to be cautious, park ranger Meaghan Michel said on the tour, according to GBH.

After serving in World War I, he lived in Paris for a time, becoming immersed in the bohemian culture of the era. He then “sought to establish an outpost of that culture” in Boston, the radio station reports.

He opened a bar and an avant-garde theater in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, using his family money to produce plays. He also spent time in Provincetown, where he became friendly with playwright Eugene O’Neill and other theater artists. “He was very happy to bankroll them,” Michel said. “And they were very happy to take his money.”

The 1929 stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression forced him to close the theater. He stayed in Beacon Hill, where he provided affordable rental housing to young gay men.

During World War II, Townsend worked in a shipyard, but he was arrested in 1943 for engaging in a sex act with another man in his neighborhood. He was imprisoned for a year and a half, after which he returned to Beacon Hill and plunged into activism.

“Very early on, this house became site to some of the earliest meetings discussing specifically gay issues in Boston,” Michel said in front of Townsend’s post-incarceration home. “And [it] was the first headquarters of the Boston chapter of the Mattachine Society. So that national society of gay men that organized and came together, there were chapters throughout the United States.”

But the Mattachine Society was often too cautious for Townsend. He “began to push for a radical acceptance of the full panoply of human sexuality by society at large — and even for the early gay rights advocates of the ’50s and early ’60s, that was just a bridge too far,” GBH reports.

He embraced a more in-your-face generation of activists in the late 1960s, marked by the uprising at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969. At age 76, he attended the first Pride parade in New York on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

“He was very close to hippies and vagabonds and runaways of the young queer community,” Michel said. “So it makes sense that because he’s close to these people who also have nothing to lose, when they finally decide to fight back and fight for their rights in a different way, he’s totally on board with them.”

One of the men he met at the Pride parade was Randy Wicker, who is now 85 and will be a grand marshal at New York parade this year. Townsend “has only one legacy, and it’s ‘love, money, uplift,’” Wicker said in an oral history interview with Theo Linger, Michel’s partner. “And that doing for others brings you happiness. Those are the two most important statements you will ever hear anyone make.”

Townsend died at age 78. By then he was living in a friend’s Beacon Hill apartment, having become homeless after a series of fires. But the Park Service will assure that his legacy becomes known. “For some reason, the gay, artsy history [of Beacon Hill] had never really come to the forefront before,” said Linger, who has studied Townsend extensively and helped plan the tour. “And I think that’s just an interesting fold of this neighborhood.”

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