Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, America’s most prominent gay politician, will retire at the end of this term, having served in the House since 1980. As former Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he led efforts to tighten Wall Street regulations and consumer protections. But he is best known for being the first member of Congress to voluntarily disclose that he’s gay. In this exclusive interview, he talks with Calbuzz Palm Springs Bureau Chief Hank Plante, a Desert Sun contributor, for a piece published originally in the LGBT monthly magazine Desert Outlook, edited by Will Dean.
How do you feel as you look forward to retirement?
Well very happy. I hadn’t realized until I announced my retirement how stressed I was. How my emotional nerve ends had kind of been worn thin.
I’ve had a great career. I look forward to the next phase. But in particular the last four years before this one, when I was chairman of the Financial Services Committee at a time when Financial Services was the center of the world economy, they were very rewarding but very stressful.
You mentioned Financial Services. And as you look back on your long career that has to be at the top of what you’re proud of, I would imagine?
Yes, because it was the most important subject with which I had to deal, well I guess second – tied — with another one where I had some pride in my work, which was to defeat Newt Gingrich’s effort to impeach Bill Clinton. Actually he was successful in impeaching him but not in convicting him.
But yes, the Financial Services Bill I have some pride in, in fact I think it’s going to be a very strong bulwark against another crisis of the sort we had before, and it took a lot of work and I put a lot into it and it came out pretty good.
You’re probably the most prominent gay politician in America, How do you look back on your contribution in that regard?
Well, I’m proud of that as well. I started out about the same time as the gay rights movement. It was serendipitous, but my first run for office was in 1972, just three years after Stonewall, when gay rights was first starting.
And in fact, as an example of that, I became the first person in the history of Massachusetts in the Legislature to file gay rights bills. Mainly because the year I ran the new gay groups, — there was one gay men’s and one lesbian group — sent out a joint questionnaire to everybody running for the legislature saying “would you support a bill to protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination?” I was the only one who said “yes,” so I became the leader by process of elimination.
Those were interesting times for me because I’ve known I was gay since I was 13, so I was a 33-year-old a freshman legislator, knowing that I’m gay, being closeted, and you have this question “Well are you going to go ahead with this?” I said to myself at the time, “I don’t think I can come out now and succeed, and I want to succeed politically, but it would be very dishonorable to be anything less than fully supportive.” If that led me to be outed, well, so much, I couldn’t live any other way. So for the next 15 years I was a major leader in the movement for gay rights while being closeted.
And then in 1987, almost 25 years ago to the day, about a month short of 25 years ago, I was proud to become the first member of Congress publicly to announce voluntarily that I was gay. One of my colleagues, very bravely, Gerry Studds — when confronted — became the first to acknowledge it, but I was the first to do it voluntarily. And I think I’ve had an impact. There’s some legislative improvements that we’ve seen. The climate is much better.
And I think, frankly, the fact that I was chairman of the Financial Services Committee and in that prominent role while being openly gay, while appearing with my partner, whom I’ll be marrying in a few months, that that helps advance the whole fight against prejudice.
You mentioned your partner. Congratulations. You must be very excited.
I am, and we’re doing this because we’re in love and it’s a way to show that, but also I did want to make sure that I was married while I was still a member of Congress. I don’t want some of the most non-supportive people to avoid forever having to deal with a married gay man on equal terms.
Let me ask you about Palm Springs. I know you’ve been here for fundraisers. Have you spent much time here?
I love Palm Springs a lot. I’ve been there from time to time. The last time — a good friend of Jim’s and mine has a place there — and we’ve spent some time there. I haven’t been there for a while.
Frankly, if you go back before four years I guess I’ve been there maybe at least two out-of-every-three years. But the four years before this one the financial crisis ruled my life. I think I got there once during that four year period.
Who do you think will take up the mantle now as far as gay leadership after you retire?
Well, there will be two members of the House, Jared Polis and David Cicilline. There will be, I hope, a Senator, Tammy Baldwin, and by virtue of being the first “out “member of the U.S. Senate and someone who was also the first person to get elected when she was out. There have been some openly gay people before but we’d all come out after being elected.
So Tammy, by virtue of her Senate race will be. And the other one who will play a very prominent role — and I believe already does — is Christine Quinn. Christine is now the Speaker of the New York City Council.
I’m hoping she gets elected mayor of the city of New York. She’s a contender to be the mayor of New York replacing Michael Bloomberg, getting elected next year. And I would say if Christine becomes mayor of New York, she will be probably the most prominent.
It would be interesting: it would be two women, with Tammy Baldwin as a Senator, and that would be some very important leadership.
And finally I have to ask you about the Presidential race. Of course you’ve seen Mitt Romney first hand, he was governor of your state. What are your thoughts on the Republican race?
Well, any gay or lesbian person with any self-respect should not be voting for any of the Republicans, including Mitt Romney, who made the degrading comment in one of the recent debates about how he kept Massachusetts from being the Las Vegas of gay marriage, kind of cheapening this very profound thing for us.
This is a faker who in 1994, when he was trying to beat Ted Kennedy in a different era, said “Oh, I’ll be better than him on gay rights,” and of course he’s been outrageous. In fact in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled in favor of gay rights, there was an effort in the State Legislature to overturn it. Mitt Romney led a fight against a whole lot of legislators who had courageously voted with us to uphold gay marriage, and he tried very hard to defeat them.
I think he gave the business I’m in a bad name. He is the most unprincipled, dishonest, intellectually flexible guy I’ve seen. There does not appear to be any public policy to which he’s committed.
And, of course, you go from him to Santorum and Gingrich and I don’t think you have a plausible Presidential lot. There’s not a Bob Dole in there, there’s not a John McCain, people I’ve had some respect for – but, of course, didn’t vote for.
This is a group of people running all over each other to try to appeal to the most right-wing group in America, and any one of them would be a disaster.