BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis
December 03 2008 12:00 AM ET
“Once we get out of Iraq, we’ll get rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” he tells me. “There’s not going to be that much of a fight over that—people are over it. Plus it’s hard to argue today that 20-year-olds freak out at the sight of a gay guy. We will also get hate-crimes legislation with transgender included, and we will get employment nondiscrimination with transgender included -- if transgender people keep working for it and lobbying for it. Many people assumed that Nancy Pelosi and I could just deliver that, but that’s not how it works. I think they understand now that they have to go to each congressperson and make the case.”
When the conversation turns to gay marriage, Frank says he is “cautiously optimistic” about Proposition 8 being defeated in California. “I just wish more time had passed since it was legalized and this election,” he says. “With discrimination, the fear always outweighs the reality of it. You just hope there’s enough time to show everyone that everything is fine, that gay marriage has no impact on heterosexual marriage.”
Proposition 8 ended up passing, of course, prompting protests across the country. “It’s great that people feel passionate about this,” he says 10 days after the election, when I ask whether the upswing in gay activism pleased him, “but do you really think a rally on the Boston Common does one thing to change anything? I would prefer people channeled that energy -- whether it’s for marriage equality or employment nondiscrimination -- into mobilizing and trying to persuade those who disagree with them. Notice that the NRA never marches. This is my continual debate with people in the gay community, many of whom want to hold rallies instead of doing political lobbying.”
Frank’s position on the rallies initially surprised me -- how could any gay person not be moved by them? -- but it shouldn’t have. In 2004, when gays and lesbians were celebrating San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to buck California law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Frank called it a “spectacle” that would only increase support for President Bush’s proposed federal constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. “When you’re engaged in a political fight, if you’re doing something that really, really, really makes you feel good, then it’s probably not the best tactic,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “[Some gay activists] have this notion that Martin Luther King and the rest of the gang just let it all hang out, that the civil rights movement was just a series of spontaneous outbursts. But it was in fact a series of strategic decisions.… I care deeply about [marriage equality], but the more deeply I care, the more sensible I have to be in achieving it.”
Frank holds a deep reverence for the political process and rejects the notion that the ends justify the means. He also doesn’t see the value in “wasting time” by talking to people who already agree with you. “It doesn’t change anything,” he tells me as we drive back toward Boston on Election Day. (Pelosi says she learned firsthand about Frank’s low tolerance for preaching to the choir. In 1987 she called him to complain that a congressman was saying terrible things on the House floor about gay men with AIDS. “So Barney said to me, ‘What are you calling me for? Go argue with him. Go make the case. Next time you want to complain, go complain to the person you need to convince.’ ”)
Frank, who in 1995 was famously called “Barney Fag” by Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, says he hopes people take a pragmatic, strategic approach to gay marriage. “There’s a danger of using tactics that can advance you in the short term but hurt the long-term goal of marriage equality,” he says. “The most important thing we can do is change the minds of people who voted against us. We know that many African-Americans in California were given blatantly false information about us. We didn’t refute that effectively, and we’re paying the price, because they voted disproportionally against us. I’m already talking to a lot of prominent African-American leaders about what we can do to change that. Thousands of people rallying on the Boston Common don’t get African-Americans to change their votes in California.”
Even if California loses marriage equality in the short term, Frank believes we will win the larger war. “I’ve seen anti-Semitism essentially disappear in my adult life as a social and economic factor,” he tells me. “There may be some nuts out there, but generally things are fine. I think the same thing will happen with gayness. We’ll get to a point soon enough where it’s not even an issue anymore. But progress can be slow. I filed my first gay rights bills in 1972 in Massachusetts. Forty years later, it would be nice to have this wrapped up and put to bed.”
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