Gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who announced last week that he won’t run for re-election next year, said the LGBT community has seen an “enormous” amount of progress during his more than 30 years in Congress and would achieve close to full equality in 12 years.
“I think we are on the verge of a very complete victory within a dozen years or so,” he told the Washington Blade in an interview in his office on Tuesday.
“That is, I think the country is supportive. It gets better generationally,” he said. “I don’t think people will be allowed to marry in every state, unfortunately, 10 years from now. I think people in those states where a majority of people live will be allowed to marry and will have full federal rights.”
Frank said he became the first member of Congress to voluntarily disclose he was gay in 1987, six years after taking office in 1981, after he determined staying in the closet was too constraining on his personal life.
“I got there and I thought, OK, well I can be privately out but publicly closeted,” he said. “But it didn’t work. I found it very hard to have a satisfying, healthy emotional and physical life.”
Frank said that during the years he withheld disclosing his sexual orientation, both as a congressman and a member of the Massachusetts State Legislature, he promised himself that he would never hold back on his strong political support for LGBT rights in an effort to conceal his status as a gay person.
“I remember my thought process was, well I can’t be honest about being gay. I wouldn’t win. But it would be despicable for me as a gay man to be any less than fully supportive,” he said.
In a wide-ranging discussion of his views on how the LGBT movement should push for civil rights legislation in Congress and through the states, Frank expressed in the blunt way he has been known to do that LGBT activists should use the most effective means of moving their agenda, even if that sometimes means making compromises.
He described as “political suicide” the call by some LGBT activists and bloggers for withholding support for President Barack Obama on grounds that Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress didn’t push harder for more LGBT legislative advances, including the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which remains stalled in Congress.
Frank said he has seen important advances in the support for transgender rights in Congress and several states, including Massachusetts, which just passed a transgender non-discrimination bill that includes protections in employment, housing, credit and adds transgender protections to the state’s hate crimes law.
But Frank noted that the bill passed after transgender leaders and their supporters in the legislature agreed to a compromise that eliminated public accommodations protections from the bill. Lawmakers supportive of the bill said they would add public accommodations protections to the law as soon they can line up the votes in the legislature needed to do so.
Frank dismissed as “ridiculous” the attacks by some LGBT activists who called the compromise unacceptable and an outrage against the transgender community.
“That is an example of their political stupidity,” he said, noting that the compromise bill provides employment and housing protections that otherwise would not have passed if advocates held out for an all-or-nothing bill.
Frank described as “reasonable” a proposal by LGBT advocates that President Obama issue an executive order requiring companies that receive federal contracts in the defense and other industries to provide non-discrimination protections for their LGBT employees.
“I think that’s a reasonable thing to keep pushing for,” he said. “There are limits to what you can do. You don’t want the president to overreach from what could be required in legislation. I think that’s worth pushing for if it’s carefully done.”
A transcript of the Blade’s interview with Rep. Frank follows. The interview was conducted on Dec. 6, 2011, in Frank’s Capitol Hill office.
Washington Blade: To what degree have you seen support for LGBT equality increase in the U.S. Congress since you took office as a congressman in 1981?
Rep. Barney Frank: Oh, enormously. When I first got here, the first vote we had was in 1981 when the House – as it was able to do then by a one-house vote – overturned the D.C. Council’s repeal of the [city’s] sodomy law. It was a heavy vote against us. And we’ve just made very great progress since then. It’s to the point where now — and it’s unfortunate that it’s gotten very partisan. The country has gotten much better in its view on LGBT rights. The Democrats have gotten better — equal to or ahead of the country. But the Republicans have gotten much worse. So it’s now one of the major partisan issues. It’s unfortunate how terrible the Republicans have become. You saw that in ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ for instance, in the House. But in general the expectation is the Democrats in the House will be supportive on most issues, and I think that reflects the country.
Blade: What prompted you to come out as gay in 1987?
Frank: First, my personal life. I’ve known I’ve been gay since I was 13. I lived a very repressed life until then. And then, because I had emotional and physical needs that needed an outlet, I got here and I thought, OK, well I can be privately out but publicly closeted. But it didn’t work. I just found it very hard to have a satisfying, healthy emotional and physical life. So it was primarily my personal life. But it was also the secondary factor that I thought it would be helpful in fighting prejudice. One of the things I realized about talking a lot about gay rights – and increasingly by then people knew I was gay. I wasn’t out publicly. I realized they did not understand what it was like, what we went through, what the pain was. But that’s because they didn’t know anybody. It’s hard to sympathize with people when you don’t know who they are. You don’t see what it is.
