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.
Frank in 1988
Why has the Employment Non-Discrimination Act taken so long? The public supports our right to work so overwhelmingly.
We didn’t have the votes for any strong gay rights legislation until the beginning of this century. In the 1990s we could stop bad stuff, but we didn’t quite have the votes for good stuff. Think about it: Passing pro-gay stuff, supportive of our rights, requires there to be a Democratic House, Senate, president. We had that in 1993 and 1994. At that point it was still bad. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” passed. Then you had the Republicans running everything. The next time the Democrats had the House, Senate, and president [after the Democratic Party had come around to supporting LGBT causes] was 2009 and 2010.
At that point the problem with ENDA was, [repealing] “don’t ask, don’t tell” came ahead of it. We did [pass] a transgender-inclusive hate-crimes bill [the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act], and we did “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I was pushing ENDA as well. We had three items and there was only room for two.
Part of the problem with ENDA is that health care took so long. It goes through the same committee in the House as a piece of health care legislation. The next time the Democrats have the House, the Senate, and the presidency, I am confident we will get a transgender-inclusive ENDA, and if the [Supreme] Court has not carried out the equal protection thing on [the Defense of Marriage Act], we will get rid of DOMA too. But I think that won’t be necessary, I think the court will take care of it.
At what point did you start thinking of marriage as a workable issue?
Early in this century. Things were evolving, moving. I could just feel it. We were in a vicious cycle. You can’t refute the prejudice [against marriage equality] until you have the reality, but you can’t get the reality in the face of the prejudice. That’s my justification for [a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage] coming from a court first in a democratic society. And if a state supreme court does it and the public doesn’t like it, it will be overturned within a few years. In Massachusetts the [state’s Supreme Judicial] Court did it, and the public came to see, “Hey, no big deal.”
So were you in favor of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health [the Massachusetts lawsuit that became the first to open marriage to same-sex couples], when Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed that case?
Oh, of course. Mary Bonauto is our Thurgood Marshall. It frustrates me — they give all the attention to Theodore Olson and David Boies, but she’s much better. Our lawsuits are better.
What I was not in favor of — two things. In 1996, when the Hawaii court started to [suggest that Hawaii residents might have the right under the state constitution to marry someone of the same sex], some of our advocates made the mistake of saying, “Oh, if it happens in Hawaii, every other state will have to accept it.” A, that’s not good law, and B, it was terrible politics. That’s one of the reasons we had a harder time getting votes against DOMA [in Congress in 1996]. I actually offered an amendment to knock out the part of DOMA [section 3] that says no federal benefits [for married same-sex couples]. And I got many more votes for that than against DOMA in general, like 100 as opposed to 60. A majority of Democrats voted with me, even back in ’96.
A second thing that I thought was a mistake was what I thought was a stunt by [then–San Francisco mayor] Gavin Newsom when he announced he could marry people, which I thought was stupid. In the first place, you knew that wasn’t going to hold up. And that was a cruel thing to do to people. I really was bothered by this. Nancy Pelosi said to me, “Newsom would like your advice about whether to do this.” So I called him. I said, “I think it would be a mistake. Especially if it happens right after Massachusetts. We’re defending Massachusetts, we’re trying to keep it off the ballot. Please don’t lend credence to the argument that it can happen anywhere at any time. We need to show that it can work.” He said, “OK, well, I’ll think about it.” The next thing I knew, he announced that I had tried to talk him out of it, to make himself a hero. And of course it blew up in our face! They used him in the commercials against us. It was well-intentioned but not thoughtful.
The movement now accepts the fact that you have to win marriage state by state, partly because you get a reality that you then can use to batter down the prejudice. That’s been my view. Do it state by state and defend it and then it builds from there.
Frank and his husband, Jim Ready, kiss during Obama's 2012 nomination.
A lot of LGB folks have had an evolution on trans issues. We’ve learned from our friends. What educated you or changed your mind on trans issues?
Oh, nothing changed my mind. I was always for it. I spoke in favor of trans protection in the hate-crimes bill in the ’90s.
