In 1978 I said, “I’ll serve two more terms in the [state] legislature. I’ll run for reelection in ’80, then I’ll retire.” So I went to law school, took the bar, and said, “Okay, I’ll retire, I’ll be a lawyer, I’ll be a gay-rights activist having been in the legislature for ten years. I’ll be fairly prominent.” So I started coming out in ’79, telling my siblings and gay friends, some of whom were not surprised.
Then I got this lightning bolt. The Pope decided to ban clergy from holding elected office and had told Father Robert Drinan he couldn’t run again. [Drinan served as a U.S. Congressman from 1971 to 1981.] I called my brother-in-law and said, “Hey, Jim, you know Father Drinan’s not running?” He said, “I heard that.” I said, “Well, that sound you just heard is of a closet door slamming.” Meaning I was now going back into the closet to run for Congress. I figured I’ll be out privately but I’ll be ambiguous publicly. I’ll be out to the gay community. And that was unsustainable.
How did you think you were going to be able to do that?
I didn’t think. This is how I got in trouble with that hustler. You know, we all have emotional and physical needs that have to get expressed, and being closeted publicly, either people were too out for me or I was too out for them. I was not able to find a successful private life, an emotional life, a romantic life, so I took to hustling. I didn’t realize at the time how crazy that was. And it’s not an accident that whole deal ended when I came out. Remember, I came out voluntarily.
Yeah, I know, in the “Globe.”
The crap with the hustler [became a scandal] more than two years later.
When you did come out, was it more of a personal than a political decision?
I’ll tell you what finally touched it off. When Gerry Studds was outed, that meant I couldn’t come out for a while—two in the whole country, and we have districts next to each other? He got reelected in ’84, and even in ’86 I figured it’s too soon. Then a member of Congress named Stewart McKinney died of aids, and a major debate ensued about whether he was or wasn’t gay. It was very distasteful. Stewart was a wonderful man, one of the last really liberal Republicans, and I said, “Geez, this is awful. If I get hit by a truck tomorrow, I don’t want there to be this big debate: Was he gay? Was he not gay?” So I decided that I was going to come out.
What was the most difficult conversation you had with a colleague about that? Or were they all pretty receptive?
They were all very receptive. I didn’t tell that many people.
You told O’Neill, right?
Yeah. Robert Bauman had written a book in which he outed me. He incorrectly referred to somebody as my boyfriend—he wasn’t; he was a close personal friend—but he referred to me as gay. The press didn’t pick it up, but I thought, I’d better tell Tip. So I went to Tip. We were sitting on the floor, it was a bad day, we were losing the vote on the Contras, and I sat next to him. I said, “Tip, I’ve got to tell you something. Bob Bauman is coming out with a book that says I’m gay.”
“Awww, Bahney, don’t listen to that shit. You know they say these things about people.” I said, “Well, Tip, the point is it’s true.” He said, “Oh, Bahney, I’m so sad.” That’s when he told me he thought I was going to be the first Jewish speaker. He acted as if it was the end. But he was wonderfully supportive.
The final part of the story was when he told Chris Matthews, “We better get ready to talk to the press. They tell me Bahney Frank is going to come out of the room.” Matthews said, “What?” Finally he figured out Tip meant “come out of the closet.”
What were the reactions of other people?
There was one guy in my district when I came out who was furious. He said I’d lied to him. I probably had. I’d said I was not gay. But people were wonderfully supportive, including some Republicans. Al Simpson called—we’d worked together on immigration. He said, “Hey, pal, I just have this terrible feeling I might have said an anti-gay joke sometime in your presence, I’m so sorry.”
I was at a grocery store, Roland’s market on Capitol Hill. Warren Rudman was in there, the former senator. I was in the back, and he actually yelled the length of the store, “I’m proud of you!”