Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is one of two openly LGBT representatives in Congress and is presently chair of the House Financial Services Committee. Frank, who has been a U.S. representative since 1981, has been called eloquent, witty and caustic. He spoke with Mark Segal about the convention, how the Democratic Party has changed and what the LGBT community should expect from a new president.
MS: What should the LGBT community expect from this convention?
BF: An affirmation of the biggest difference between the two parties. If Obama wins and we have a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate, we will see legislation that will remove some of the inequalities we face. That is one of the biggest differences between the parties. McCain is committed to perpetuating all of the legal inequalities.
MS: Does it bother you that the words “gay” and “lesbian” don’t appear in the DNC platform?
BF: No. We have a very serious opportunity to win big the accomplishment that we’ve been looking for for a long time. That just baffles me that anybody cares about that. What’s important is the public-policy alternatives are stated as explicitly as they could be.
MS: The DNC platform covers civil unions, hate crimes and gays in the military. Is there anything you feel that was missed?
BF: No. There is not yet in the country a majority in favor of same-sex marriage. That, I believe, we are working toward. But the platform does the right thing in leaving it up to each state and opposing efforts to take it away from the states, because I think that is the way we will get there as people experience this state by state. They will understand that these fears and concerns, the non-bigoted ones, the majority will understand that. It addresses every topic that needed to be addressed. It falls short in part on the marriage issue. But that’s what you get in a democracy, and it does affirm the right of legal recognition of our relationships and most importantly opposes efforts to undo them at the state level. That’s how we’re going to win this thing.
MS: What are your thoughts on the latest Harris Poll, which shows that 68 percent of gays and lesbians support Obama and 10 percent support McCain?
BF: What I don’t understand is why if you were a rational human being at this point you would be undecided. I don’t know what they are waiting for. The later people decide, the less I’m impressed with the quality of their decisions. The distinctions are very clear. The 10 percent, I think, essentially reflects people who are gay mostly, very few lesbians: I think this is one where you are mostly talking about men whose own lives are such that they personally don’t experience much gay discrimination. And many of them also tend to be upper income. Obviously not all gay people are rich but, as with any group, we have an element who are wealthy and I think they are voting their pocketbook to a great extent because they are not themselves facing discrimination. In cases where there are partners, they both have healthcare. Some of the material aspects of discrimination, many of these people are immune from them.
MS: You mentioned earlier in the interview that we have an opportunity to have a big win with Obama. If we do have that big win, how large do you think we will increase the Democratic presence in the House and what should be the first priority of the LGBT community?
BF: It’s most important that we increase it in the Senate and I believe we will by at least five, maybe seven or eight, and that’s going to be very important because that is where we’ve had blockages. Secondly, the House will pick up 10-15 seats. Getting rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” [the military ban on openly gay servicemembers] is important, but I think that the first thing that the new president will have to do is set us on the course to get out of Iraq. There are only so many things we want to test the military with. The hate-crimes bill is an easy one. Both houses have passed it. We can get a hate-crimes bill signed. Then we will get to ENDA. The question now is whether enough lobbying has been done to include people who are transgender. In my own home state of Massachusetts, I sent testimony in favor. There was a proposal to add transgender discrimination to the legislation and it failed. There’s still a political problem there that some of the leadership doesn’t want to confront. We need more lobbying on that. We had a very good hearing on that issue and it helped. Previously, we were running into problems getting it out of committee, and I think the hearing we had a major impact on that. It also depends on if we get more Democrats. The more Democrats we have, and obviously not every Democrat votes with us, the better we’ll do. If we can pick up 15 Democratic seats, then I think we are in a good position to pass a transgender-inclusive ENDA.
MS: The last time the LGBT community had a friend in the White House was obviously Bill Clinton. When he got into the White House, the first priority the gay community lobbied for was gays in the military. Some people now believe that it was a mistake because it was too strong of an issue and the right wing got a chance to attack the gay and lesbian community and the new president who was inexperienced in those issues. Do you think we’re more politically astute today?
BF: We are politically astute but I think it’s an unfair criticism that it was our choice. It wasn’t our choice. People forget the history. Bill Clinton had committed in the campaign to doing that but no one was asking for that to be the first thing. What happened was, in December before he was president, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the policy was an unconstitutional discrimination. That was a good ruling but it came at a bad time because when Bill Clinton took office, the clock was now running on whether or not he would appeal. He did not have the legal ability to defer that issue because the judge’s decision in San Francisco came before he took office. Colin Powell, who was terrible on that issue, he and Sam Nunn and Bob Dole were the threesome that killed us on that. Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and people said, “Why didn’t Clinton order him to do something?” Because Clinton wasn’t his boss. Clinton didn’t become his boss for more than a month after that. The problem was not that we chose, but a federal judge did. We now have better control over this. With regard to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I would hope people would understand that the first thing to do is to get Iraq squared away and then do it. Instead, work on hate crime first and ENDA. And then also try to get some recognition of relationships.
MS: Two years ago, you wrote an article for the gay-history project where you looked back to 1962 when John F. Kennedy asked Congress and the United States to toughen that part of the American Immigration Law that was aimed at excluding gays and lesbians from coming into the United States even as tourists. What do you think of the change since that time?
BF: It’s been enormously encouraging. Even this year, George Bush signed the bill that repealed the last vestige of that which is the exclusion of people who are HIV-positive. We’re making all this progress. What happened was Stonewall. First, you had a series of movements in America post-World War II to democratize. I think it goes back to the revulsion people felt about Hitler and its showing of how terrible prejudice can be. It discredited all prejudices, anti-Semitism, ultimately, race, etc. Then, by the late 1960s, we were joining that parade of groups saying we’re going to be equal to everybody else. In our case, the most important thing that happened was millions of us decided to be honest about who we are and said we’re gay, we’re lesbian, we’re bisexual. It turned out that the American public, once they got to know us, said it’s OK. That doesn’t mean there are no bigots or prejudice, but it has been diminishing. In the country as a whole, prejudice has diminished. Now the parties are diverged on this. The Democrats have gotten better at a rate greater than the country as a whole, while the Republicans have lagged in the country as a whole. So as a result, you have the country being better. Democrats are being much better and the Republicans not so much. But the change from 1962 to today, I don’t think there is an aspect of American social life where attitudes have changed as much in a positive way.
MS: Can you give a clue of what you will say when you get up on the podium?
BF: I haven’t been invited to speak so I don’t think I’ll be saying anything. One thing I will say out there at the event. Here’s my way to decide for people who are undecided on the tough political issues. Christians have as their motto, “What would Jesus do?” In many cases, it turns out Jesus would have done, according to them, what they would have done in the first place. But I have a version of that. If you are in doubt about a political decision, say to yourself, “What would Chaney do?” and do the opposite.