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?
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?
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.
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.
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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