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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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So are you going to get married while you’re still in office?
Yes, in July.

You say you’re not doing it just to make a point, but is there any—
There’s an unintended benefit. I want to get married. I do think, to be honest, if I was running for reelection, I might have tried to put the marriage off until after the election, because it just becomes a complication. But I did want to get married while I was still in office. I think it’s important that my colleagues interact with a married gay man.

Has the speed with which gay marriage is being accepted—
It’s pleasantly surprised me. I filed the first gay-rights bill in the history of Massachusetts in 1972. At any time in the past 40 years, if you had asked me to project the progress two or three years out, I would have been too pessimistic. It’s moving very rapidly. And I think within ten years, we’re going to have pretty close to full legal equality for gay and lesbian people in much of America. There still won’t be marriage rights, I believe, in many states, but there will be marriage rights in states that are at least half of the population, and there’ll be no federal restriction on recognizing that. It’s moved very quickly.

I read somewhere a few years ago that when you were done here, you planned to write a book on the gay-rights movement.
My career and the gay-rights movement are serendipitously coterminous, to use too many big words. I worked for the mayor of Boston in the late sixties, and my bailiwick was, among other things, liberal issue groups. There was no gay-rights activity in Boston at the time—none—and I guarantee you that because, as a closeted gay man, I was hoping to meet other gay people. It would have been a twofer for me. It didn’t happen. I went off to work in Washington for a year in 1971, and I came back to Massachusetts in 1972 and there was a gay-rights movement. Very few political movements in America have as clear-cut a starting line as the gay-rights movement with Stonewall. There were some very brave people before, but Stonewall really did crystallize it. I did not set out to be the crusader. But I realized that I could not honorably walk away from this.

Here’s what happened: In 1972, the gay-rights groups in Massachusetts jointly sent out a questionnaire to everybody running for the state legislature that year to ask, “Would you sponsor a gay-rights bill?” And I was the only one that said yes, so I became the gay-rights leader.

Kind of by accident.
I believe very strongly that people on the left are too prone to do things that are emotionally satisfying and not politically useful. I have a rule, and it’s true of Occupy, it’s true of the gay-rights movement: If you care deeply about a cause, and you are engaged in an activity on behalf of that cause that is great fun and makes you feel good and warm and enthusiastic, you’re probably not helping, because you’re out there with your friends, and political work is much tougher and harder. And I think it’s now clear that it is the disciplined political work that we’ve been able to do that’s won us victories. I am going to write about the history of the LGBT movement partly to make the point that, in America at least, this is the way you do progressive causes.

So if you look at something like Pride Weekend—
Pride Weekend was very important early on because people didn’t know who we were. The hiddenness was a problem. Today, pride has no political role. It’s a fun thing for people.

In 1972, when you started working on gay rights as a political issue and you were closeted at the time, it seems—
I was very scared. I remember standing up there to testify. What am I going to do if they ask me if I’m gay? I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to tell the truth.

Did anyone ever ask you?
I was 32 years old, I was unmarried, and I figured, well, people are going to think, Maybe he’s gay, but if he were gay, he wouldn’t do it. I just said, “Fuck it.” But I would not come out. I could not have a political career and be out. I didn’t have a district like Harvey Milk’s; I didn’t have a large gay constituency.

When did you start coming out, not publicly, but to people close to you?
Seventy-eight. I had a bad year in ’78. I opposed Mike Dukakis for renomination for governor, I picked a woman who was running to his left, treated it as a protest, then he lost to a right-wing guy, Ed King. I supported Ed Brooke, the [black] ­Republican senator, against Paul Tsongas because I thought race—I still think race has been the most important problem for us to deal with. I didn’t think I was going anywhere politically.


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