Ye Olde Papere: The Political Odyssey of Openly Gay Congressman Barney Frank

Following Barney Frank's announcement yesterday that he's retiring from congress after 31 years, we dug up our May 1999 interview with the openly gay congressman and liberal hero. Here, he chats with David Hershkovits about being called 'Barney Fag' by former house majority leader Dick Armey, why Newt Gingrich is 'devoid of much value' and offers an eerily relevant description of the extreme right.

It's the day after Barbara Walters' Monica Lewinsky interview, and Representative Barney Frank, the honorable Democrat from the state of Massachusetts, says that he only watched 10 minutes of the broadcast because "it's not relevant." As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Frank was among the leaders of the Democrats' attempt to hold back the ideological tide of the right. He lost the battle, but the war goes on; Clinton remains in office, and the nation's political discourse has shifted to Kosovo and the looming elections. Frank's in town to attend a fund-raiser for a documentary being made by filmmaker Bart Everly about the social and political odyssey of an out gay liberal. As those who saw Frank defend Clinton during the House impeachment proceedings know, he does his homework and can knock heads with the wonks. An elected official for some 26 years, Frank is sure to be a progressive player on the political landscape for years to come.

David Hershkovits: Do you think anything good came out of this whole impeachment ordeal?
Barney Frank: Yes. Most important, it confirmed that the public is a lot more sophisticated about sexual behavior than we thought. They have an appropriately nuanced view, they have an understanding that when we're talking about consensual sexual behavior, you cannot take a particular rigid code and apply it.

Second, Kenneth Starr was correctly seen by the public as the agent of a political faction that wants to impose its very narrow code -- not just in who you can be intimate with, but what you can read and where you work and a whole bunch of other things. They really pinned Starr as a right-wing agent.

The third good thing is that the public now understands an important fact: that the right wing controls the Republican Party. Those of us in Congress knew that. And it was kind of frustrating not to be able to get that across.

DH: It sounds like you're optimistic that the year 2000 will bring about a real sea change in Congress.
BF: It's not just a change, it's a change in the right issues. People ask why the right wing was so intent on getting rid of Clinton. And this I am absolutely sure of -- I've thought about it, I live with a lot of these people. These are [extreme-right figures] who think their country is being destroyed. They see homosexuality, abortion, extramarital sex, a lack of respect for religion --

DH: Rap music, TV --
BF: The whole culture. These are [politicians] who think they went to bed one night in a Norman Rockwell painting and they woke up in a Hieronymous Bosch painting. And they can't understand it. They won't take the Bill Bennett approach of saying, well, the public has disappointed me. They need an explanation: How come the public appears to be so immoral? They think Bill and Hillary Clinton are extraordinarily gifted villains. They see Clinton as the man who stole their culture from them. And they really believe the public has almost been bewitched by this guy. They're not trying to impeach Bill Clinton, they're trying to drive a stake through his heart. He's an almost supernatural creature that they want to get rid of. The Republican Party has become their instrument. And it's an instrument that wants to reimpose behavioral codes in religion, sex, literature, etc. And the public understands that and hates that, and they are going to punish the Republicans for it.

DH: What made you want to be a politician?
BF: I remember one really seminal event. Emmet Till, the black teenager from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi [in 1955] -- he was my age, and he whistled or made some remark at a white woman, so they killed him. And I remember reading about it and asking, this is America? They knew who killed him, but the sheriff was in on it. And I just remember being outraged. So I was just always interested.

On the other hand, I thought I could never go into politics. And it was not that I was gay, because I realized I was gay when I was 13 and I was depressed and terrified, but I realized then no one would ever know: I would never tell anybody. So that wasn't going to be a big problem. The problem was I was Jewish. In 1954 I was just starting high school, and anti-Semitism was still a factor in politics. One of the encouraging things I see about America is that I have lived to see the death of anti-Semitism as a significant cultural, social, economic and political point. There are still nuts out there. But if you're Jewish today, it really is not a significant retardant in your choice of careers. And it was 40 years ago.

DH: You were already thinking about politics at 13?
BF: Yeah, so by the time I got to college, I figured, well, I am interested in politics and I'll be somebody's appointee; I'll be an adviser. I never thought I could run for anything. And by then, I realized being gay was much more of an issue [than being Jewish] and that I was not going to be able to live a celibate life -- and if I did, people would start to wonder. When I went to work for [former Boston mayor] Kevin White in 1968, I moved to the Back Bay of Boston. I was 32 and I was gay; I was totally in the closet, and I figured, well, maybe I can. The fact that I'm not married and 32 -- that's still not going to give anything away. So I ran [for the state legislature] and I won, but I still didn't think that was the start of a political career.

DH: Eventually you were elected to Congress.
BF: In '78, I decided two things. I couldn't run for Congress, because my congressman had just become Speaker of the House: Tip O'Neill. I then decided, O.K., here's the problem. I have sacrificed my personal life to my political career, because I had been pretty closeted. I had never really told anyone I was gay unless it was in an effort to have sex with them, and there wasn't a lot of that. I said, I've got to stop this; I have to have a personal life. So in the beginning of '79, I started the process of coming out. At first it was very slow -- one sibling at a time, one close friend at a time. And then there was divine intervention. His Holiness John Paul II decided that he did not want any members of the Roman Catholic clergy to be serving in elected office, particularly because he didn't want a very liberal Jesuit named Robert Drinan to continue to be in Congress. So I ran.

