For Gay Marriage, ‘The NRA Is the Model’

Barney Frank on coming out, working the system, fighting for AIDS research money, and secretly dancing with his partner at the White House Christmas Party.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), exit interview. 
©2012 Richard A. Bloom
Adam B. Kushner
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Adam B. Kushner
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

Former Rep. Barney Frank’s ca­reer roughly mir­rors the arc of the mod­ern gay-rights move­ment. He re­min­isced with Na­tion­al Journ­al. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

Linda Hirsh­man’s new his­tory of the move­ment is called Vic­tory: The Tri­umphant Gay Re­volu­tion. Do you agree with the premise?

No ques­tion. We’ve made a great deal of pro­gress in ab­ol­ish­ing pre­ju­dice. In some parts of the coun­try there still is a prob­lem with mar­riage and job dis­crim­in­a­tion, but in much of the coun­try there’s vir­tu­ally no leg­al dis­ab­il­ity and not too much so­cial and polit­ic­al dis­ab­il­ity. Forty years ago, there wasn’t a single state where we were pro­tec­ted against job dis­crim­in­a­tion. We were banned from the coun­try as im­mig­rants. We couldn’t get se­cur­ity clear­ances. There was dis­crim­in­a­tion in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. There had nev­er been an openly gay or les­bi­an ap­pointee by a pres­id­ent. There were no openly gay mem­bers of Con­gress. You couldn’t serve in the mil­it­ary.

How did things change in Wash­ing­ton?

When I got to Wash­ing­ton in 1981, there was a thriv­ing gay com­munity, but not deeply closeted. I ana­lo­gize it to Switzer­land dur­ing World War II: the place where spies could go be­cause they needed a place to re­lax where they wouldn’t shoot each oth­er. There were people — mostly men — who were out to each oth­er, more Demo­crat than Re­pub­lic­an, but there were a lot of Re­pub­lic­ans. We knew who we were. There was an act­ive gay so­cial life of bars and din­ners and meet­ings. Wash­ing­ton was a very good place to be gay for this reas­on.

Bet­ter than else­where?

Yes. At that time, if you were not part of a nor­mal, het­ero­sexu­al fam­ily unit, you were sus­pect; Wash­ing­ton was full of men, in par­tic­u­lar, who were not part of fam­ily units, be­cause those were back in home areas. So it wasn’t un­usu­al in Wash­ing­ton to be a man alone. And that gave cov­er to those of us who were gay.

So in that way this town hasn’t changed much.

What changed is that the Demo­crats all came out. When Tom Fo­ley was speak­er, he re­cog­nized the gay and les­bi­an staff caucus. The mem­ber­ship meet­ings on the Hill were over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic, be­cause the Re­pub­lic­ans were still closeted. Even then, most Re­pub­lic­ans didn’t think be­ing gay was a choice, so the Re­pub­lic­an caucus said, “OK, you can’t help it, just don’t make a big deal about it.”

Tell me about com­ing out.

By the late ‘80s, you had a large net­work of out con­gres­sion­al staffers, lob­by­ists, people at uni­ons. I was plan­ning to come out my­self, but Gerry Studds had to do it first [be­cause of the con­gres­sion­al page scan­dal that im­plic­ated Studds, a House mem­ber from Mas­sachu­setts]. I may have had an em­bar­rass­ment. [Frank’s then-boy­friend secretly ran an es­cort ser­vice from his house.] But I was the first one to come out vol­un­tar­ily, and I really had to think about how to do it.

What do you mean “how”?

