Retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) acknowledged on Tuesday his role as a pioneer for LGBT rights during a Washington news conference.
Asked by the Washington Blade whether he thinks characterizations of him following his retirement announcement as a gay rights pioneer are accurate, Frank replied, “Yeah, in the sense that I was the first person to volunteer that I was gay.”
Frank made the comments during a news conference on Capitol Hill following his announcement from the previous day that he won’t pursue a 17th term in the U.S. House. He took questions from Washington-area reporters after participating in a similar event on Monday in his home district in Massachusetts.
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Frank, 71, was first elected to Congress in 1980 and publicly came out as gay in 1987. The lawmaker was the second openly gay person to serve in Congress. The late Rep. Gerry Studds had come out as gay in 1983, but only after revelations emerged that he had an affair with a 17-year-old male page.
“My colleague Gerry Studds was first person courageously to acknowledge it,” Frank continued. “Before Gerry, a number of members of Congress had been caught in sexual activity that would have led people to infer that they were gay. As I recall, all of them announced that they were too drunk to remember what they were doing, which is an unusual description of one’s capacity to be drunk to remember things, but that’s what they said.”
On his own coming out, Frank continued, “I was the first to acknowledge being gay. … I didn’t do it until I was 47. I was not the daring young man on the flying trapeze here.”
Among those dubbing Frank a “pioneer” for being openly gay as member of Congress decades ago was fellow gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who Monday in a statement called Frank “a groundbreaking pioneer and one of the most insightful, knowledgeable and humorous people ever to grace the halls of Congress.”
Over the course of the news conference, Frank took questions on matters including the sustainability of the financial reform law known as Dodd-Frank that he helped shepherd through Congress and into law last year and his oversight as House Financial Services Committee chair of subprime mortgage lending that some say contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. However, the lawmaker also took a handful of LGBT-related questions.
Asked why ENDA hasn’t yet become law, Frank said the answer is “very simple” and pro-LGBT bills need Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress and a Democratic administration to become law.
“The only way you can get any law passed that fights discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity is if you have a Democratic president, House and Senate,” Frank said. “Now, people don’t realize how rarely we’ve had that. We’ve had a Democratic president, House and Senate for four years out of the 32 I’ve been in Congress. We had it for the first two years under Bill Clinton and we had it for the first two years under Barack Obama.”
Under Clinton, Frank said Americans hadn’t evolved enough in terms of LGBT rights to pass ENDA, although he said LGBT rights were advanced by executive orders enabling LGBT government workers to have security clearances and allowing foreigners to claim asylum in the United States based on their LGBT status.
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Frank noted that hate crimes protection legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal were able to pass during the 111th Congress. As for why ENDA wasn’t among those bills, Frank said a crowded schedule under which lawmakers worked on health care reform as well as the issue of transgender inclusion were factors.
Frank said the recently passed transgender workplace protections bill in Massachusetts could be a “model” for addressing transgender inclusion issues for ENDA in Congress because of the state law’s more limited scope omitting public accommodations.
“The Massachusetts Legislature just passed and the governor signed a bill that prohibits discrimination on people based on gender identity,” Frank said. “They already had one on sexual orientation. But it’s in employment; it does not include public accommodations. It avoids the whole issue of what happens in locker rooms and bathrooms.”
Frank added he thinks ENDA will become law when the Democrats have control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“Given the polarization of this issue and the extent to which the Republican Party has moved to a virtually unanimous overwhelmingly anti-LGBT position — with some exceptions in the Senate on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — it’ll be the next time you get a Democratic House, Senate and president,” Frank said.
Frank also commented on the importance of having openly LGBT members of Congress, saying, “Personal factors mean a lot.” Frank’s departure could lead to a reduction in the number of openly gay members of Congress, although other candidates are in the running.
“Voting in the abstract on an issue is one thing,” Frank said. “Telling someone with whom you have had good personal relations that you think he’s inferior — that’s harder. … If you believe we should be finishing the fight against … legal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender [identity], it is important to have people who are gay or transgender or lesbian in the mix.”
As far as issues that weren’t LGBT-specific, Frank also responded to what he thought would happen to Congress after the 2012 election. He said Democrats could win control of both chambers of Congress, but he doesn’t believe Democrats would have sufficient seats for a “workable majority.”
“I don’t think we will have the unusual circumstances we had of having enough senators to almost break a filibuster,” Frank said. “I don’t think in either House you’re going to have workable majorities. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I think it’s very possible that we will have a Democratic majority, but I don’t think you’re going to see a workable congressional majority for the next two years in the House or the Senate.”
Frank also ruled out the possibility of being appointed as secretary of the Department of Housing & Urban Development. Frank had earlier expressed interest in the position in a biography published in 2009. If he had received such an appointment, he would have become the first openly gay Cabinet member.
“My hope that was that Obama would get elected, we would have four years under Obama’s presidency of Democratic control and we could establish some new housing programs,” Frank said. “We would establish some new housing programs and I would like to have the chance to administer them. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
Frank continued that his “biggest disappointment” over his congressional career was that he didn’t advance rental housing programs over which HUD would have jurisdiction as much as would have liked.
“So the reasons that I would have liked to be secretary of HUD would be to administer programs that don’t exist,” Frank said.
Frank also followed up on comments he made Monday saying he “lived a good enough life to be rewarded by Newt Gingrich being the Republican nominee.” The former House speaker is currently the front-runner among the GOP presidential candidates, according to some polls.
The lawmaker said he “isn’t an expert on the Republican nominating process” but believes the rise of Gingrich is the result of dissatisfaction with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom some consider the establishment candidate for the Republicans.
“I must say, when I saw the Sunday edition of the Union Leader endorse Newt Gingrich, I guess I channeled my grandmother, ‘From Joe McQuaid’s lips to God’s ears,'” Frank said. “It just seemed to me — given the Freddie Mac thing, the marital difficulties, the other issues that he’s got, the fact that he was forced to pay a fine by the House of Representatives — it just seemed to me unlikely. I guess, but, again, I’m not an expert on this, the distaste for Mitt Romney is so strong, it outweighs some of Gingrich’s problems.”