Blade: Unlike other gay public officials who were in the closet, you didn’t seem to hold back in your public support for gay rights.
Frank: It was quite the opposite. I decided to run for office in 1972 – to run for the state legislature in Massachusetts. And I remember my thought process was, well I can’t be honest about being gay. I wouldn’t win. But it would be despicable for me as a gay man to be any less than fully supportive … There were then two gay groups, a men’s group and a women’s group. And they wrote to everybody who was running for the state legislature in 1972. It was just a couple of years after Stonewall. And for the first time you had organized gay political activity. And they said, ‘Would you introduce legislation to provide legal equality for gay people, which was the term we used then. And I said yes. I was the only one who said yes. So that’s how I became the prime sponsor of the legislation. I was the only one. But I was glad to take on the role. So, yeah, I clearly decided I would not in any way retreat. And I remember the first time I testified on gay rights. I was 32, unmarried. And I thought, well, what are they going to think? And my answer was, oh, the hell with what they think. I was prepared to sacrifice enough not to come out. But I was not prepared to degrade myself by pretending to be anything less than supportive of who I was.
Blade: When you came out in Congress did you sense you were being held back from advancing because of a so-called glass ceiling due to your sexual orientation?
Frank: I think there was one at first. I think, now, yes and no. Certainly it didn’t interfere with my being the chair of a very powerful committee and being, frankly, because of the circumstances, one of the major leaders. In fact I said that on the floor. I remember saying when we were talking about the hate crimes bill, ‘I’m a big shot now but I used to be 15 and I remember what it was like.’ … If I were running for a leadership position it might be a problem in the House. Some of the Democrats come from the few areas left where they’re afraid. But now we have almost all the Democrats on board. We have a handful that aren’t. So no. And the other – I assumed it would have been a bar to [running for] the Senate. But in 2004, when we thought John Kerry might get elected president, we had a mock election for the Senate in Massachusetts. Five of us were running – Congressman Markey, Congressman Lynch, myself, then Congressman Meehan and Martha Coakley, now the attorney general. And we were running and I’ve had people who worked in the other camps say I would have won that race. So if Kerry had been elected president I believe I would have been elected to the Senate in 2004. So I mean other than the presidency and the vice presidency I think there’s probably not one.
Blade: Where does the LGBT movement stand now in its ability to advance legislation?
Frank: We’ve gotten better. I think there’s two good examples of great victories. They didn’t involve demonstrations, they didn’t involve marches. They involved some discretion and some compromising. Deferring to [New York Governor] Andrew Cuomo’s leadership politically in the battle for [same-sex] marriage in New York, and he told them how to do it. And then accepting the exclusion of public accommodations from the trans [non-discrimination bill, which passed in November 2011] in Massachusetts.
Blade: The trans bill in Massachusetts became an issue to some—
Frank: An issue to whom?
Blade: Some of the more outspoken trans activists, who say they are outraged because it includes employment, housing and other protections but not public accommodations protections.
Frank: No, I would say ridiculous trans activists who are outraged, who would prefer there be no rights for employment than this. That is an example of their political stupidity. They may be very bright about other things. I don’t see how anybody can see that as a rational argument right now, nor, by the way, do I think it represents five percent of our community. I don’t even think it represents a majority of the transgender people. How can it possibly be – and by the way, these people don’t know history, because I will tell you that Martin Luther King and the other civil rights leaders would not for a second have hesitated to accept that deal. They were constantly moving toward making things better but those are both examples, I think, of the political maturity of our community – of knowing how to go about it. And I think as a result we are on the verge – well, by the way, we did the same thing with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We didn’t abolish ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We didn’t ban statutorily discrimination against us in the military. We banned the requirement that we discriminate. And there was some, ‘Oh, gee, how do you know they maybe will not do it fairly?’ I think we are on the verge of a very complete victory within a dozen years or so. That is, I think the country is supportive. It gets better generationally. I don’t think people will be allowed to marry in every state, unfortunately, 10 years from now. I think people in those states where a majority of people live will be allowed to marry and will have full federal rights.
