The Legacy of Barney

After more than three decades, the man dubbed “the smartest” in Congress and the first to come out voluntarily, won’t be returning to office, but he leaves behind a very long shadow.

BY E.J. Graff

December 01 2012 5:00 AM ET

Very few politicians have such celebrity status that they’re known by just a first name. Barney Frank is one—and, after more than 30 years of representing his Massachusetts district in Congress, he’s retiring when this legislative session ends. He is famous for his brilliant one-liners, his brusqueness, his liberalism, his role as a partisan attack dog, his effectiveness in getting legislation passed—and for being the first sitting member of Congress to come out voluntarily as gay and to get married to another man while in office.

For The Advocate’s exit interview, I spoke with Frank twice. The first time was at the Elsie Frank Walk for Kit Clark Senior Services on September 29, an annual fund-raiser held in honor of Barney Frank’s mother. On an overcast day, in a chilly drizzle, we met in Pope John Paul II Park in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, right off a highway overpass by the ocean. The congressman spoke to me amid the pounding music from the loudspeakers, the balloons, and people milling around. Frank was visibly happy near his husband, Jim Ready; after we spoke, he kept putting his hand on the man affectionately, touching him as if to check that he was still real.

The second interview was October 8, at the end of a Brookline, Mass., fund-raiser for Joe Kennedy III, Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson, who is running to take Frank’s seat in Congress. Dozens of people wanted to shake the congressman’s hand, congratulating or thanking him for all he’d done for Brookline. We spoke as the catering staff cleaned up around us, before he and his husband left to head back up to Ogunquit, Maine.

When my tape recorder first went on, Frank was talking about how the Kit Clark fund-raiser came to be named after his mother, who got involved in public life at the age of 70, after being in one of her son’s campaign commercials. The circumstances of that commercial give a sense of the public climate at that time.

Dorchester, September 29, 2012
In 1982, I had a tough election against Margaret Heckler, the Republican incumbent [in his first reelection bid, after redistricting put the two incumbents up against each other]. It was a fight. I was not married. I wasn’t out yet, but it wasn’t totally a secret, and I was a big gay rights advocate. They were kind of hinting, “lack of family values.” So we made a commercial with my mother. It went on the air in 1982, and it was a great hit.

When Jason Zengerle of New York magazine asked you about your accomplishments, the first thing you mentioned was LGBT issues. Your work on financial reform has arguably been more important to more people. Why did you mention LGBT issues first?
[Financial reform] may be important to more people—but it’s not as important as your own personal dignity and rights. We went through a terrible period with financial irresponsibility, and I’m proud of what we did there. But I don’t think the economic problems people face [compare] to being 15 and being afraid that your parents are going to find out who you really are or being bullied in school because of the way you look or thinking you’re never going to have a real life. I’m a big shot now, I’m immune from the prejudice. Jim and I can go anywhere we want as a married couple. But I used to be 15. I remember what it was like.

I do think the absence of an economic recession is important. But it’s not as important as freeing vulnerable people from the terrible oppression that was homophobia. It’s not gone away. But we’re beating it.

Now, I don’t claim that this was my accomplishment. My career and the gay rights movement are the same age. Stonewall was in 1969. I first ran for [state legislative] office in 1972. As a candidate I rode in the second [Boston] Gay Pride Parade in 1972. I’ve been helped by the movement, and I’ve helped the movement. So yes, I’m proud of what I’ve done.

You could have run away from it, though.
The chance came to run, and I decided, I can’t be honest about who I am. It means sacrificing having a personal life, but I’ll have a great public life, and that will be a substitute. And one thing I can tell you is, that is bullshit. The best, most satisfying public life in the world doesn’t come close to meeting the needs that a private life meets. And in fact I think denying yourself a full private life becomes a kind of impediment to your public life, especially if it’s one where you’re trying to interact with people. You’re just not as nice, you’re not as open. You harbor resentments. And even though the resentments are your own fault because you’re closeted, that doesn’t make them less of an impediment.

Secondly, I said, I can’t be honest about being gay, but I would consider it totally dishonorable not to be an advocate for gay rights. In 1972, I was running for office, and two new organizations, one female and one male, the Daughters of Bilitis and the Homophile Union of Boston, sent out a questionnaire to all the state legislative candidates. [Ed. note: Among other things, the questionnaire asked if the candidate would support a gay rights bill.] And I was the only one who wrote back and said yes. So they called me up and said, “Would you file the bill? You’re the only one who said you would.” So I did.  

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