Barney Frank’s lasting legacy

Congressman made history when he came out in 1987, opening the door for other LGBT politicians

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U.S. Congressman Barney Frank

Openly gay U.S. Congressman Barney Frank’s monumental contribution to the LGBT rights movement will one day be honored in the collection of unique individuals and events that makes up every American history book.

Frank, 71 now, may not be alive to see that day arrive, but as sure as God made little apples, it’s coming.

That’s because the LGBT rights movement has become an unstoppable force under the guidance of the testy congressman from Massachusetts and that of the scores of other openly gay and lesbian politicians who have joined him over the years in public office at every level of local, state and national government.

Now that Frank, a Democrat, has announced he will retire in 2012 and not seek re-election to the congressional office he has held since 1981, it is time to start putting his contributions to the American human rights movement in perspective.

Most LGBT rights activists agree the single most important measure in achieving success requires securing a place at the table where law is being made, and Frank accomplished that at the highest level a quarter-century ago when he publicly came out.

At the time Frank came out he had already served in Congress for six years, and it surely was no surprise to his colleagues, friends and families to learn about his sexual orientation. But the same could not be said for the majority of the American public, which still viewed homosexuality as quirky at best.

Even many LGBT people were unsure in 1987 about what to make of a congressman coming out as gay and thought it would likely be the end of his political career, which he began in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1973.

Probably to the shock of some, Frank continued to gain respect in Congress, and he now is viewed as one of the smartest, wittiest and most eloquent politicians in Washington, D.C.

Frank achieved success and gained admiration from his peers, the media, his constituents and others — even after being enveloped in a scandal in 1989 that nearly wrecked his career. The public learned that year that Frank had an affair with a male prostitute, whom the congressman had allowed to move into his home.

David-Webb

David Webb The Rare Reporter

Frank was investigated by the House Ethics Commission at his own request, and it ruled after a 10-month inquiry that the congressman had not been aware the live-in prostitute had continued to practice his trade from the household. The commission did recommend Frank be reprimanded for using his position as a congressman to get favors for his prostitute boyfriend.

In the height of irony, Frank survived an attempt by former Republican Idaho Congressman Larry Craig to remove him from office. Craig, who was elected in 1991 to the Senate for Idaho, made news in 2007 for attempting to solicit sex from an undercover male vice squad officer in a Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport restroom.

Craig, who pleaded guilty to the charge but made laughable excuses about his predicament in an attempt to claim his innocence, did not run for re-election the following year. On the other hand, Frank went on after his scandal to win every following election by a wide margin.

At the time Frank came out as gay there was not much more than a handful of openly gay politicians in the nation, if that many. As Frank’s fortunes rose, so did those of other politicians in the LGBT community, and today there are openly gay and lesbian people serving in a wide variety of major elective offices.

In the last election in November, the Victory Fund saw 53 of the 75 openly gay and lesbian candidates it had endorsed elected to office, including Mayor Annise Parker of Houston, State Sen. Adam Ebbin of Virginia and State Assemblyman Tim Eustace of New Jersey.

As Frank retires from public office, he leaves behind in Congress his openly gay and lesbian colleagues Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado and Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who also are Democrats.

No openly gay or lesbian member of Congress has ever been elected on the Republican Party ticket, although there have been a number of gay Republicans who have served from the closet. And more than one has been exposed for their hypocrisy as a result of a scandal, something Frank wisely avoided.

Frank’s legacy will be that he broke ground in American politics, inspiring other openly gay and lesbian people to seek and win elected office at every level.

That has resulted in the type of political gains that many people who have been around since the start of the gay rights movement in 1969 never thought they would see, regardless of how Frank might be viewed on some other issues.

Considering what has happened in the past four decades, it is conceivable that one day an openly gay or lesbian politician could be elected to any office, including the U.S. Senate — or even higher.  That’s a thought that probably never even occurred to Frank back in 1987.

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. E-mail him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

WATCH: Barney Frank announces retirement, slams Newt Gingrich over ‘sanctity of marriage’

Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., the longest-serving openly gay member of Congress, confirmed at a press conference this afternoon that he won’t seek re-election in 2012.

Frank said he decided to retire in part because he would have faced a tough campaign next year after his district was redrawn to include more conservative areas. Frank said the district would be almost half new.

“If I were to run again, I would be engaged full-fledged in a campaign, which is entirely appropriate — nobody ought to expect to get re-elected without a contest — but the fact that it is so new makes it harder, in terms of learning about new areas, introducing myself to new people.”

Frank also took a jab at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has climbed to the top of GOP presidential polls.

“I did not think I had lived a good enough life to be rewarded by Newt Gingrich being the Republican nominee. It still is unlikely, but I have hopes,” Frank said.

