Great Expectations

Gay power in the age of Obama: Will this president -- and his appointees -- make equal rights part of this nation's recovery?



Barney Frank is, by far, the most powerful gay person in Washington. As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he has the leverage to lobby colleagues on the two policy areas that, he says, tie for second place on his list of priorities after finance: LGBT issues and fishing. (His congressional district includes New Bedford, Mass., from which Captain Ahab set sail to hunt for Moby Dick.) Some gay activists in Washington find Frank's position cause for gloating: "Everyone -- even Rahm Emanuel -- has to come to Barney to ask for money," one says. "Barney is the gate you have to go through for money now, and guess what? That's a big ol' rainbow gate."

Frank is too sophisticated a strategist to articulate such a facile connection between his work on finance and gay rights. Yet he quietly revels in the unlikely convergence. When I enter his office, he doesn't say hello but points to a framed picture on the floor and says, "That's the new secretary of the Treasury [Timothy Geithner] at the first LGBT pride day at the New York Federal Reserve, before he was secretary. The first LGBT pride day in Federal Reserve history."

This is a new kind of power for an out gay man in Washington to have. "I think my being where I am is both cause and effect of a diminution of prejudice," Frank says. That prejudice, he's discovered, "is pretty thin. People think that they're more prejudiced than they are. And when confronted with the reality, the prejudice disappears very quickly. I've been put in a major position of power in this society. And the fact that I'm gay is, as it should be, irrelevant. I remind people that I'm gay from time to time because I want to get the maximum benefit out of diminishing the prejudice.

"People in the financial community come and they're very nice to me whether they want to be or not," he adds, a bull with a twinkle in his eye. "It's kind of hard for them to then be prejudiced in their communities."

He's also dogged in calling out bigotry regarding marriage equality. When I ask what, realistically, Obama can do for us this year, Frank's answer at first seems to take a detour, then switches back and makes a hard moral charge: "I think we'll get to the point where we should be insisting that liberals support marriage. I mean, nobody believes that they're really personally against it. They're just being political. I'd rather have them admit that. I think it's now time to start pushing people on marriage. I would ask the president in particular. I think he made a terrible mistake with Rick Warren. I think he overestimates his ability to charm these people. And I think he should be willing to draw the line a little sharper."

Though Frank and his gay colleagues will coordinate their legislative efforts on gay issues with the White House, they'll also continue, on their own, to refine a lobbying mechanism they created in the last Congress. Frank and Baldwin convened the Hill's first LGBT Equality Caucus in June 2008 because, as Baldwin explains, "there's probably nothing more powerful in persuading a member of Congress than to have a colleague look you in the eye and say, 'I really want you to do this, I really need you to do this; if you have any questions, how can I answer them?' I can't possibly, in a short time or even in several months, reach each member myself. You need to divide up, and it makes sense also to match people for these conversations where there's a relationship or knowledge or coterminous districts."

This is a tremendously significant step forward in the evolution of the gay movement's ability to wield power. Such caucus groups have long been a linchpin of organization for policy and interest groups in Congress. The creation of an organized gay lobby within the House -- after the November election, the bipartisan group grew from 52 initial members to 77 (74 of whom are straight) -- finally creates a condition of accountability to the movement's goals.

"One thing about my colleagues is, they fib a little," Frank says. "They wouldn't be convicted of perjury, but people in my business are very good at giving you the impression that they are with you when they haven't actually said that they are, and the normal human reaction is to accept that." Speaking specifically of lobbying colleagues to pass a transgender-inclusive version of ENDA, he says, "I have the list of people who have reputedly said that they support this, and I'm going to double-check it, because they'll tell me things that they won't be honest about with the lobbyists. I'm going to be walking around the floor of the House now, saying to people, 'I hear you're with us on this -- is that true?'È‚f;"

Tags: Politics