Blade: Are you concerned about the provision of DOMA – if it’s repealed – that says the states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages from other states –
Frank: That doesn’t mean anything. I’ve said this all along. That doesn’t mean anything at all. The court will disregard that. Quite frankly people don’t understand that. That’s a matter of interpreting the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court will tell Congress, ‘Mind your own business.’ It has nothing to do with you. That is totally meaningless, that section. It doesn’t mean a thing. Congress cannot affect by statute a constitutional interpretation. By the way, the Constitution always was that states did not have to recognize that. When the Supreme Court threw out the law against inter marriage racially it wasn’t based on one state having to recognize another state’s marriage. The assumption was in 1967 that Virginia, which is where the case was brought, didn’t have to recognize a marriage in Europe. So everybody agreed – an African American and a white person can get married in New York and Virginia can disregard it. It was thrown out on constitutional segregation grounds. So in the first place, that’s been the Constitution anyway. Secondly, if it was, Congress would have nothing to do with it. It’s an entirely meaningless provision.
Blade: Some, like Hillary Clinton when she ran for president in 2008, said her husband signed DOMA because it would act as a safeguard against passing a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Frank: That’s nonsense. Her husband signed it because he was afraid politically about what would happen if he didn’t sign it. It has nothing to do with a constitutional amendment. He signed it because it was politically necessary to sign it. And I understood that. The Republicans threw it on his lap three months before the election. [Liberal, gay-supportive Senator] Paul Wellstone [D-Minn.] voted for it. He was up for re-election that year and he was afraid of it. It had nothing to do with stopping a constitutional amendment. And the fact is it does not mean anything. And no good lawyer will tell you it has any meaning whatsoever. This is a matter of the Constitution. It would be like if Congress passed a law saying the 14th Amendment doesn’t mean this or that. No, it’s none of our business what it means or not. We can decide for ourselves what it means, and I can govern my vote. But whether the Full Faith and Credit Clause compels marriage recognition or not is entirely up to the Supreme Court. And clearly up until now they have said it doesn’t.
Blade: Do you have any predictions of what the Supreme Court might do if the Proposition 8 case gets there?
Frank: I think that’s not a good case. I think the better case is Mary Bonauto’s case [the attorney with the LGBT litigation group in Boston, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which is challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, in court on behalf of a same-sex couple.]
Blade: In your 1992 book, “Speaking Frankly: What’s Wrong with the Democrats and How to Fix It,” you said some liberal Democrats unnecessarily alienated voters by being reluctant to “demonstrate that liberals are patriotic supporters of the free-enterprise system who think that hard work should be rewarded and violent criminals severely punished.” Do some of these things still apply today and do they have any relevance to the gay movement?
Frank: Yes, I still believe it’s a mistake, for example, to insist that every Democrat be for gun control. That’s a great loser for us in most of the country. I’ll vote for gun control. But it’s a great loser. I also believe it has to do with – I’ll go back to marriage in New York and the non-discrimination bill in Massachusetts. Yeah, it’s very, very relevant still. You have to be smart about it, that you engage in political activity to advance your goals, not to feel morally superior.
Blade: Everybody’s talking about the presidential election. Are the Republican presidential candidates as horrible as a lot of gay activists are saying they are on LGBT issues?
Frank: Yes – they are. Romney is a total faker, having said he was going to be more pro-gay rights than Ted Kennedy and he’s moved against us on everything, not just on marriage. And Gingrich was the leader of homophobic stuff when he was here. Gingrich was the man who put the Defense of Marriage Act on the agenda in 1996 when he was the Speaker. I don’t know where Huntsman is, but he is irrelevant. It’s the whole Republican Party. On ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ you saw the overwhelming majority of Republicans vote against the defense bill in the House because it included the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ They ordinarily all vote for the defense bill. We did get a couple of votes in the Senate. [Senator] Susan Collins’ [R-Maine] support was very important in that. But in general the Republicans have become a 90 plus percent anti-gay party. By the way, [President George W.] Bush didn’t undo stuff. He wouldn’t do anything good. But I’m not at all confident that a Republican president won’t reinstate ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’
Blade: Is there a chance that the Congress would block that, even if there’s a Republican-controlled House?
Frank: Well Congress couldn’t reinstate it because they would never get it through the Senate and the president would veto it. But if the Republicans win the presidency they don’t need the Congress. The president could reinstate it by executive order.
Blade: Is it completely settled now that every gay civil rights bill will include gender identity and expression protections or it won’t be introduced, whether it would be ENDA or another bill?