“I look forward to debating, to take one important example, the Defense of Marriage Act with Mr. Gingrich,” Frank said. “I think he is an ideal opponent for us when we talk about who it is that is threatening the sanctity of marriage. … He would be the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since Barry Goldwater.”

Watch a clip of Frank’s comments about Gingrich above.

Below are reactions to Frank’s retirement from President Barack Obama and others.

—  John Wright

BREAKING: Barney Frank to retire

Rep. Barney Frank

Openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., is expected to announce his retirement today.

Frank is the longest serving of four openly gay members of the U.S. House. The other three are Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Jared Polis, D-Colo., and David Cicilline, D-R.I.

Frank will hold a news conference at 1 p.m. Eastern time today in Newton, Mass., to announce that he won’t seek re-election in 2012, according to multiple reports.

Frank, 71, is the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. He was first elected in 1980.

The Boston Globe reports that a major factor in Frank’s decision to retire was the new district in which he would have had to run next year.

—  John Wright

Suggested reading for county commissioners: Trans woman’s testimony on Texas ENDA

Meghan Stabler

On the same day that Congressman Barney Frank announced plans to re-introduce the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a state version of ENDA was heard by a Texas House committee today. Testifying in favor of the bill, HB 665 by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, were transgender woman Meghan Stabler of Round Rock, who’s a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s Board of Directors;  and Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas. No one testified against the bill, which was left pending in the House Economic & Small Business Development Committee.

Stabler sent over the full text of her prepared remarks, which we’ve posted after the jump. We should note that this is recommended reading for all members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court.

“I had previously submitted my testimony, but felt that it was important to deviate from reading it in order to capture the committee,” Stabler writes. “It worked, to the point of me seeing a few tears in their eyes once they understood that their fellow Texans are discriminated against. I had several questions from the members, and even when the session closed five of them remained behind to congratulate me for my testimony and to address further questions. Texas, this is the beginning of change.”

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Frank to introduce ENDA; UCIS puts deportation of some gay partners on hold

Rep. Barney Frank

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. Openly gay Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., says he plans to re-introduce the Employment Nondiscrimination Act this week. Frank acknowledges ENDA has no chance of passing the GOP-controlled House this session, but he says it can be an organizing tool, particularly with regard to the transgender issue: “This is an organizing effort. I’m going to be urging people to spend their time talking to those who have voted in the past for ENDA and are supportive of ENDA but where we’re not certain they’re still with us on the transgender issue. So, that’s what – having a bill before you makes it easier to organize people to do that.”

2. In a major breakthrough for LGBT immigration equality, some deportations involving bi-national same-sex couples have been put on hold pending the outcome of lawsuits challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service.

3. The Arkansas Legislature has done what the Texas Legislature could not — passing an anti-bullying bill that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity. Specific mentions of LGBT youth were removed from anti-bullying bills in Texas to facilitate their chances of passage. In Arkansas, the fully inclusive anti-bullying measure passed the Senate 34-0 and the House 68-18. It now awaits Gov. Mike Beebe’s signature. How bout it, Texas?

—  John Wright

WATCH: Tammy Baldwin at Black Tie

Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., told The Washington Blade on Tuesday there is “zero chance” of passing pro-equality legislation in the new Republican-controlled House next year. Three days before, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin told attendees at Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner pretty much the same thing.

“The last time Republicans were in control of Congress, we fought hard for consideration of pro-equality measures, and we were rebuffed at every turn,” Baldwin said. “Within the new Republican leadership and among the incoming class of members, I don’t see many champions of gay rights. Now it’s my hope the Republican majority won’t revert to its prior agenda, which forced us to play defense, fighting back anti-equality measures, but I’m not holding my breath.”

Baldwin said that while a repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” is still “possible” during the lame duck session of Congress, the same cannot be said for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or the Domestic Partner Benefits and Obligations Act.

“Unfortunately the chances of enacting these measures are slim to none for now and for the foreseeable future,” Baldwin said. “Now that doesn’t mean we’re going to throw up our hands and give up. We will keep on moving forward, because LGBT equality is a movement, not a moment in time, and as with every great movement of social change, it requires that we have faith — faith that, using the tools of our democracy we can affect change, even when it’s our government that’s denying us our rights.”

Watch Baldwin’s full speech above.

—  John Wright

Gay Congressman Barney Frank re-elected

Barney Frank

More good news from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., has been re-elected despite a strong challenge from Tea Party-backed Republican Sean Bielat.

“Barney Frank is nothing if not a fighter, and we’re very happy he will return to the House and continue to fight for the people of Massachusetts and for all LGBT Americans. Nobody has worked harder or longer in the U.S. Congress for fairness and equality for the LGBT community,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Victory Fund.

Frank has served in the House since 1981 and came out as gay in 1987.

Again, to keep track of how gay candidates are faring across the country, go here.

—  John Wright