DH: Were you out then?
BF: No, I wasn't out. I called my sister who I had just come out to and said, "Father Drinan can't run again because of the pope, so I'm going to run," and you just heard a closet door slam. I had got 10 percent of the way out. I came out to my close friends and family and then bang, went back in. I remember in 1980 there were people helping me in the campaign and we were going around the room asking, what are they saying about the congressional race? And there was this one guy who said, "What are they saying? Oh, they're saying they don't want some Jew fag representing them in Congress." I won a narrow primary and a narrow final, totally closeted.

DH: Under what circumstances did you finally come out of the closet?
BF: That was '82, after I got re-elected. I remember I was still kind of nervous and I went back to my district and said, O.K., I'm going back to where I was in '79. It's time to start having a private life again. So I started losing weight, started going to the gym. What really pushed me over was when Stew McKinney died of AIDS. He was the first member of Congress to die of AIDS. He was bisexual. He had a family and a very loving relationship with his wife, and in Washington he led more of a gay life. Somebody said, "Oh, that's what they mean by AC/DC." But when he died, there was this really unpleasant debate on how he got AIDS, and there was this argument that he got it through a blood transfusion. And that's when I really started to come out. I said, if I walk across the street and get hit by a truck, I'm not going to have this was he-wasn't he bullshit debate. This is a very wonderful man who did great things as a member of Congress, and when he dies, all people talk about is was he or wasn't he gay. So that's when I decided I would come out. And I did.

DH: How was Congress different from the group that's in there today?
BF: Back then, there was more amiability.

DH: When did that shift?
BF: With the whole Gingrich thing. Gingrich is a major figure in American culture. The anger, the instability -- it all comes from Gingrich. Gingrich decided in the early 80's that the only way to take power was to delegitimize the government and the Democrats as a party of the government. It became good-versus-evil rather than right-versus-wrong. And that, of course, played into the moral machine the right wing wanted to put on. I think he's a man devoid of much value. He's an opportunist, but he understood that this is the way the right can come to power.

DH: You made a point once about how AIDS opened the door for gay-rights legislation.
BF: When I got to Congress in '81 and I began to lobby for gay rights, gay people not only hid who we were in the straight community, we also hid our pain. The members of Congress didn't know there was discrimination. When we came and said, "Help us fight discrimination," they said, "What discrimination?" They were really saying, I'm not going to take a political hit for a symbol. And then AIDS came up. With AIDS, there would be these anti-gay members, and most of them would be pretty decent people. They would say to themselves, shit, now I have to vote for you, because I can't let people die.

DH: When you arrived in Congress, did you feel any of the resentment over being gay?
BF: Homophobia is not [now] respectable. I introduced the first gay-rights bill in the U.S. legislature, in December of 1982, and we debated it in '83. The homophobes would be explicitly homophobic: "We don't want to have to hire those people." Now they say, "Oh, I don't think they should be fired, but do we have to create special rights?" The politicians know that if they articulated an anti-gay position it would look prejudicial and people would reject it. The best example occurred in 1995, when Dick Armey referred to me as Barney Fag. His reaction was to claim he hadn't said it, that it was simply a physical mispronunciation. Fifteen years ago, he wouldn't have felt he needed to do that. There's a right-winger -- this guy's kind of unstable -- from San Diego, Duke Cunningham, and he makes anti-gay remarks and then apologizes for it. Most recently, he had just gone to the hospital for a prostate operation and he was speaking to some group and he says, "Boy, that procedure that they use, that's an unnatural procedure -- unless you're Barney Frank. He would enjoy it." So they asked me what I thought about that and I said, "Well, given that he just had a prostate operation, he might have suffered brain damage." He also apologized. When the media point it out, they realize politically it's not a good idea.

DH: If you found out that a member of Congress, a Republican moralist type, was gay, would you feel an obligation to out him in any way?
BF: I might be complicit to someone else doing it. I've got my role to play, but I've threatened on a couple of occasions to out hypocritical Republican politicians. Usually makes them back off a particular issue.

DH: What do you think about Hillary Clinton running for senator in New York?
BF: I think she'd be a great senator, and it's perfectly reasonable for her to do it, but I think in the end there are too many obstacles.

DH: And Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the Republican Party senatorial nominee?
BF: I am hopeful that his authoritarianism is bringing him down. I was talking to one very important Republican who mentioned Giuliani's drunk-driving policy [of confiscating the cars of people convicted of driving while intoxicated], and he just rolled his eyes and said, "My God, it's Russia." I think the authoritarian streak he has is going to cause him problems.

DH: You are in favor of people getting into the government, calling their congressman?
BF: Absolutely. Politicians are much more responsive to input from the citizens in their district who are going to vote than to any other factor, other than their own deep-rooted commitments.

DH: Is there anything the people on the left side of the agenda can do in terms of organizing themselves?
BF: We can change the rhetoric. People on the left should stop writing about how the government never pays any attention and doesn't listen, except to money. A, it's not true, and B, it's more likely to become true if we say it.

DH: Care to make any predictions on the presidential elections?
BF: The Democrats have a problem. Al Gore is not doing as well in the polls as I would have hoped. I'm not sure why. But even more of the problem is George W. Bush. He's a very skillful guy at projecting that he can get so many Hispanic votes, etc. He's going to have to try to both hold on to the moderates and hold on to the right wing. ★
 Photo by Bart Everly

Subscribe to Get More