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

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).

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