Frank: I think it’s unlikely that it wouldn’t but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will pass. I think you’ll see transgender protections included. We’ve made progress on transgender. But my view is the same in that we still have the problem with the situation where people get naked together. But short of that, I think the next time we have a Democratic House, Senate and president – remember, we can only pass pro-LGBT legislation when we have a Democratic House, Senate and president. We’ve only had that twice since Jimmy Carter left office—two years under Bill Clinton and two years under Barack Obama. That’s the exception, not the norm. So the next time we get a Democratic House, Senate and president we’ll be able to pass a transgender-inclusive ENDA. But like the Massachusetts law, probably not allowing full and unrestricted access to locker and shower rooms
Blade: We get emails and calls from some activists saying the Democrats should have been held to a higher standard, that they should have done more on LGBT legislation during the period that they did have the House and Senate and the presidency under Obama.
Frank: Which was?
Blade: Among other things, ENDA.
Frank: We had a transgender inclusive hate crimes bill and a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I think that’s pretty good. I wish we had done ENDA. But part of the problem was the community refused to accept the kind of compromise that Massachusetts did. If we had that – one of the things the [House] leadership was worried about was … what are we going to pass the bill for if some of the people who are going to be the beneficiaries are attacking us? So what’s the point of that? People are holding us to a higher standard? Whose standard? Where did you become the standard setter? What we got, as I said, was the president coming out against DOMA and very importantly elevating the level of scrutiny that’s needed for ending discrimination. And we got hate crimes through and we got ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repealed. I think that’s pretty good.
Blade: Many in the community agree with that assessment.
Frank: In general, the people who are complaining — well, what’s their remedy? They’re complaining, what do they want, sympathy? If they’re saying they wish we had more, I do too. Are they saying that’s a reason not to be supporting Barack Obama? That’s political suicide. The next president will probably appoint another Supreme Court justice or two. I don’t see how people can say, oh, we care about the lawsuit for Prop 8, we care about the DOMA lawsuit but let’s make sure that a homophobe will appoint the next Supreme Court justice.
Blade: It’s hard to argue with that.
Frank: Well you raised it.
Blade: Some bloggers and activists have raised it.
Frank: And the answer is that it is suicidal and dumb and self-defeating. Plus, you focus much too much on this. They are a very small percentage of our community and I think that’s a tendency, whether you’re in the media or whether they blog. That is a very small percentage of the community. Do you think most transgender people – Diego would know better than you or I – What do most transgender people in Massachusetts think about the bill?
Diego Sanchez [Frank’s legislative assistant and longtime transgender advocate]: They support it.
Blade: A similar situation occurred this year in Maryland when most transgender leaders, including veteran transgender activist Dana Beyer, agreed to a compromise transgender non-discrimination bill that didn’t include public accommodations protections. Beyer was denounced by other trans activists for accepting the compromise.
Frank: Stop paying so much attention to a handful of people with terrible political judgment who are acting out emotionally. They’re only important to you, to be honest. They’re not important me. They’re not important to anyone in the Maryland Legislature.
Blade: What do you think about the possibility of an executive order by President Obama to require defense contractors or any private companies getting government contracts to have a non-discrimination policy for their LGBT employees?
Frank: I think that’s a reasonable thing to keep pushing for. There are limits to what you can do. You don’t want the president to overreach from what could be required in legislation. I think that’s worth pushing for if it’s carefully done.
Blade: To issue that executive order?
Frank: For contractors, yeah, using race as a model. The problem we do have is this. Racial discrimination is embodied in the Constitution and we’re not. So there is more power where race is concerned.
Blade: In terms of your own plans, can you say a little about what you plan to do when you leave Congress?
Frank: I’m going to teach, lecture for money, and write.
Blade: And did you say you don’t plan to become a lobbyist?
Frank: Oh, absolutely not. Now I will still be a supporter and an advocate, but I won’t lobby for money. I will continue to work on LGBT issues but not as a lobbyist for money.
Blade: Would you consider going on the board of one of the prominent national gay groups?
Frank: No, I don’t want to go to any more meetings and vote any more. I’ll do what I can do but I don’t want to go on a board. I’m just looking for freedom from that kind of responsibility. But I will continue to be an advocate and strategist.
Blade: Will you consider testifying on LGBT issues before –
Frank: Remember that for the year 2013 I will be under an ethics one-year pause. But I will be picking up again in 2014.
Blade: That’s an ethics requirement on the Hill?
Frank: One year – I can’t talk to my colleagues for a year about business.
Blade: We just saw a photo of you with your partner James Ready at a White House holiday party this week. You’ve been taking your partner to functions for quite a while. Has that caused any complications or negative political repercussions?
