He's the ultimate bear!,” I thought during Barney Frank’s appearance before the New York Times’ Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered & Allies employee affinity network on June 16, moderated by Metro editor Carolyn Ryan and assistant managing editor Richard Berke.
That’s not meant as a glib slight, but rather as the highest compliment for the qualities he’s always possessed that are often associated with the archetype — invincibly strong (indispensible for his more than 40 years in politics), wise (a laser-sharp mind at 72, unerring as to dates, names, and places), humor, and a great big heart.
Like his ursine brethren, however, he can definitely become annoyed by people and, by his own admission, doesn’t suffer fools. With his upcoming retirement, there should be less occasion to worry about fools. For his upcoming wedding to partner Jim Ready, he explained, the guest list was happily pared of noxious professional obligations. He did, however, admit he was looking forward more to the no-shows than the daunting, overwhelming majority of acceptances the couple has received.
Ready was supportively present at the Times, sitting right in front of his man, camera — and memory prompts — at the ready and swift to help out with an elusive mic, prompting Frank to acknowledge Ready’s superiority on such matters.
“I’ve been in a lifelong battle with things,” Frank said.
He also confessed he realized he was gay at 13, but was determined to hide it. Years in the closet followed, and he confessed that his secret life grew increasingly difficult the better known he became, leading to emotional turmoil and reckless behavior.
This came to a head in 1987 when, after a two-year involvement with Steve Gobie, a male escort, ended, the young man broke the news of their relationship — and the fact that he and other hustlers had at times used Frank’s apartment, without the congressman’s knowledge, to ply their trade — to the Moonie-owned Washington Times. The House Ethics Committee instigated an investigation at Frank’s own request to set the record straight, and later voted 408–18 to reprimand him. Ironically, Frank’s most virulent critic was none other than Idaho Republican Larry Craig, whose career famously cratered at the airport in Minneapolis. And, Representative Robert Dornan, a wild-eyed conservative from Southern California, fumed, “A high school principal or business leader or broadcaster would have lost his job after such a scandal. Out the door, Barney!”
Recalling this turbulent period, Frank said, “I was accused of a whole bunch of things, most of which weren’t true. You do something you shouldn’t do, and you’re then accused of doing the thing you shouldn’t do along with four other things, and your lawyers tell you not to deny that you did these other things because then you’ll have to admit that you did the thing you did. And I said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’
“The last thing you should do in such a case is listen to your lawyer, unless you think you’re going to jail, because a lawyer’s job is to keep you out of jail, not to defend your reputation. I knew that with the Ethics Committee report it was clear that most of the things I was accused of would have gotten me fired if they were true, but the remaining stuff was not going to be problematic. [What I did] was stupid, but it was okay.”
Frank officially came out in 1987: “At this point, it was no great secret, so some reporters then were asking me if they could write about me being gay, and I said no. But I began to think about how to do that, and at one point, one of the editors of the Boston Globe came to see me, saying, ‘Look, we’ve got to talk about, you know…’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ And he said, ‘Here’s the deal. We don’t want to break the story before you want it. On the other hand, we’re the Boston Globe, the dominant paper that covers you, and it would be awful for us to be scooped after being so nice to you.
“I said, ‘No one’s going to write that story without my involvement. But the minute I get a call asking me about it, I’ll call you and you’ll be the first.’ And then I decided this wasn’t going to work. I said, ‘I’m ready to do this,’ and they said, ‘Okay, you’re going to announce it?’ And I said, ‘No, you have to ask me.’
“I finally get a call from them saying, ‘Okay, we’re ready to ask you.’ They sent Kay Longcope, who was the companion of Elaine Noble, the first person in public office in America to come out as a lesbian [when first elected in 1974, though several months after Ann Arbor, Michigan, elected out lesbian Kathy Kozachenko to its City Council]. I knew Kay, who just died a few years ago — a lovely, thoughtful person. She came into my office, put her tape recorder out and asked, ‘Congressman, are you gay?’
“I had thought about the answer. I wanted to both acknowledge and be dismissive of it, to minimize its political negative. I said, ‘Yes, so what?’”
Tip O’Neil, who was then speaker of the House, made the immortal remark, “Barney Frank is coming out of the room!,” and Frank reminded the Times crowd that he gave that statement to his press secretary, Chris Matthews.
“The story ran on a Saturday, front page over left,” he recalled. “My constituents’ reaction was much better than I thought it would be. I was marching in a Memorial Day parade in one of our more conservative areas, blue collar Fall River. One man who’d been a supporter came up to me and said, ‘You lied to me. You said you weren’t gay!’ I don’t remember having done that — I try not to lie, but I can’t say I never did, and he stalked off. But my chief assistant in that area was married to a World War II Navy veteran, who said, ‘I’m marching with you’ in his whites.
“The next morning was the AIDS Walk, a very emotional moment for me on the Common. That night I was at the Big Apple Circus, which was in town, a benefit performance. Christopher Reeve was there. I got an extraordinary ovation when I was announced, and Reeve said, ‘What the hell was that for?’
“From the beginning, it was much more positive than I expected, including in Congress. People went out of their way to say ‘I’m proud of you,’ and when I was back in DC the next day, Senator Alan Simpson calls me up, ‘Listen, I am so apologetic for saying bawdy jokes.‘ I said, ‘I don’t remember any specifically, but the fact that you called…’”
During the Q&A, someone asked him to give a quick rundown of presidents on their handling of gay issues: “The Reagan people had this old-fashioned view. He had a large number of gay people around him but they were totally closeted. It was very hard to get people to vote for gay rights, and the first time we were able to win any vote was in the mid-1980s, when we sought funding for AIDS.
“The right wing came up with all these amendments to AIDS legislation, riders that would make it impossible to do AIDS research, that required a lack of privacy and other really obnoxious things. The Democrats worked very hard to defeat this, including some people in the Reagan administration. [Surgeon General] Everett Koop was very good at these things, and for the first time we actually defeated the anti-gay movement.
“The second President Bush disappointed me. I thought they were going to do some things they said they would. I think the first President Bush was afraid of the right wing. I think Bill Clinton was very well-intentioned, but got steamrolled by the Republicans and Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, who will always be a figure of evil in my mind.
“Clinton also did one very important thing, that if you were persecuted in a foreign country because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, you could become a refugee here, and that’s worked for a lot of people. Also his non-discrimination order about federal employment.
“I don’t have any problem with Obama, but one thing he might have done when he first became president was talking about how bad the situation was over the lack of bipartisanship. He held back and was all about ‘let’s cooperate and be lighthearted,’ and I wish he had been sharper in his denunciation of it. I thought of a bumper sticker: ‘We’re not perfect, but they’re nuts.’”
As for Mitt Romney, with whom Frank worked in his home state of Massachusetts, he said, “I am appalled as a member of my profession that [he thinks that] you may say anything at any time and switch your position at any time for any reason. There is a degree of manipulation when you don’t stand for anything except for your own great superiority. We had all these poor areas of Massachusetts that had been de-industrialized — New Bedford, Fall River, the poorest. We were constantly trying to do things to bring them back, and he was completely uninterested in them. I could not engage with him on trying to get economic help for this area.
“He never even went to New Bedford, which has the largest volume of the fishing industry, no interest. I approached him once at Logan Airport, saying ‘Governor, I’d like to talk to you about this,’ and he said, ‘I’m busy now,’ and walked away. I have a lack of respect for him and dislike him more than most other people.”
Let’s wish this gallant political warhorse a happy marriage and retirement, and end with one final Frank bumper sticker idea: “Things would have sucked worse without me.”