There were two books in my life that I con­sul­ted as manu­als about how to do things. One was [Robert] Caro on Lyn­don John­son. The oth­er was a bio­graphy by Charles Hamilton about Adam Clayton Pow­ell. When Pow­ell came to Wash­ing­ton, he was told that he couldn’t use the House swim­ming pool, eat in the House res­taur­ant, or get his hair cut in the House barber­shop. Pow­ell said, “No, I’m do­ing it.” The Daugh­ters of the Amer­ic­an Re­volu­tion wouldn’t let his wife, who was a pi­an­ist, use their con­cert hall. Then Bess Tru­man, the first lady, went to a [DAR] re­cep­tion, and Pow­ell cri­ti­cized her and got in­to a big fight with Harry Tru­man, who banned him from the White House. So I de­cided I was not go­ing to do something so that some big­ot could make a point. I wanted [my part­ner] Herb Moses to be treated the way any oth­er mem­ber’s com­pan­ion would be treated. He couldn’t get be­ne­fits and health care — we couldn’t con­trol that — but he was giv­en a spouse pin and an ID card.

Did com­ing out quash some of your am­bi­tions?

No ques­tion. When I came out to Tip O’Neill in 1986, he said, “Barney, I’m so sad. I thought you might be the first Jew­ish speak­er.” Any­way, if I were straight I prob­ably would have made it onto lead­er­ship.

If you star­ted your ca­reer over again today, that wouldn’t have been a prob­lem.

No. Sev­er­al of us came out while we were in Con­gress. Gerry Studds and I [both Demo­crats] were very sup­por­ted by our party when we came out. Re­pub­lic­ans Steve Gun­der­son and Jim Kolbe much less so, and both of them faced primary op­pos­i­tion.

Still, Kolbe won four more elec­tions after he came out.

Right, but two of them were really tough primar­ies that he won with 52 and 54 per­cent. By the time you’ve been in Con­gress as long as Jim had, you don’t ex­pect primary op­pos­i­tion.

What was it like to be a gay mem­ber of Con­gress in the 1980s, when the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion and the FDA were largely ig­nor­ing AIDS?

The Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship — with some bi­par­tis­an sup­port — did a lot of work to com­bat it. We got money, both to care for people with AIDS and for re­search. Right-wing­ers couldn’t out­right fight re­search for AIDS, so what they said was, “Any­body ac­cept­ing money un­der these pro­grams, both for re­search and care, has to pledge to do noth­ing to pro­mote ho­mo­sexu­al­ity.” They were called the No Promo Homo amend­ments, and they would have killed the pro­grams be­cause or­gan­iz­a­tions wouldn’t ac­cept the money since they didn’t know what it meant. Did it mean be­ing kind to people? We were able to de­feat those amend­ments. It was the first time a pro-LGBT policy won a vote.

Gay donors are a power­ful force in the Demo­crat­ic Party. Have the fin­an­cial in­cent­ives to sup­port gay rights made a dif­fer­ence, or would minds have changed any­way?

People tend to ex­ag­ger­ate the im­port­ance of money versus votes. Yes, gay money is help­ful, but the vot­ing pop­u­la­tion did more — votes for can­did­ates. After I came out, I star­ted get­ting asked to go cam­paign for oth­ers. At first it was just New York and Cali­for­nia, but by the 1990s, it was Iowa, Col­or­ado, and all over the coun­try.

Gay-rights ad­voc­ates have made so much pro­gress so quickly. Do you worry at all about a back­lash like we saw in the last dec­ade?

What back­lash?

All those state con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments came after Goodridge, the 2003 Massa­chu­setts Su­preme Court rul­ing that re­cog­nized gay mar­riage.

That’s right, there were some re­tard­ants to pro­gress. But in no case was any ex­ist­ing right taken back. After the Su­preme Court struck down DOMA, there are now no ex­ist­ing an­ti­gay laws for the first time in Amer­ic­an his­tory. We have only one ma­jor hurdle left — the em­ploy­ment-dis­crim­in­a­tion bill, which I be­lieve will pass next time there’s a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent, House, and Sen­ate.

What’s the bet­ter way to ad­vance the cause: for pub­lic ac­cul­tur­a­tion to pro­duce more gay and gay-friendly elec­ted of­fice­hold­ers, or for law­suits that force judges to enu­mer­ate rights?

