Last January, the former U.S. congressman from Massachusetts wrapped up a thirty-plus year stint making his voice heard throughout the halls of the U.S. Capitol, routinely getting into scrapes with those on the right but never shy about mixing it up with those within his own party.
He came out as gay in 1987, making him the first member of Congress to do so voluntarily. But his sexual orientation took a backseat to his personality. He’s brash. He doesn’t suffer fools. He’s very funny. Passionate. A master at political procedure. It’s a mixture that led him to take the lead on numerous LGBT issues when others wouldn’t, but he’s probably best known for being a leading co-sponsor on the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which reformed the entire U.S. financial industry.
Frank called the GA Voice from the Ogunquit, Maine home he shares with his husband of two years, James Ready. In this exclusive interview, he discusses how his humor helped him in political dust-ups, what the LGBT movement is missing, why he doesn’t owe the transgender community an apology and what he misses (and doesn’t miss) about Congress.
How did the documentary come about? Who approached whom?
I had known [co-director] Sheila Canavan years ago in the late 60’s when I worked for the mayor of Boston. We had not really reconnected. I had announced my retirement around Thanksgiving of 2011 and she approached me. The movie shifted focus because they wanted to document my last year, which I thought could be fun. But there was a mismatch of expectations because they wanted to sit in on various official meetings and I really couldn’t do that. I have to give people privacy when we’re negotiating a bill or talking about strategy. So they decided to broaden it to my whole life.
What made you want to do it?
Probably ego, to have a movie made about you. But also I thought, and I’ve been reaffirmed in this, we’ve obviously made a lot of progress in diminishing the prejudice against LGBT people and we’ve gone a long way in establishing our rights. But there’s still a lot of prejudice out there and a lot of negativity that gets thrown at younger gay people. And I thought my example could be helpful, the fact that I could come out and get married and still be able to move ahead in the political world.
Also, one of the things that troubles me today about American public opinion is this purely negative view of politics and politicians. I blame the internet. There’s all kinds of nonsense on the internet that reinforces the view that we [politicians] have all these special privileges. There’s the notion that members of Congress live lives unlike those of most Americans, that we are insulated and pampered.
You’re known for being very direct, to say the least, when arguing your point, but your sense of humor has softened the blow in a lot of confrontations you’ve had. How did your wit help you in your political career?
Well it softens the blow in some ways but sharpens it in others. It does help keep the temperature down so you don’t get into this vitriol, but on the other hand…look, people are bombarded with information and bombarded with opinions. One of the things you want to do is to find a way to make the point you want to make stand out. And I think humor is a good way to do that. People will remember something that was funny more than just another comment.
But to be honest, that’s not the main reason. I resort to humor for me. I enjoy it, it relieves the boredom. And also frankly it’s a weapon. Nobody likes to be made fun of, nobody likes to be laughed at. People may be nervous that I’ll make them look bad and that’s very helpful, it’s a deterrent.
Do you have a favorite debate or altercation with someone where you walked away knowing you had gotten the best of them?
There was one time that I felt that I’d be able to make the point in a memorable way. I was debating Ralph Nader, who was attacking our financial reform bill, I think inaccurately and in an uninformed way. I think people on the left who always want to say government is terrible don’t realize that what they’re doing is hurting our ability to get support for doing things. And he was making these unfair and inaccurate criticisms and I said, ‘Ralph, you are luxuriating in the purity of your irrelevance.’ That summed up what I wanted to say and I think he was taken aback by it. But I was sad about it because he used to be very relevant and I think it was after the 2000 election that he began to lose his credibility.
On the flip side of that, do you regret any exchanges or debates you got into over an issue, where you maybe felt you went too far?
Yeah there was one time on the floor of the House where I accused the man who was presiding of being unfair. The next day I went on the floor and apologized. A private apology for a public wrong is almost worse than nothing, so on a couple of occasions I have apologized.
You were out front on introducing gay rights legislation long before you came out. How concerned were you that taking the lead on the community’s issues might reveal your then-secret?
Well, I write about this in my memoir which will be out on March 18 by the way. First I said, ‘Well, if I file it [the first gay rights legislation in Massachusetts history], people are going to think that I’m gay,’ because I was 32 and unmarried. On the other hand people would think, ‘Well if he was gay, he wouldn’t have filed it.’ So it went back and forth. I said, ‘You know what, people will play this both ways and it cancels it out,’ and I just said, ‘At any rate, I just can’t not do this. It’s bad enough that I’m gonna be hiding my sexual orientation, I’m certainly not going to be ducking away from standing up for it.’ In general, politicians should not be outed, but closeted politicians who are engaged in anti-gay activity have lost the right to the closet.
What’s the LGBT movement missing right now?
I’ve been in a lifelong battle with many people in the community over the importance of participating in politics. The notion that registering to vote and lobbying elected officials and putting pressure on them, somehow that’s contrasted with militant activity like demonstrating and marching. The trouble with the demonstrating and the marches is, unless they’re very carefully targeted, they’re ineffective and in some cases worse than that because people think they’ve accomplished something by showing up at a parade. Parades are fine, have fun, but they’re not a political instrument most of the time.
