What a drag: NH paper takes heat for cross-dressing judge story
For Judge Robert Somma, a Boston-based federal judge recently arrested for drunk driving, the toughest trial of his life may be the one he currently faces in the court of public opinion.
The same can be said for the New Hampshire newspaper that first broke his story.
Somma, 63, was arrested in Manchester, NH in the late night hours of Wednesday, Feb. 6. Somma, a bankruptcy judge in the First Circuit Court, was heading back to his home in Newbury, MA when he rear-ended a pick-up truck.
After failing a sobriety test at the scene and completing a breath test at the police station, Somma was arrested by Manchester police for driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a blood alcohol concentration of.08 or more.
Engaging in a DWI is no light matter, but there’s another reason why Somma’s case has garnered such significant attention:
Reports claim that the married federal judge was dressed in drag.
"He had a difficult time locating his license in his purse," wrote arresting officer Paul J. Thompson in his police report, as rehashed by Union Leader, the Manchester newspaper that broke the scoop on Somma’s choice of eveningwear.
By the Union Leader’s own admission, the purse reference was the only passing comment on attire in the entire police report, and other sources--including Manchester Police Department representatives and Gregory T. Muller, attorney with the city solicitor office--refused to comment to the paper on the nature of Somma’s fashion choice at the time of the incident.
The Union Leader’s subsequent choice to turn cross-dressing into headline news-- potentially outing a public figure and further embarrassing his likely distraught family--has received its own share of scrutiny from members of the GLBT community.
"I’m a little upset about how this all happened," says Doogie (last name withheld by request), a manager at The Breezeway Pub in Manchester. According to reports, Somma told officers that he was at The Breezeway--a popular New Hampshire gay bar--two hours prior to his DWI incident. "I feel bad for the fellow," says Doogie, who believes that media reports have been irresponsible in divulging the details of Somma’s dress.
Speaking to EDGE, Doogie shows considerably more discretion: he is unable to confirm that he has personally met Somma, and will not say whether the judge was at The Breezeway on the night in question. As far as he’s concerned, confidentiality (when it’s not court-ordered, anyway) is the least he owes his patrons, many of whom are closeted or otherwise uncomfortable with their visits being made public record.
"The Breezeway policy has always been that everyone’s welcome, and that what’s kept here is private," he says. He points to the slogan recently added to The Breezeway’s Web site (www.thebreezeway.net):
"We don’t JUDGE our customers!" goes the pun.
Even the Web site’s photo gallery, says Doogie, featured only individuals who have given their consent to be shown.
"A lot of people do come here, and a lot of their spouses do not know," says Doogie.
That sentiment has been echoed time and again in response to the Union Leader reports. Reader responses posted on the paper’s Web site have ranged from conscientious objections to vehement outrage.
"Lots of men do that [cross dress] who are NOT gay and still have strong morals and family values," writes Bidlo Reilly of Derry, NH. "No that there’s anything wrong with it being true [but] it’s still irrelevant to the case of drunk driving."
Reilly’s post is important in elucidating one important point: many cross-dressing men do not identify as gay. The Breezeway Pub bills itself as a "gay and alternative bar," and no reports of sexual trysting have emerged from Somma’s story.
"What he was wearing or carrying is none of our business unless you choose to participate in gossip," posted Steven of Manchester. "He was charged, arrested, paid fines and lost his license. Move on."
Another poster, Greg of Manchester, blame "small minded people breeding hate" as the reason that "many people... are married and frequent gay bars."
And finally, Susan of Raymond summarized a wide reader consensus: "What a salacious article the reporter has written," she comments on the Web site. "It’s worthy of The Enquirer."
Reporter Kathryn Marchocki, who has covered Somma’s story for the Union Leader, didn’t return messages to comment on her articles for the paper.
Still, there’s reason to believe that the story has taken a particularly high toll on Somma. Despite striking a plea deal that allowed him to avoid trial, Somma announced on Friday, Feb. 15 that he would resign from the First Circuit Federal Court. He will remain on leave until Tuesday, April 1, when the resignation takes effect.
"He did not consult me about his resignation," says Attorney John. J Cronin III of Bennington, NH, who represented Somma in his plea. When pressed to confirm Somma’s attire, Cronin remains steadfast: "I will not comment on any of that."
According to The Breezeway’s manager, playing this one close to the padded chest isn’t such a bad idea. "They’re trying to burn the fellow," he says of malicious media reports.
Indeed, whether Somma’s drunk driving betrayed public safety is one thing. Whether his admitted presence at a gay bar betrayed his wife is another.
But does he owe an explanation his choice in hosiery? That, perhaps, is another question entirely.