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In Conversation: Barney Frank


JZ: So if you look at something like Pride Weekend—

BF: 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.

JZ: In 1972, when you started working on gay rights as a political issue and you were closeted at the time, it seems—

BF: I was very scared. But I realized that I could not honorably walk away from this. Here’s what happened: I did not set out to be the crusader. But in 1972, the nascent gay-rights movements in Massachusetts, they had two groups: There was the Homophile Union of Boston was one and the Daughters of Bilitis, that was the lesbian group, one gay men and one lesbian, and they jointly sent out a questionnaire to everybody running for the state legislature that year, would you sponsor a gay-rights bill? And I was the only one that said yes, so I became the gay-rights leader.

George Meany was the head of the AFL before the merger [with the CIO]and was critical of A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Once Randolph bellowed at him, “Who the hell appointed you the head of all the colored workers in America?” Murray Kempton, a great journalist, said, “He should have said ‘process of elimination.’ ” Because he was the only one. That’s how I became the gay-rights leader. I was the only one who signed the thing.

But 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.

JZ: Did anyone ever ask you?

BF: I was 32 years old, I was unmarried, and I figured, well, people are going to think, Maybe he’s gay. I just said, fuck it, 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.

JZ: When did you start coming out, not publicly, but to people—

BF: ’78.

JZ: Kevin White and people like that?

BF: Not Kevin. The first people I came out to were my siblings, my three siblings, and my closest friends.

I was elected in 1972. Then it struck me, I’m not going to go anywhere else. I’m gay, I’m Jewish, I’m not a conventional candidate. I had an unusual district, Back Bay and Beacon Hill; in fact, I was one of the few people in America to win on ­McGovern’s coattails.

JZ: McGovern actually carried you?

BF: I represented a district that had a lot of BU students and MIT fraternities, a lot of people voted who hadn’t voted before—it had been a Republican seat before, although it was a moderate-to-­liberal Republican seat.

Shortly after the election, I ran into McGovern and I said, “Senator, I just got elected to the legislature, I wanted to thank you, I won on your coattails.” A day later I get a call from Bob Shrum, who had been a friend. He said, “Did you run into McGovern the other night?” I said, “Yeah, why?” He said, “I figured it was you. He came back and he said, ‘Guess what? I met somebody who said I helped him.’ ”

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 Republican senator, against Paul Tsongas because I thought race—I still think race has been the most important problem for us to deal with. But I didn’t think I was going anywhere politically.

So in 1978, I said here’s the deal. I’ll serve two more terms in the legislature. I’ll run for reelection in ’80, then I’ll retire. I figured I’m not going to be an academic, I got to find something to make a living at after I’m not a legislator anymore because I’m not going to be able to stay here too long. You get burned out in the legislature, and I had no further ambitions that I’d go anywhere. I wasn’t going to run for Congress against Tip O’Neill. And if Tip retired, I’d be running against Joe Kennedy and his son.

So I went to law school, took the bar, and said, okay, I’m going to run for one more term in the legislature, then 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. First of all I started telling gay friends, some of whom were not surprised. And then I told one gay friend. He said, yeah, I know. I said, how do you know? He said when we walk I watch your eyes. You stare at the same people I stare at. But I began to tell my siblings and my closest friends, and I was in the process of doing that, still on the retail level, in 1980. Then I got this lightning bolt, the pope had told Father Robert Drinan he couldn’t run again. 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.


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