ENDA was trans-inclusive when we first filed it. What became clear was that we had the votes to pass ENDA without the trans [protection] but not with it. I believed and still believe that that would have been helpful. You knock out some of the prejudice, and you build from there. I’ve always believed you get what you can. If all you can get is civil unions, take them, and it will help you get to marriage. You defeat some of the prejudice. It worked out that way in Vermont.
You’ve served with a number of administrations. How would you rate them all on LGBT issues?
Obama’s the best. I think he’s done as much as could have been done. He could have spoken out on marriage a little earlier, but my point to them was, given your position in favor of LGBT rights, you’re not going to lose anybody if you add marriage. I think he’s moved as quickly as made sense, and he’s been very successful. And in particular, it’s a very specialist point, a technical legal one: The Justice Department has argued for a heightened level of scrutiny [that federal courts must apply to any laws that hinge on sexual orientation, as is applied on race or sex]. Saying that we are entitled to heightened scrutiny is very important. I argued for that with the Clinton administration. They wouldn’t.
The Clinton administration really got beaten up on LGBT issues.
[Clinton] did accomplish some things that were very difficult. He tried to [repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military], he lost that. And on DOMA [which passed during the Clinton administration]—frankly, our people made it worse by saying, “Oh, once one state does it, that will mean [same-sex] marriage everywhere.”
On the other hand, when I became a member of Congress, I used to hear from gay people all the time about the [executive order banning lesbians and gay men from holding] security clearances. Clinton abolished that, knocking out a 40-year-old order from Eisenhower. Secondly, I’ve had people stop me and hug me, [for] refugee status for the victims of homophobia. If you’re gay or lesbian overseas and you’re being persecuted, you can come here—Clinton added that to the category for legal refugees. Whatever he could do legally, personally, he did.
What about Reagan and the Bushes?
Oh, just awful. The constitutional amendment George Bush supported didn’t just mean no new [same-sex] marriages, it would have abolished existing [same-sex] marriages. It was just awful. And the courts, the appointments—[Antonin] Scalia is a Reagan figure—people haven’t noticed, one of Romney’s advisers on the courts is [Robert] Bork, one of the leading antigay bigots in history.
The partisan difference is great. The Log Cabin Club was formed in 1990. During their existence, the Republican Party has gotten worse on LGBT rights. I am in favor of them trying to make the Republicans better. I am very opposed to them pretending they have succeeded when they have not. You don’t reward people for bad behavior as a way of getting them to change it.
Dorchester, September 29, 2012
What do you think it’s going to take to get the Republicans to support LGBT causes?
I wish I knew. They’ve gotten worse and worse. I think it will take their losing, and their recognition that they will continue to lose until they change. The country’s gotten better. The Democrats have gotten better at a faster rate than the country, and the Republicans have gotten worse. It’s the dynamic of the Republican primaries. To win a Republican primary, you have to be on the far right.
What do you think about labeling groups like the Family Research Council “hate groups”?
I think it’s very reasonable. People need to have certain emotional outlets. As long as it’s clear that there are no consequences for being called a hate group. That is, members of hate groups have every free speech right that everyone else does. I think it’s fair to say that they appear to be motivated more by their opposition to certain groups of people than by their broader advocacy.
On trans issues, what do you think the next steps are?
The transgender community has had to go through what the LGB community did, which was: Get over it, that’s who we are. First you tell [straight people] who you are, and their reaction is, “That makes me nervous.” Then they get over it. We’re at that point with the transgender community. The trans movement started much more recently, and it’s taken a while to get as far. Now people who are supportive on LGB issues will be supportive on trans issues. It just took education and meeting people who are trans. Chaz Bono is helpful. I think I had a positive impact when I hired Diego [Sanchez, a trans man who has been a senior staffer in Frank’s office], who has had a positive impact there.
Do you ever think about the fact that being the first sitting member of Congress to come out while in office will probably be the lead in your obituary?
Oh, I don’t know. The financial reform bill might be. Look, if I live another 20 years, which I hope to, I hope that by the time I die, people can say, “Gee, why was that a big deal?”
E.J. Graff is a daily columnist at The American Prospect, a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, and author of the book What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press, 1999).