Frank: I read a book that was very important by a man named Charles Hamilton. It was a biography of Adam Clayton Powell. When Adam Clayton Powell got elected to Congress, while he was the third African American, he was the first to be self-respecting. The two before him had accepted segregation in the Congress. When Adam Powell got here, I think it was 1943, he was not allowed to use the House restaurant. He was told he couldn’t use either the restaurant or the swimming pool. He said ‘Screw you,’ and he did it. And what he then did, and this is what my view was. I should not do anything just to make a point. But I shouldn’t not do something because somebody else was trying to make a point. So I have insisted with the three partners I’ve had, but particularly with Jimmy Ready, we do everything everybody else does. He goes to the spouses’ lunches. We travel together. We do everything everybody else does. Not to make a point but because that’s what we want to do and I think we have come a long way in acceptance. I spoke earlier this year at the Bank of America in New York to a meeting of a couple of hundred LGBT people who are in the financial services industry, many of them younger. And Jimmy and I were there and Jimmy and I talked to them. And a couple of them, a number of them, said, boy, it really means a lot to us because you’re working in this financial industry, it’s somewhat conservative, can I put a picture of my girlfriend up on the desk? That’s what a woman said. I said, well, if the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee can bring his partner there, sure. And there’s also another reason. It’s a little easier for them to think of us other than this abstract embodiment of rights. I want them to think of us as flesh-and-blood people who love each other and are physical with each other.
Blade: In the course of your role as chairman of the Financial Services Committee, you were dealing with nation’s leading financial and corporate leaders. Did you sense any attempt by these people to take advantage of you because you were gay?
Frank: No, they didn’t dare. I don’t think most of them wanted to be. But early on, Jimmy and I went to in 2007 or 2008 into Manhattan. We had a series of meetings and Tim Geithner was then president of the New York Federal Reserve. And Jimmy went up to take a nap on Tim Geithner’s couch in his office while I had a meeting with him. But at the time, some guy said the Fed doesn’t yet have an affinity group for gay people. So we fixed that up that day. No, I’ve never sensed any problem.
And Hank Paulson, the then Secretary of the Treasury, to his credit, in his book, in the index, you can find Jimmy’s name. We’ve been out to dinner with him and his wife a couple of times. He and I get along very well. He said at one point the negotiations were breaking down, he was worried. And he knew that if he talked to me we could make a deal. And so he sent his two top guys to find me. He said they went looking for Congressman Frank and they found him on the third floor of the Capitol having dinner with his partner Jim Ready, which was just a gratuitous nice reference. But I’ll also tell you what I said. We had the [House Democratic] caucus [meeting] on hate crimes in 2008 when Judy Shepard [mother of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime]. And they asked me about some of the African Americans who were being told by ministers that if we passed a hate crimes bill they would be criminally liable if they said homosexuality was against the Bible, which, of course, is nonsense. So I said let me address this because this has nothing to do with free speech. It’s only a crime if you hit somebody and harm somebody when you commit a crime. So I said let me put it this way. If this bill became law tomorrow it would still be entirely legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn’t recommend it if you were in the banking business. And that was my way of getting it across to my colleagues.
Blade: Is there anything else you’d like to bring up?
Frank: Well there’s one last thing. I think we’re winning. And the public opinion is on our side. But some people say if you’re winning you can take it easy. I say no. When you read military history they say sometimes military leaders make a mistake that they ease up at the point where they’re winning. That’s when you crack down. That’s when you’ve got them on the run. You have to continue to press, because I think we’re on the verge of winning this fight.
Blade: The opponents seem to be saying now, in response to the marriage fight, that society will be seriously harmed if the gay side prevails and gays are allowed to marry. How do you address that?
Frank: And the mainstream media always lets them get away with it. They’re always making these stupid predictions. They never come through. By the way, I give credit to the commandant of the Marine Corps, General [James] Amos, who just admitted that his gloom and doom predictions of six months ago aren’t true. Remember, he’s the guy who opposed repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ He said he was wrong. It was a non-event. But I think we ought to do a better job on that, to get the stupidities that they’ve predicted and show that they weren’t true. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve heard those same predictions about the Equal Rights Amendment for women, about protecting people with disabilities, about gay rights, about race. Any time you talk discrimination they say, well, I don’t dislike those people but it’s going to be chaotic. And it never is. The fact is, unfortunately, given the nature of things, anti-discrimination laws are hard to enforce. The bigots are sophisticated. It’s hard to catch them.