(Barney) Frank Talk About Coming Out & Why He Loathes Mitt Romney
Freed at last from the strictures of running for office, Barney Frank is being even more outspoken in his likes and dislikes. The the openly gay U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, never known for hiding his opinions, is telling it like it is about his personal odyssey that finally led to his coming out, and his very open dislike of former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.
On June 15, Frank joined New York Times staff members at their Times Square headquarters to discuss his life, a long history of legislation and the battle for LGBT rights. The event, which was moderated by Metro editor Carolyn Ryan and assistant managing editor Rick Berke, attracted an estimated 160 audience members.
"In 1972, I was filing legislation for gay rights," said Frank. "I was terrified I would be asked if I was gay. I ran three years after Stonewall, and I would not have imagined I could be honest about my sexuality until I came out in 1987."
Frank was born in Bayonne, N.J., and pumped diesel at the foot of the Holland Tunnel. This young Yankees fan attended Harvard, and in 1968, worked on the campaign for Boston Mayor Kevin White. Several years later, he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, and in 1980, to the U.S. Congress.
With his partner of six years, Jim Ready, in the front row, Frank discussed the recent marriage equality win and changing public sentiment toward LGBT rights. Frank, 71, and Ready, 42, plan to be married in July in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions were legalized in 2004. Frank said that he is becoming a whole person emotionally, and is better able to deal with stress, thanks to his partner’s help. Frank will retire from Congress at the end of his term in 2013, after 32 years of public service -- some of it served before he came out as gay.
"I realized I was gay at 13, but I was not able to deal with it until I was 47," said Frank. "Coming out isn’t a one-shot deal. You gotta shed some habits, learn some things. It was a great process, but Jim is the final major change. I intend after I retire to write, lecture and do TV commentaries."
Ryan asked Frank whether it was more difficult to be gay or Jewish in politics. Frank said he realized he was gay in 1953 -- a year before the Eisenhower Administration pushed through legislation targeting "sex perverts" as unable to get security clearance, which affected not only elected officials, but also architects, engineers and anyone working under contract to the U.S. State Department. Clinton overruled this in a 1994 executive order.
"Being Jewish in 1954 was more of an obstacle, because I decided at 13 that I would never tell anyone that I was gay," said Frank. "As to being Jewish, I had already outed myself at my bar mitzvah."
Still, Frank said that he was glad to see that the diminution of prejudice had removed anti-Semitism almost completely from the public sector. And his own coming out in 1987 helped other legislators come out, apart from those forced to do so after being implicated in untoward activities.
"I was increasingly unhappy with trying to be closeted," said Frank. "I thought I could act like I was not gay, and privately have an active social life, but that was hard to do. I satisfied my needs in a destructive way, and couldn’t deal with it."
The death of U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney (Dem.) in 1987 from AIDS-related illnesses and the pursuant "tawdry debate" that besmirched the man’s reputation convinced Frank it was time to come out. Although he didn’t want it to be a big deal, local press would not out gays unless they publicly announced they were gay.
The Boston Globe ended up breaking the news in two stories, one by Kay Longcope, and another story by a closeted gay reporter whom Frank disliked. Reactions among his constituents were overwhelmingly positive, Frank recalled, noting that he got a standing ovation while attend a circus event the following evening, with only one senator commenting that he would no longer use the Capitol Hill gym, for fear of contracting AIDS.
Same-Sex Marriage Wins Statewide, and Federally
Same-sex marriage was almost an accident, Frank remembered. In 1996, vacancies on the Hawaii Supreme Court lead to the temporary appointment of liberal-minded judges, who indicated in a preliminary decision that they might make same-sex marriage legal.
"It was a bad move, because gays thought that if they could get married there, it would be legal everywhere, because of the full faith and credit clause," said Frank. "But that’s not true; marriage is always a state-wide thing."
When the Defense of Marriage Act was foisted upon the LGBT community in 1996, it effectively killed the issue. Frank said that not only did President Bill Clinton sign it, but even very liberal legislators like Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone voted for it.
In 2003, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defender’s Mary Bonauto, whom Frank referred to as "our Thurgood Marshall," filed Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, a lawsuit on behalf of seven gay and lesbian couples denied the freedom to marry. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that excluding gay people from civil marriage violated equal protection guarantees, and after overcoming some challenges, same-sex couples began marrying in 2004. (Frank said that similar legal challenges to DOMA should not be brought in court).
"Marriage equality rights have moved much more quickly than we expected, for a couple of reasons," said Frank. "First of all, people have come out. Stereotypes were all people new, in a very caricatured fashion. They didn’t know our reality...we had to tell people who we are so they know our realities and problems."
An example where this ignorance caused problems, said Frank, was in the repeal of sodomy laws. While many lawmakers dismissed these laws as outdated relics not harming anyone, Frank said that he educated them to the need for their repeal so that LGBT people would not be criminally penalized for their sex lives.
When the gay community achieves such legislative victories, said Frank, the reality becomes much different from the prejudice. In the case of same-sex marriage, if the legislation endures for a year -- long enough for people to see that the catastrophic predictions did not come to pass -- it will usually not be repealed. The other game-changer is generational.
"There is every indication of a secular shift; the younger people are, the less they care about this," said Frank. "And in 20 years, no one will care."
But this move toward a more progressive thinking may slow if Mitt Romney wins the presidential election this fall. Frank said that he strove to be bipartisan, but had to admit that he could find no common ground with the man.
"I am appalled as a member of the profession that he thinks he may say anything at any time, and doesn’t stand for anything except a belief in his own superiority," said Frank. As an example, he said that as governor, Romney never once visited the poor, post-industrial areas of Massachusetts, including the large fisheries at New Bedford, that he could not engage with him on any economic issues, and that he refused to discuss commuter rail problems, walking away from Frank’s request to talk.
"I have a lack of respect for him and dislike him more than other people," said Frank, candidly. This attitude of partisanship among Republicans now is the most ideological, tightly controlled groups since the Democrats before the Civil War, said Frank.
Other Republicans have been good to the LGBT community, said Frank, pointing to George Bush’s 2001 appointment of a gay ambassador to Romania. Although Clinton meant well with DADT, said Frank, he was steamrolled by the House of Representatives, and the legislation sparked a witch-hunt. Clinton did manage, however, to get immigration rights for gays and lesbians fleeing regimes where their sexual orientation would make them a target of violence.
But today, said Frank, there is no sense of reaching across the aisle. Obama’s biggest problem, he posited, was in taking bipartisanship seriously, and soft-selling the country’s economic realities despite how bad the situation was. The reality is that the Republican party is being intransigent, prompting Frank to quip another bumper-sticker adage, "We’re not perfect, but they’re nuts!"
"Now, there is no issue that creates more differences between the two parties than marriage equality, except in New York," said Frank. "Next time the Democrats get the White House they will get rid of DOMA. They always predict chaos, and it never happens. Because no one can maintain the negative impacts of same-sex marriage."