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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 7, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 19
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Barney Frank talks - his 30 years in Congress
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Barney Frank talks - his 30 years in Congress

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Barney Frank was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, just across Kill Van Kull from Staten Island. He's a Harvard-educated elder statesman, head of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, a self-deprecating funnyman, an irascible curmudgeon who just turned 70, an eloquent speaker, the consummate politico, an effective compromiser, a hopeless romantic, and he's one of only three openly Queer current members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Barney Frank, for better or worse, belongs to us.

Frank came out in 1987, not amid scandal, but partially because he was becoming more and more well-known and partially because a closeted colleague's death prompted unseemly speculation regarding the colleague's sexuality which Frank simply wanted to avoid. On January 31, 2011, Frank will mark 30 years as a member of Congress.

Over the years, Frank has witnessed scandals, brokered deals, and become an architect of history. He's also been a Queer role model and icon who has worked hard to carry himself with dignity while never taking himself too seriously.

I still remember hearing about the congressman who came out back in 1987. I was just beginning my journey as an out Gay man living in Austin, TX. Frank's gesture meant a great deal to us back then, as my peers and I struggled to come to terms with our sexuality under the dark cloud of the early days of the pandemic. It meant that we all could take our place at the table if we chose to do so.

These days, the Queer community is more impatient than ever to do just that. We're no longer satisfied with having separate communities in Queer ghettos where we could live in relative safety and drive up real estate prices via tasteful gentrification. No, now we expect nothing less than full equality in employment, housing, marriage, military service, and parenting rights.

And Frank has been there the entire time, working political magic and serving the interests of the whole Queer community while crafting a formidable political career that is history-making for a number of reasons.

I had the honor of interviewing Frank last week in his office on Capitol Hill. Frank doesn't give interviews as much as he holds court. He sat behind his desk and waved me to be seated. He interrupted me with abandon, even taking a phone call mid-answer to one of my questions. He is obviously impatient with most everyone and never fails to shoot from the hip. He's also much more comfortable talking politics than he is about his personal life.

The interview didn't so much come to a close as it segued into an informal conversation, with Frank getting up from his desk and showing me photos of his partner, Jim, and a few mementos, like a framed copy of Clinton's 1995 executive order ending the denial of security clearances on the basis of sexual orientation of employees in the CIA, NSA, and FBI, which Frank describes as the most important gain ever for the Queer community. If I wasn't a fan before, I certainly am now. Long live the king of Queers!

Scott Rice: Thank you for taking a little time out of your day to meet with me. How long have you been in Congress?

Rep. Barney Frank: Thirty years.

Rice: What are the biggest changes you've seen since you arrived?

Frank: The partisanship. & Newt Gingrich decided the way to - let me take it back. When I got here, the majority of the southern members of the House were Democrats who did not often vote democratic, and there were also northern Republicans who were somewhat moderate. That's now shifted. & Used to be there were northern Republicans who were more liberal than southern Democrats. That's not true anymore. So now you have a Democratic Party that goes from moderate to liberal and a Republican Party that is almost all conservative. Re-enforcing that, driven by that, is greater partisanship between the parties that Newt Gingrich consciously set out to do. The last thing is, it's now become popular to say you hate Washington and you want to go home so that members don't get to know each other. Members used to be here much of the time and we'd socialize with each other. It's very rare now.

Rice: The partisanship got its start with Gingrich.

Frank: He exacerbated it, yeah. The partisanship was his.

Rice: How does the new right-wing media play into that?

Frank: It re-enforces the conservatism of the Republican Party. It means it's tough to sniff out the moderates. There are very few Republicans left who will challenge the party, so you have every single Republican voting "no" on the stimulus bill, every single Republican voting "no" on financial reform, all but one on health care. The right-wing media, which has these people - the main moderates - terrified to get beaten in primaries, has done that.

Rice: Well, it's a valid fear, right?

Frank: Yes, very accurate. & The conservatives are facing tough, conservative right-wing challenges in primaries. Charlie Crist, Robert Bennett....

