I may be using the word “friend” a little loosely here but like many of my generation that’s how I see Barney Frank. He is also my hero. I met Barney after he was elected to Congress through a mutual friend and I invited him to a dinner party at my home.
We are both Jewish boys who grew up in the Northeast, were closeted until later in our lives, and had a hard time coming out. We are both interested in politics and activism. That is where the comparisons end. Barney is brilliant and I am not. Like many brilliant people Barney often finds it difficult to make small talk and always wants to talk policy. Big issues from world peace to finance to the LGBT movement intrigue Barney. As a member of Congress he has a platform and seven years after he was elected he took advantage of that platform to speak out for our community.
Many younger people don’t realize how difficult it was to come out, never mind on a national stage, in 1987. It was much harder than chaining yourself to the White House fence or coming to a national march and it had much more impact for the LGBT community at the time. Barney made a huge statement. You could be out and proud and a member of Congress. There were other members of Congress we knew were gay and some of us were friends with them, but Barney was the first one out of the closet.
I remember how proud I was the first time I saw Barney debating Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum. She was one of the most virulently anti-gay spokespersons at the time even after we found out she had a gay son. But now there was one of us with the stature and ability to respond to her bigotry.
Barney balanced his work as a leader in the LGBT movement with all his other responsibilities as a member of Congress. He made his mark at home and won the respect of members who didn’t agree with all his stands. Some questioned his irreverence as he was always ready with a quip and tart response to some bigoted or stupid remark. The high regard in which he is held, along with his longevity, led him to the chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee. I remember thinking how apt it was that those titans of industry and banking would be kneeling in front of him.
He ensured that people with HIV/AIDS were protected in the workplace when that was difficult to do. When on occasion he stood up and made impassioned personal speeches on the floor of the House telling other members about what it meant to be gay he brought many of us to tears.
Barney understands the system. He knows how to count votes and analyze policy, and he never suffered fools gladly. Some have called him a bully and said he ran roughshod over staff. Well, I worked for a member of Congress, Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.), who was accused of the same behavior. But both Barney and Bella were passionate about getting things done and not wasting time on those who either couldn’t or didn’t want to understand what they already knew. It may not always be easy to work with or for people like that, but it is so rewarding when you work for someone who shares your passion and works longer and harder than anyone else to get things done. So if at times Barney doesn’t show the kind of deference to others that they may like and angers them, in the end he still gets things done and gets them done right.
Barney has never wavered in the fight for LGBT rights. He has always believed in moving us forward even if it meant taking incremental steps, because he knew that is better than not moving forward at all. His work over more than 30 years has teed us up for continued progress. My hope is that in the next stage of Barney’s career he continues to be a leader in the movement for all people’s rights and continues to lead the LGBT community forward. He will surely be missed in Congress when he retires next year but he will continue to be a hero as he pushes back against anyone who stands in the way of our fight for full civil and human rights.