[Pauses.] Yes.

Yes? Both? All of the above?

Both. They re­in­force each oth­er. In vir­tu­ally every state, if you win a law­suit and don’t have pub­lic opin­ion be­hind you, they’ll take your vic­tory away [in the le­gis­lature].

Were you nervous when you heard about Dav­id Boies and Theodore Olson’s Su­preme Court case against Prop 8?

Yes, I thought it was a big mis­take to push that. I was a great sup­port­er of the equal-pro­tec­tion at­tack on DOMA. I thought the Boies/Olson law­suit wasn’t go­ing to win, but I feel vin­dic­ated by [the line of ar­gu­ment they used]. With Ok­lahoma and now Utah, things are mov­ing very quickly, and in a few years I’ll be less wor­ried about law­suits.

Which do you think we’ll see first: the first gay speak­er, the first gay pres­id­ent, or the first gay Su­preme Court justice?

I think a gay pres­id­ent is pretty far down the line. We’re about to get our first openly gay gov­ernor, with Mike Michaud in Maine. Speak­er is go­ing to be hard be­cause, while the mem­bers them­selves are totally un­pre­ju­diced, there are still parts of the coun­try where a Demo­crat­ic mem­ber of the House would be­come polit­ic­ally vul­ner­able for vot­ing for a gay speak­er. Of the three choices you gave me, prob­ably the first you’ll see is a gay Su­preme Court justice, par­tic­u­larly now with the 50-plus con­firm­a­tion [in the Sen­ate].

That House dy­nam­ic ap­plies in the Sen­ate, too.

Oh, yes.

Did you keep your home on Cap­it­ol Hill?

No. When I come back to Wash­ing­ton, as a con­stitu­ent ser­vice, Chel­lie Pin­gree, who is a con­gress­wo­man from an area where Jim and I live in Maine, lets us stay at her town house.

Now that’s re­tail polit­ics! What do you think young people don’t un­der­stand about the fight you came through? What would you want to tell them?

That polit­ics works. Marches and demon­stra­tions were use­ful to a point in the 1970s when people didn’t know we were here, but they aren’t ef­fect­ive as a polit­ic­al tool. The NRA is the mod­el — dis­cip­lined polit­ic­al activ­ity. Mak­ing sure that any­body you vote for knows what you think, and vot­ing against them if they don’t do it. In Oc­to­ber 2010, someone or­gan­ized a march to put pres­sure on Con­gress to re­peal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I told them the only thing they were put­ting pres­sure on was the grass on the Mall.

But pre­sum­ably there were points in move­ment his­tory when the out­side track was more suc­cess­ful than the in­side track.

No, nev­er.

What about AIDS drug tri­als?

Yes, OK. Good point. But it wasn’t polit­ic­al. Drug com­pan­ies could be pres­sured; politi­cians can’t. If you’re a politi­cian and you have 62 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing, you’re ec­stat­ic. If you’re a com­pany with a 38 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing, you’re frantic. Go­ing after the Bur­roughs Wellcome Fund [a re­search found­a­tion] was help­ful; go­ing after Jesse Helms just let him get more money. In that way, demon­stra­tions di­ver­ted at­ten­tion. When people go to a demon­stra­tion, they think they’ve done something. But they’ve only ven­ted. It’s much bet­ter to write let­ters and go see their mem­bers. When’s the last time you read about an NRA march? Pound for pound, that’s the most ef­fect­ive polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion in the coun­try.

What do you think of a “Gay Wash­ing­ton” is­sue of Na­tion­al Journ­al?

It’s a mat­ter of fact. In 1988, Herb Moses and I were liv­ing to­geth­er. We went to the White House Christ­mas party. Every­body was dan­cing, and we wanted to dance, so we kind of secretly danced.

You secretly danced? What is that?

Well, we waited un­til the floor was pretty crowded.

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