Rice: And in the long run, the divisiveness within the Republican Party isn't going to serve it well, is it?

Frank: I hope not. Short-term, the problem is that it's going to be a good year for them for a variety of factors. You're right, though, it will be negative for them, but I think that will be masked in the short-term and that will re-enforce their sense of, "go ahead." But ultimately, within a few years, it's going to hurt them.

Rice: You mention that the conventional wisdom is that Democrats are going to get spanked in the midterms, do you....

Frank: Yeah. First of all, we have way too many seats. The Democrats are holding seats that really shouldn't be voting Democratic if people were paying attention when they voted, which I wish they would. & Secondly, we have [ourselves] in a bad situation, and we're paying for it.

Rice: The pundits talk about health care being a big issue for the midterm elections, but I'm not sure I agree with that.

Frank: I think it's more the bad economy and the fact that we had to be supportive of Bush in responding to the financial crisis in ways that are characterized as helping out the banks. & When the AIG bonuses came out, the Obama people made one terrible mistake, which was to make a prediction that the economic recovery bill was going to bring unemployment down. I don't know why they [predicted it] below a certain number. Of course it helps, but there was never any reason to give a number, and now we're paying a price for it.

Rice: [The bill] hasn't brought [unemployment] down, but it has done a lot to stabilize it & maybe?

Frank: It's clearly better than it would have been, but that's not a good political platform.

Rice: Moving away from politics, you're an icon for the Queer community and you have been a long time.

Frank: It's a time-consuming job and it doesn't pay very well.

Rice: [Laughs.] That's true, but the question is, you're the head of arguably the most important committee....

Frank: It's a constant struggle, particularly since & [I] got into a very serious relationship - the most serious relationship in my life - with my current partner [Jim Ready]. & We first met nearly five years ago, but it's greatly deepened. His partner was ailing and died & and, yeah, it's become a real source of frustration, constantly seeing him and parting & and part of what it means is that & I'm happy to have this job and I feel lucky to have it. If I didn't like it, I'd quit. But that's curtailed other activities. So, it's been very time-consuming.

Rice: I think the Queer community right now is a little impatient, whether we should be or shouldn't be. I think many of the people I talk to [in the Queer community] thought there was going to be more change taking place.

Frank: Well, I'm impatient with them. People waste their time going to marches on the Mall. & We're trying hard now - [Colorado Rep.] Jared [Polis], [Wisconsin Rep.] Tammy [Baldwin], myself, and Democratic leadership - to get a good bill through. You get all these people who & most of them have never picked up a phone to call one of their representatives. The political immaturity of our community is a constant source of frustration. I've told people if somebody runs against me who they think is going to be better on LGBT issues, they can vote for them. I don't think that's likely, but that's OK. Beyond that, I just do what I think is right.

Rice: So the message to the community is to politicize yourself.

Frank: Yes. & Militancy doesn't mean decibels; it means effectiveness. It means figuring out what works and doing it.

Rice: That is one thing [our community] has a lot of trouble with: grassroots organizing.

Frank: I have a rule, which is: The better an activity makes you feel when you're trying to get something done, the less likely it is to be helpful. Sitting down and calling your representative and, you know, giving rude responses, fine. Go out with the demonstration and chanting, fine. It's useless, useless.

Rice: So, what would be useful?

Frank: Call your representative, and once you've done that, ask all your friends to do it. Then you get out your list of whoever you send a holiday card to and ask them to call their representatives. What affects members - other than their own views and the party - is what they hear from their constituents. It is overwhelmingly constituents. It's more important than campaign contributions - they don't hurt, but hearing from your constituents is what counts.

Rice: It's interesting. I think if you ask a person on the street if their phone call to their representative would make a difference, they might tell you they didn't think it would.

Frank: Well, that's part of the problem: The self-inflicted rules of the left, because we have this self-fulfilling prophecy that your phone calls won't have any effect, so we don't make them. I'll tell you, the phone call that isn't made has no effect.

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