Congressman Barney Frank reflects on his career

2012-07-27 10:13

New York - Barney Frank is one of the longest serving congressmen in the US House of Representatives to date, and his influence is notable from the time he entered the chamber back in 1981, to the final year of his service: This one.

His 32-year career was peppered with controversy early on, as he grappled with being one of few high-profile homosexuals in the US, but he will round out a significant career in November's election with heavy influence over directions America took in financial and foreign policy, as well as civil rights.
Most recently he is the "Frank" in the current set of Dodd-Frank laws, which aim to limit the impact risky financial decisions have on the economy (like the causes of the most recent global recession), and happen to be a favourite punching bag for Republicans.
News24 sat down with Barney Frank in his offices in Washington DC, not long after US President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage: ie, extending the civil rights awarded to heterosexual married couples to homosexual ones.

This doesn't mean very much in terms of policy, as marriage is legislated by the governments of the individual states, not the federal (national) government. But Frank thinks Obama's statement is a huge step in the fight for full marriage equality nationwide.

"I think it will help shape public opinion – yes in general – and particularly among African Americans," he began in his hoarse tone. "It's been one area where there's been some tension between most of the liberal community and the African Americans. Some of the ministers have taken this very seriously and in the California referendum African Americans didn’t support us in a majority although African American national leaders have been very supportive."

Forced into hiding

Frank is quite right: Not long after Obama backed gay marriage, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (the US' oldest civil rights group) endorsed gay marriage as a civil right.

Three states will vote on gay marriage in referenda in November, one of which is Maryland, with a black population of around 30%, and Frank thinks the president's endorsement is "especially relevant" there.
Frank has been vocal about gay rights since the 1980s. He became America's first ever out gay politician in 1987, a massive step in a firmly conservative country.

It wasn't always so. Frank tried to keep his sexual orientation from the public eye, and was forced into hiding it for fear of facing real discrimination and harassment (it is still legal in 29 states to be fired for being gay, for example), and obviously losing his seat.

"The need to kind of hide became intense. It led me to behave foolishly, to hire hustlers because I was just starved for that companionship. And in particular I was so emotionally vulnerable I had one guy take advantage of that – a bunch of lies that I believed – that made me vulnerable."

In 1985 Frank hired a male prostitute, Steve Gobie, with whom he became better friends than mere sexual partners, and hired him in specific roles as an aide: Driver, housekeeper, and so on.

'Terrible tension'

However, Gobie continued to entertain clients at the house Frank paid for, and Frank terminated any dealings between the two in 1987.

This all came out when Gobie tried to sell his story to the newspapers and Frank was reprimanded by the House of Representatives in a vote of 408 to 18 (incidentally, one of the 18 votes against was cast by current Democrat leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, and another by former representative and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich).
It became virtually impossible for Frank, as a closeted public servant, to have any kind of normal life, virtually necessitating him coming out.

"I just, to be honest, felt a terrible tension in my life. It was possible then to be a closeted gay man or lesbian and go about your business, and then off duty, away from work, you could be out. But I was too prominent. By 1987 I was a fairly prominent member of congress. It was very hard for me to have the emotional and physical gay life."
It wasn't just because of his own personal circumstance that Frank made the decision to admit publicly that he is gay. "I did also understand that it would be helpful politically [for the cause of gay rights]. And I felt some obligation to do that."
Frank needn't have feared for his seat. He would go on to win re-election to his Massachusetts seat twelve more times, unopposed in five of those votes, and his worst result being an 8-point victory in 2010.

Daunting issue

Frank thinks the only impact his coming out had on elections was early, "I think probably in the.... between 1986 and 1988, my percentage may have slipped by about 3 or 4 points which means if [the seat] was very marginal it would have been a different story. But by 1992 or 1994 it had receded entirely."
Massachusetts wasn't always so liberal though. Although it became the first state to legalise gay marriage in 2004, it faced opposition from within the state (including from then governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney).

Gay marriage was legalised through the courts, not the state legislature. "There was a great deal of opposition to same sex marriage in Massachusetts…  in 2004 it went into effect and in our constitution it couldn’t be challenged for several years. By the time they got around to putting a political challenge in the field, it had happened and it wasn’t a problem."

Frank has always maintained that gay marriage seems like a daunting electoral issue until is it executed, and then citizens realise it doesn't change anything.

"It was true in New Hampshire, it was true in Iowa. Once same sex marriage takes effect, if it is allowed to by political process, then the issue goes away because it's impossible to say 'oh it’s going to do this, it's going to do that' – it doesn't!"

When citizens have been able to vote on it prior to execution (as they will be doing in Washington State, Maryland and Maine come November) it has lost every single time, even in liberal states like California.


On the topic of the current Republican presidential candidate, Frank isn’t too kind and his famed blunt streak shines through.

"Mitt Romney is a man of no commitment on issues at all… what you have is Romney basically saying, 'I got to go to where my party is'. I think in this case it's purely electability, especially to win the presidential nomination of a party that's moved so far to the right."
Frank's career has been highlighted by his fight for the cause of gay rights, amongst his other contributions in diplomacy and fiscal fields.

"I have always, I mean from the day I got elected to office, challenged [homophobia]… I have argued against it, I have debated against it, but since 1987 it's been living my life, and making it bigger, from time to time, reminding people that I'm gay. I rarely make a public appearance without reminding people that."

Nowadays, as the US becomes more liberal on this issue, almost by the day, it might seem inappropriate to scream from the rooftops about being gay. But this was almost pioneering amongst federal legislators in the 1980s. And Frank's persistence paid off.

He organised the first gay pride day in the CIA's history, and also got the Clinton administration in 1994 to agree to allow asylum applications from people who were persecuted on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Frank also led the charge to stop aid to Uganda when it was mulling laws to execute homosexuals.

'Nobody's indestructible'

Frank's causes have shown immense progress, particularly in terms of gay rights, but the curtain will be drawn on his career after the next election.

One of the reasons is redistricting in his state which made his seat more competitive, which the 72-year-old doesn't feel up to campaigning for.

Twelve months of campaigning for a two-year seat is rather tiresome. What does he plan to do with his free time? "I would like to write more. I have a lot of things I want to write about. The history of gay rights for one thing, personally. My political career and the gay rights movement are coincidentally simultaneous. But also about liberalism in general."
"I am 72 years old. I don't know how much longer I am going to be able to focus. I mean I don't see any near term problem, but no body's indestructible. So I want to get out and do other things."

  • pieter.joubert.9 - 2012-07-28 11:29

    What a courageous man! To come out in the 80's publicly must have been challenging. And he is just a regular guy, not a flapping queen like some of the young guys these days. Congrats on your marriage on 7 July and have a great retirement!

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