Combined with the fact that many on the left, where many of our people think, ‘Oh politics isn’t worth anything and they don’t pay attention to us.’ Well they do. The counterexample I give people is, you want a militant organization that is successful, I would cite the National Rifle Association. When’s the last time you saw the National Rifle Association have a march or a demonstration? They don’t. What they do is focus intensively on getting their members to write or call or go see every member of Congress and to vote in primaries. So I think it’s gotten better but people in the LGBT community still undervalue militant political participation as if that was somehow ineffective.
The other is this. I know people say to me, ‘Well, we should be bipartisan.’ I wish there was bipartisanship, but pretending that it is what it isn’t doesn’t help. And the fact is there’s no issue in America today where the gap between the political parties is greater than on LGBT rights. The Democrats have become 90-plus percent supportive, with the Republicans overwhelmingly opposed on the whole range of issues. The fact is the last remaining item on the national agenda is an inclusive anti-discrimination act and it will not happen until and unless the Democrats have the House, the Senate and the presidency.
Chad Griffin’s one of those people whose political judgment seems to be off. The fact is that HRC and I and everybody else were for an inclusive bill in 2007. The issue was we did not have the votes for an inclusive bill. It wasn’t a failure of will. Then the question was, was something better than nothing? Was it better to pass a bill that was protective of lesbian, gay and bisexual people or pass nothing? We tried very hard.
People have this mistaken view of the civil rights movement and say, ‘Well the black people never compromised, they got the whole thing.’ That is just silly nonsense. The first civil rights bill that was passed in ’57 was fairly moderate but it had some good things, and then one passed in ’60, and then one passed in ’64. People are now saying, ‘Well we don’t want ENDA to be just about employment, we want it cover housing, etc.” Well that national federal civil rights bill that Lyndon Johnson signed in 1964 that we’re all celebrating today didn’t include housing! Housing didn’t come until a separate bill was passed after Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968. The notion that you can win your entire victory at once is historically and politically flawed.
The transgender community had this mistaken view that if Nancy Pelosi waved a magic wand, transgender would be included. And we were insisting to them that, look we don’t have the votes, help us lobby. Instead of trying to put pressure on the people who were against them, they thought they could just insist that we do it. We said, ‘We’re trying, but we need your help.’
It’s also the case that in 2007, transgender made people a lot of people nervous, they didn’t know about it. Since then there’s been a lot of success in educating the public in general, politicians in particular. I don’t know what Griffin said, but he was not a factor when we were doing it. And by the way, when we were trying to get the votes to pass a bill including transgender, transgender people were not included in the anti-discrimination bills in New York, Massachusetts and Maryland. And I asked people, ‘If we haven’t got the votes in those states, why do you think it will be easier when we throw in South Carolina, Texas and Nebraska?’
And Chad Griffin was one of the people in California who were arguing that the way to get marriage was, ‘Well we shouldn’t have to go state-by-state, we should just get one big national decision.’ Well they were wrong! The Supreme Court did not decide in favor of same-sex marriage in Prop 8. Neither did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The DOMA case was the big case. Now because so many states have had it, I think we will win a Supreme Court decision, but the Supreme Court wasn’t going to do that out front. They’re building on the state-by-state experience.
What do you miss most about being a congressman?
I miss friends. There is again a very mistaken view…members of Congress on the whole are very intelligent, thoughtful people. Some of the people I thought I had most in common with were my fellow Democrats, a couple of Republicans, not as many as there used to be. So I miss that.
I miss the chance to influence policy, but on the other hand I was just worn out, my nerve endings were frayed. It got to the point where when the phone would ring, I would hate it. I would think, ‘Oh Christ, what now?’ So I don’t miss, frankly, the responsibility for trying to help resolve issues and having things that other people do dictate how I spend my time.
So which member of Congress would the country be better off if they retired?
Oh yeah, the number one would be Darrell Issa. He’s just unfair, he’s dishonest. He’s a particularly disruptive one.
Which member of the media would the country be better off if they retired?
Well a couple by the media in general. The ‘good news is no news’ is a problem across the board. What troubles me more broadly is the non-ideological media where I think you have this penchant for the negative. So I am critical of the mainstream media in general for overemphasizing the negative.
So your wedding is included in the documentary. How’s married life?
Oh wonderful. I’m sitting in our house in Ogunquit now, looking out the window at the trees and to the ocean beyond. But in about an hour I get in a car and drive down to Cambridge. I’m teaching at Harvard. It’s a great life. I spend midweek in Massachusetts, we’ve kept our apartment in Newton and then I’m here for long weekends. So I’m very, very happy.
Compared To What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank Followed by a Q&A with co-director Sheila Canavan Saturday, Oct. 4 at 4:45 p.m. Landmark Midtown Art Cinema www.outonfilm.org