When Barney Frank thinks about the progress LGBT people have made during his lifetime, he’s frankly amazed.
“If I had come out publicly in the late 1970s, I would not have been in Congress,” says Frank, who represented a Boston-area district from 1981 to 2013 and in 1987 became the first member of Congress to come out voluntarily. Now, he says, there’s no reason for an LGBT politician not to be out, at least in most parts of the country and within his party, the Democrats.
But Frank says he’s seen regression on some other progressive causes, especially economic ones — and speaking out on those is his priority in his post-Congress life and a central theme of his autobiography, Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, published today.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Frank notes in his book and in an interview with The Advocate, there was widespread belief in the power of government to improve Americans’ lives. There was equally widespread contempt for homosexuals, to use the terminology of the time. Now the positions have reversed — and while Frank remains committed to pushing LGBT rights until full equality is achieved, his primary goal is to persuade Americans — especially lower- and middle-income white men, who tend to vote for conservative candidates — that government can work to their benefit.
If these men lean conservative because of social issues, such as LGBT rights, that can be overcome, Frank says, as evidenced by the growing support for marriage equality. But these voters have lost faith that government intervention in the economy can be a positive thing.
“This critical bloc of voters is disaffected from government not because they don’t believe it should play an active role, but because they are disappointed that it hasn’t played an effective role,” Frank writes. “The biggest single reason for this is that conservatives have made sure that there is not enough government revenue for it to succeed.”
If money were freed up by making sure military resources are allocated only where they’re needed and by scaling back the war on drugs, he says, the federal government would be able to offer much more assistance to low-income families, children in poverty, the long-term unemployed, and programs that could aid workers who’ve lost their manufacturing jobs to globalization — for instance, it could increase funding for community colleges that train people for work that can’t easily be offshored, such as equipment repair.
Frank, outspoken as always, says one reason antigovernment conservatives have attained so much power is that they are better at organizing than liberals. “We have marches and they get people registered to vote in primaries,” he tells The Advocate.
The New Jersey–born son of a truck-stop operator and a legal secretary, Frank emphasizes that his political philosophy isn’t about building a socialist utopia; it’s about making capitalism work better for people who aren’t in the highest income brackets.
He has always been a political pragmatist, taking positions that have made him some enemies. Some LGBT activists have never forgiven him for, in 2007, backing a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that covered discrimination based on sexual orientation, not gender identity. He continues to maintain that it would have been impossible to pass a trans-inclusive ENDA at that time and that civil rights movements often have to take incremental steps on the way to achieving the goal of equality for all. The bill passed the House but failed to come to a vote in the Senate.
Later, Frank and others committed to a fully inclusive ENDA, which passed the Senate in 2013 but never got a House vote. He now says it will take Democratic control of both houses of Congress as well as a Democratic president for ENDA to become law.
That said, he recognizes the need to keep fighting for LGBT rights no matter who’s in office. “The fact that we’re almost there is no reason to stop — it’s a reason to speed up,” he tells The Advocate.
The growth in support for marriage equality and LGBT rights generally, he says, is due to people coming out. “Our reality beat the prejudice,” he says. His book goes over his own coming-out process in detail, including a memorable malapropism from former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who told an aide, “I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.” O’Neill also said that if Frank hadn’t been openly gay, he could have been the first Jewish speaker.
Frank doesn’t regret coming out; as he went back over his career and life to write the book, he says, he found few things to regret. “Obviously, the stupidity with the hustler” was one, he says, speaking of Steven Gobie, with whom he once had a relationship. “It began with pay for sex and evolved in my mind — but not his — into an ongoing nonsexual relationship,” Frank writes. But while living at Frank’s home, Gobie continued to sell his sexual services to other clients, something that came to light in the media in 1989. Frank consistently said he had no idea that Gobie was doing so, and a congressional investigation concluded that was the case.
Frank has gone on to have other, better relationships, with Herb Moses and then with Jim Ready, whom he married in 2012, making him the first member of Congress in a legal same-sex marriage. In a sign of progress, Frank notes that his colleagues weren’t outraged that he was marrying a man, but some were angry that they weren’t invited to the wedding. “It was the right kind of controversy to have,” he tells The Advocate.
Ready has been one of the most important people in his life, he says: “My relationship with Jim has just been transformative.” He also names his family (his sister, Ann Lewis, is a veteran Democratic activist), Moses, and on the political side, several colleagues, including onetime Boston Mayor Kevin White, who gave Frank his first paying job in politics; former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is now minority leader; longtime colleague and adviser James Segel; and civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein, who “showed me how to be a passionate, pragmatic liberal,” Frank says.
It’s clear Frank remains passionate about politics, although out of office. Besides writing his book, he’s spreading his message by making speeches around the nation, and he’s going to be working with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Oh, and he’s of course interested in the 2016 presidential election. “I’m happy with the fact that Hillary Clinton will be our nominee,” he says, adding that it’s unlikely anything damaging will come out of the controversy over her use of personal email as secretary of State. “I think she’s very able.”
Frank is out today from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.