Happy Anniversary, Barney Frank!

by Laura Kiritsy
Thursday May 31, 2007
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During a House Democratic Caucus back on May 3 Congressman Barney Frank urged his colleagues to support legislation to enable federal authorities to prosecute hate crimes targeting victims because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. "If this bill passes people will still be able to call me a fag," he said, taking aim at critics who charged the bill would outlaw name-calling. "Although if they’re in the banking business, I wouldn’t recommend it."

The incisive observation was vintage Frank, of course. It also neatly encapsulated his unique status in Washington as an openly gay lawmaker and, as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, one of the most influential members of Congress.

"He’s the chairman of a powerful committee that deals with banking, housing and a wide array of important industries to this country," said Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the only other openly gay lawmaker on Capitol Hill. "And people who are going to interact with the committee are going to have to get over any homophobia or issues they bring to this and so I think that’s extremely important. Many folks are coming to speak with [and] plead their case to Barney Frank about the banking industry, the housing industry and they’re dealing with somebody who is an openly gay man and so I think that ... helps to further educate folks and that’s important."

It was 20 years ago this week that Frank came out publicly in a pair of articles that ran on successive days in the Boston Globe. Clearly, much has changed since May of 1987, when Frank himself cast doubt on his ability to advance in the ranks because he is gay: The first of the Globe stories reported that "Frank appeared to have foreclosed his candidacy for a leadership role in Congre

Frank, who was elected to the House in 1980, was the first gay congressional representative to come out of his own volition. At the time, fellow Bay State Congressman Gerry Studds was the only openly gay federal legislator, having survived the revelation in 1983 that he had had a relationship with a 17-year-old male page some years earlier. Frank’s coming out was prompted in part by increased media interest in his private life after former Maryland congressman Bob Bauman, a right-wing Republican who lost his seat after being arrested for soliciting an underage male prostitute, made a veiled reference to Frank’s homosexuality in his 1986 book, The Gentleman from Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative.

Although his record of support for LGBT rights long pre-dates his public coming out - for instance, he sponsored the gay civil rights bill as a Massachusetts state representative back in the 1970s - Frank’s effect on the gay rights movement has been far greater as an openly gay elected official. In a recent interview, Frank summed up the difference two decades can make this way: "Twenty years ago I was worried about telling anybody," he said. "And then, almost 20 years later ... I’m making this very personal speech [to my colleagues] about [why] you’ve got vote with us." At one point in his speech to the House Democratic Caucus, Frank recalled, he said, "I’m not [personally] worried about hate crimes now; I’m a big shot now. I’m very well protected, but I remember when I was 15."

That ability to speak from life experiences, Baldwin notes, is an important piece of persuading legislative colleagues "to see the light" on LGBT issues. "We bring them with us to this job and so as any of us work on legislation that is ... deeply personal to us, it allows us to really speak from the heart with our colleagues," she said.

With Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, Frank’s presence as an openly gay lawmaker - Baldwin’s too, for that matter - will likely be felt more than ever as LGBT-friendly legislation that was previously buried by conservative Republican leaders gets a fair hearing on the Hill. That was evident in a big way during the vote on the hate crimes bill, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed her gavel over to Frank for the vote, a gesture he characterized as "really very, very sweet." C-SPAN footage of his final call on the measure was quickly uploaded to
YouTube and made the rounds of popular progressive and LGBT blogs.

"I think it was a wonderful moment for him and for the LGBT community," said Denis Dison, vice president of communications for the Victory Fund, a national organization that works to elect openly candidates to all levels of government. Electing openly gay officials isn’t necessarily about gaining the ability through them to tick items off of a legislative agenda, Dison observes. "It’s really in a lot of places no more complicated than saying to them, look, when we have a person in the room who’s a living breathing human being as an example of an openly gay person that changes the debate."

Certainly, having Frank presiding over the vote sent a decidedly different message than if, say, Congressman David Dreier, a California Republican who has been the subject of outing articles over the last few years, was wielding the gavel. (For the record, Dreier voted against the bill). But has the Democrats’ newly-regained clout perhaps caused Frank to temper his wry sense of humor? Maybe so. As he carried out his responsibilities as acting Speaker during the vote - inquiring from the dais in the official verbal form, "Have all members voted who wish to do so? Are there any members who wish to change their votes?" - Frank confessed to stifling the urge to also ask, "Are there any members who wish to change their gender?"

"That had been a big issue," Frank explained of the explicit inclusion of gender identity in the hate crimes bill. "But I didn’t say that." He later went down to the rostrum, where he informed some of his colleagues, "I want you to be grateful to me for what I didn’t say." They responded, said Frank, with relief. "Some of the members," he added, "were very antsy about the transgender [provision]." The bill passed with a vote of 237-180.

Baldwin, who became the first non-incumbent openly gay person to win a congressional seat in 1998, credits Frank with helping to make her election to federal office possible. Upon winning her first elected position in 1986 - a seat on the Dane County Board of Supervisors - Baldwin joined the International Network of Gay and Lesbian Officials. Baldwin recalls that there were just about 14 elected officials affiliated with the group, the highest ranking among them a British parliamentarian. When Frank came out a year later, he became the highest-ranking American official to affiliate with the group. "He had the capacity to educate and reach a broader audience, which was very important," said Baldwin, "and also I think gave somebody like me, just beginning my work in public service, the belief that local office wasn’t necessarily the furthest I could reach."

Nonetheless, aside from Baldwin, Frank and Studds, who died last year, just two other openly gay people have served in Congress: Republicans Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who retired last year, and Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, who retired in 1996. Dison acknowledged that while there are now about 370 out elected officials across the country - as opposed to just 49 when the organization started in 1991 - there is still much work to be done to increase the ranks of openly LGBT pols. "In politics you don’t often don’t get to run for Congress first," he said. "You start out [on] city councils and start out in state legislatures and maybe statewide office, and then they run for Congress and the Senate. That’s where we are right now. We’re sort of in a phase where we’re building the bench of people who can step up to run for Congress."

Though Frank’s coming out is most often viewed in terms of its political impact, it resonated beyond the world of Washington. In the May issue of Boston Spirit magazine, for instance, Judah-Abijah Dorrington, a local musician, business consultant and self-described "butch plus" lesbian, called Frank’s coming out a watershed moment in her own life. "[T]hat was a hallmark for my mom," she told the local gay glossy. "Then people started to come out publicly, and nothing bad happened to them. When my parents saw that people didn’t lose jobs or get shot they started to soften a little bit and be more encouraging."

"I was very moved by it," Frank said of Dorrington’s revelation. With the anniversary of his coming out upon him, the congressman has lately been reflecting more on what prompted him to take action two decades ago. "I honestly have to say I didn’t do it primarily to help other gay people," he confessed. "I knew that would be part of it, but I was really driven to do it by my own sort of need; I was worried about the political effect.

"But I was aware it could have that impact," Frank added. "And that’s obviously something that makes me feel very good."

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