In a neighborhood that once shunned him, a Boston gay rights pioneer finally gets his moment

On the same weekend that saw hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Boston’s Pride parade route, a much quieter walk took place on the brick-laden backstreets of Beacon Hill. There, a handful of people gathered for the inaugural National Park Service tour honoring a little-known yet pioneering gay rights activist. 

The tour explores the life of the late Prescott Townsend, a queer advocate whose long life spanned the 19th century and the first Pride Parade in New York City in 1970, and who lived an exuberantly out gay life that flew in the face of the social and legal boundaries of his time. 

At the tour’s start, on the south slope of Beacon Hill, National Park Service ranger Meaghan Michel explained how Townsend, born in 1894, was part of an old, Boston Brahmin family. He came out as gay to his parents in his teens before following a family tradition of attending Harvard. 

“They accepted it, but did warn him to be careful,” said Michel. “But once he entered Harvard, once he was kind of off on his own, that’s when he started to actually act on those feelings that he confessed to them about. We don’t know the name of his first sexual encounter. What we do know is that, apparently, it was a very handsome polo player.”

Michel said Townsend cut short his Harvard studies in 1917 to enlist in the Navy during World War I. After his discharge, he joined the ranks of those who would become known as the “lost generation,” making his way to Paris. It was there he encountered — and embraced — a 1920s bohemian counterculture.

And upon his return to Beacon Hill, he sought to establish an outpost of that culture in his hometown using ample family money.

A young man wears a fur coat
A young Prescott Townsend wears a fur coat.

A bohemian outpost on Beacon Hill

One of the attendees on the inaugural tour was Michel’s partner, Theo Linger, who researched Townsend for a master’s thesis and helped organize the tour for the park service. They said most National Park Service tours on Beacon Hill emphasize the 1800s.

“Maybe occasionally we’ll touch on the fact that … in the later 19th century, it became more of an immigrant neighborhood,” Linger said. “But for some reason, the gay, artsy history had never really come to the forefront before. And I think that’s just an interesting fold of this neighborhood.”

The bohemian outpost sprang up on the more eclectic northern slope of Beacon Hill — another stop on the tour — where Prescott Townsend opened a bar and an experimental theater. Joining forces with a theatre producer, the two started spending a lot of time in Provincetown, Michel said.

“And it’s there that they meet members of the Provincetown players, who are also staging these very interesting Avant Garde theater productions, including plays by Eugene O’Neill,” Michel said. “So Prescott becomes friends with Eugene O’Neill. He becomes friends with these different actors and theater producers. He was very happy to bankroll them. And they were very happy to take his money.”

But Prescott’s financial situation changed abruptly when the stock market crashed in 1929. So he settled into a less entrepreneurial life around the corner from the experimental theater, which he was forced to shut down. 

The next tour stop is at 75 Phillips St., where Townsend rented out affordable rooms in a property he owned, often to young, gay men.

Some sources indicate that in those Depression years, Townsend had already begun a life of gay activism by visiting the State House up the hill to ask legislators to decriminalize homosexual acts. But in 1943, during World War II, his life reached a turning point.

From Beacon Hill to behind bars

“He worked at the shipyard in Fall River,” Michel told the tour, “but one day, he was actually arrested for engaging in a sex act with another man here in Beacon Hill. They were caught … And he was actually imprisoned for 18 months out in Deer Island.”

Upon hearing that, one person on the tour, Gastón de los Reyes, suggested there might be an opportunity now to right an old wrong.

“The Park Service should lobby Mayor [Michelle] Wu to essentially pardon him for his crime of being homosexual,” said de los Reyes. “And use him as an example of how far back the need for affordable housing in Boston exists, right?”

Someone pointed out that in Massachusetts, it’s the governor, not the mayor, who holds the power to pardon — prompting a discussion about the nation’s first openly lesbian governor, Maura Healey, and how it would be appropriate for her to weigh in on this during Pride month.

Michel said Townsend’s arrest in the 1940s finally led to him being kicked out of the Social Register, and hence, ‘polite society’ — something he wore as a badge of honor.

Activism begins in earnest

After he was released from prison, Prescott Townsend moved to 15 Lindall Place, a three-story brick house with two bay windows down a short alley. 

“Very early on, this house became site to some of the earliest meetings discussing specifically gay issues in Boston,” Michel said in front of the 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 Michel added that Townsend balked at the early Mattachine Society members’ respectability politics.

“He was very vocal. He had a lot of opinions. He let people know what they were, and a lot of people in the society very much disagreed with what he was proposing,” Michel said. “He lost his reputation and he had nothing to lose.”

Townsend 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.

“And then in 1969, when the Stonewall riot breaks out, that is really the type of activism that he would relate to the most strongly,” said Michel. 

A new generation of gay activists had risen up, and the aging Townsend had found his milieu, she said.

“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.”

A Beacon Hill light shines on

On the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York City, an aging Townsend ventured to New York for the first Pride parade, just days after his 76th birthday. 

Toward the end of the National Park Service tour, ranger Meghan Michel shared a black-and-white photograph of Prescott Townsend with her small audience. In it, the once button-down Brahmin of the early 20th century is sporting love-beads and a beret atop his long, shaggy hair, embracing young, gay activists who would walk in the trail he blazed.

An unpublished biography of Townsend, written by Adrian Cathcart and referred to on the tour, describes the advocate as a lover of freedom and “unpopular causes.”

“He loved being a star and the center of attention. He loved Harvard. He loved New England. He was proud to be Prescott Townsend. A state of being that involved not only himself, but also his ancestors. He felt this mattered,” Cathcart writes. 

But after that inaugural Pride parade in New York, Townsend’s health declined quickly and he fell on hard times. A series of fires rendered him essentially homeless and destroyed almost all records documenting his extraordinary life. He died in the basement apartment of a friend on Garden Street in his beloved Beacon Hill at the age of 78.

One of the young men standing next to Townsend in that 1970 Pride parade picture was Randolfe “Randy” Wicker. Today an 85-year-old global LGBTQ+ activist, Wicker is set to be a Grand Marshal at this year’s NYC Pride March later this month. 

“Well, to me, he has only one legacy, and it’s ‘love, money, uplift.’ And that doing for others brings you happiness. Those are the two most important statements you will ever hear anyone make,” Wicker said of Townsend in an oral history interview with Theo Linger.

The National Park Service says it doesn’t yet have a regular schedule for the historical walking tour of Prescott Townsend. But it’s planning more opportunities, ensuring the story of Townsend’s courage, advocacy and impact are known in his old, cherished neighborhood and beyond.