In a memoir released this week, former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) tells how he was completely comfortable in 2004 when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry announced he opposed same-sex marriage.
With public opinion strongly against marriage equality at that time, Frank writes, Kerry’s support for gay marriage would have made President George W. Bush’s re-election more likely “while doing nothing for us substantively.”
Frank also says in his new book that he urged Kerry not to elaborate on what some LGBT critics considered his convoluted rationale for opposing gay marriage while saying he “respected” a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage legal under the state’s constitution.
“Exasperated, Kerry pointed out that if all he did was state his opposition, LGBT people would think he had taken his stand on purely political grounds,” Frank writes. “That, I told him, was exactly what I hoped they would think: Here was a potential ally who wasn’t yet ready to join us, but he had no fundamental intellectual or philosophical objection to doing so later when the political climate had improved.”
The account of Frank’s 2004 advice for Kerry is just one of many examples of the gay former congressman’s longstanding belief that political pragmatism and an incremental approach to legislation are the best means to achieve the unabashed liberal and progressive policies he supports.
That and his journey from being a closeted gay politician to becoming one of the nation’s most prominent openly gay elected officials and LGBT rights advocates are among the central themes of his 353-page memoir, “Frank: A Life In Politics From the Great Society To Same-Sex Marriage.”
Frank, 74, tells how his views on political tactics sometimes differed from those of LGBT advocates, especially in the effort in 1993, during President Bill Clinton’s first year in office, to end the ban on gays in the military and the 2007 campaign to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA.
On the gays-in-the-military fight, Frank said he and his congressional allies became dismayed in 1993 over what they considered a feeble response by LGBT rights organizations to an inflammatory campaign by opponents claiming lifting the ban would force straight soldiers to take showers with gays and share sleeping quarters with them in submarines and barracks.
Then-U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) held a series of Senate hearings in which generals and enlisted members of all branches of the military testified that allowing gays to serve would be devastating to troop morale.
With Nunn’s hearings generating widespread media coverage and Gen. Colin Powell, a highly regarded military leader, coming out against lifting the ban, members of Congress were receiving a flood of letters and phone calls from irate constituents opposing allowing gays to serve. At the same time, lawmakers were receiving very little mail and calls from constituents who supported lifting the ban, Frank says in his book.
Meanwhile, in a development not widely known, Frank writes that he was further dismayed when the Campaign For Military Service, an ad hoc group formed by LGBT advocates to lead the campaign to lift the ban on gays in the military, urged him to ask pro-gay Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) to cancel a hearing he planned to hold to highlight support for lifting the ban that would counteract the hearings held by Nunn.
“The leaders of this group, David Mixner and Tom Stoddard, were talented men with impressive track records,” Frank writes. “I admired their past work, but I differed sharply with their strategy in this case.”
Added Frank, “As one of the leading authorities in the House on the needs of the armed services, Dellums was ideally positioned to offset both the damage Powell had done as well as Nunn’s efforts. But when I objected to asking Dellums to cancel his hearing, Stoddard explained that his group had a carefully planned strategy in which a House hearing had no place.”
Frank writes that he conveyed that message to Dellums, who reluctantly cancelled the hearing.
“I soon came to regret this decision as much as any I have made in my career,” Frank writes. “I resolved that I would never again let myself be intimidated by the demands of movement solidarity when I thought them to be unwise.”
Stoddard died of AIDS a few years later. Mixner couldn’t immediately be reached by the Blade this week for comment on Frank’s criticism of his handling of the gays in the military matter.
Frank writes in his memoir that it soon became clear to both supporters and opponents of lifting the ban that Congress would take immediate steps to block Clinton from taking executive action to end the military ban on gays, most likely through an amendment attached to the pending Family and Medical Leave Act, a bill strongly favored by women’s rights groups and Clinton.
Congressional opponents later backed down from pushing such an amendment only after Clinton agreed to their demand to postpone issuing an executive order lifting the ban. In the ensuing months, after negotiations with military officials, Clinton introduced his infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” proposal that Congress later passed.
Frank reports in his book that he held firm in his disagreement with some LGBT advocates in 2007 on the best strategy for passing ENDA at that time. He notes that he initially agreed that a transgender rights provision should be included in the bill, which earlier called for banning job discrimination based only on sexual orientation.
However, after conferring with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a strong supporter of LGBT rights, the two – along with other Democratic House members – concluded that there wasn’t enough support in the House to pass a transgender inclusive version of the bill at that time, Frank writes.
As has been widely reported in the LGBT and mainstream media, transgender activists joined many gay rights advocates in denouncing Frank and Pelosi for removing the trans provision in the bill and bringing to the House floor a “gay-only” version. That version passed by a vote of 235 to 184, with 200 Democrats and 35 Republicans voting for it.
The bill later died in the Senate after supportive senators determined they could not muster the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster that opponents promised to wage.
“We knew that would happen,” Frank writes. “Even so, we wanted to establish that there was majority support for the bill, with an eye toward passing it when we had a Democrat in the White House as well as a Democratic House and Senate.”
He writes, among other things, that he responded to attacks that he and Pelosi betrayed the transgender community by arguing that trans activists had not done the needed lobbying to educate members of Congress on the transgender community and the discrimination they faced.
In keeping with his theme of incrementalism, Frank says he argued that the black civil rights movement adopted a similar approach to passing civil rights bills that initially did not cover all forms of discrimination based on the political support they had at any given time.
“Insisting that some people must suffer until we have the power to end all suffering is a recipe for embedding misery, not diminishing it,” he writes. “I have never agreed with the maxim, ‘No one is free until everyone is free.’ If that were true, no one would be free today, and no one would ever have been free in the past.”
Frank writes that his interest in government, politics, and public service emerged at the age of 14 while growing up in Bayonne, N.J.
“But even then I realized that there were two ways in which I was different from the other guys,” he writes. “I was attracted to the idea of serving in government and I was attracted to the other guys.”
He says he instinctively understood he would have to keep his sexual orientation a secret if he had any chance of succeeding in politics and public affairs. At that time during the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, an American war hero, public officials and government service were highly regarded, Frank writes, while homosexuals were among the nation’s most despised groups.
Yet in what he calls an ironic development, Frank says that at the time he retired from Congress in 2013 “the divergent reputations of elected officials and homosexuality persisted, but with one major difference: the order was reversed.”
He notes that legal protections for LGBT people were more popular than elected officials as a class.”
“Congress was held in particularly low esteem,” he says. “While I did not do any polling on the subject myself, I was told that my marriage to my husband, Jim Ready, scored better than my service in the House.”