In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Barney Frank is a former Democratic member of Congress who represented Massachusetts from 1981 to 2013. In 1987, Frank made history by becoming the first member of Congress to come out voluntarily.
How did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
I don’t remember exactly when I learned about Stonewall. When Stonewall happened I was 28 and in a very absorbing job as assistant to the mayor of Boston. There were major demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and I was pretty much focused on that.
I became aware of Stonewall, but I was not out. There was zero LGBT political activity in Boston in 1970, and I was looking for it. I went to Washington, and in 1971 Boston had its first Pride march. By the time of the second one in 1972 I was running for the state legislature, still closeted, but working with the LGBT community. (When elected, Frank actively lobbied for gay rights legislation, and helped gay victims of crime report those crimes anonymously to police.)
I started coming out in the late 1970s, to friends and people in the community. Then, in May 1980, the process froze. I had been a state legislator for around 10 years. I was going to serve one more term in the state legislature, then pass my masters at the Bar and be an out lawyer and gay rights activist.
Then, in May 1980, Pope John Paul II intervened: He ordered priests not to run for political office. I ran in the 4th Congressional District which a Jesuit priest, Robert Drinan, had held. I won, and in winning my coming out came to an end.
I called my brother-in-law and said, “When I heard about the vacancy, the sound you heard was the closet door slamming.” My coming out was back on hold, although I continued to come out to family and friends, and people in the gay community, their allies and friends, knew.
What made you come out in 1987?
I found being closeted incredibly difficult. Everyone has mental and physical needs. I found it very hard to meet people and have a healthy social life. Some people were too out for me, and I was too out for others.
I fell into a pattern of paying for sex, and realized that this was a crazy way of running my life. [A scandal erupted over Steve Gobie, a prostitute Frank paid for sex, in the late 1980s. Larry Craig, who was later exposed in an airport-bathroom scandal of his own, led the charge to censure and expel Frank at the time—which failed.]
Finally in 1987, I said, “To hell with it. I’m gonna just say who I am. If that’s a problem so be it.” And I was re-elected many times. I did think it would diminish my influence. But I just thought I couldn’t live this way. I got tired of censoring my pronouns. I wasn’t having a healthy social life, a healthy sex life, and I had physical and emotional needs that were not being satisfied and that began to affect my work negatively.
My colleague Gerry Studds had come out a few years before me, having been involved in a scandal, and that scandal delayed my coming out because he wanted to get through his thing.
When I came out it was actually much better than I thought. People were enormously supportive. I got hate mail and death threats, but they were from people who were never going to vote for me anyway. I was a prominent gay rights legislation supporter, so those people were never going to vote for me.
What do you think of Pete Buttigieg?
I’m delighted with Pete Buttigieg. It’s extraordinarily encouraging that in his case being gay is an asset. He’s a very talented guy. We’re at a place today where he’s getting advantages because he is gay. If he was a 37-year-old mayor from a small town running for president he wouldn’t get attention. It’s a very good sign of the diminishing of LGBT prejudice.
Could he go all the way, and be America’s first out president?
I’m skeptical. One, he’s the 37-year-old mayor of a small town. Two, he’s doing well now, not getting any negatives, but it will get tougher. There are other very good candidates.
And anti-LGBT prejudice is a problem, or there is a perception that it could be a problem. I’m delighted he’s trying, and the fact he’s so well received so far is a good sign of the lessening of prejudice. When I got married seven years ago (to Jim Ready), it was international news. Now the response to Pete and his husband is, “Oh, isn’t that interesting?” When Jim and I did it, it was, to quote Joe Biden, a “big fucking deal.” Now, it’s no big deal.
Are LGBT rights imperiled under Trump?
They shouldn’t feel imperiled. The country has moved on. He’s obviously threatening trans rights, but I don’t think he’s going to be able to take away same-sex marriage.
There will be states where people will be allowed not to honor our rights because of their religious convictions. That is a danger. For that to happen, that state has to pass a bad law. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of them, because one thing that stops it is the business community. They don’t want to have to choose between us and the people who hate us. The House passed the Equality Act, the Senate won’t.
What is the significance of Stonewall Riots for you now?
Obviously, in retrospect it was an important thing. I don’t think there is a single event in any other movement that was as clear-cut a dividing line as Stonewall was.
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
An enormous way. We’ve come to a point in much of the country where LGBT people have full legal rights. There is some prejudice, particularly against trans people but generally anti-LGBT prejudice is diminishing. I don’t think any civil rights movement has made the progress we have made in the last 50 years.
Ten years ago it was illegal to be LGBT in the military, and I think Trump’s trans ban will eventually get overturned. The efforts to pass religious exemption laws have failed in conservative states like Indiana and Texas. Alongside Pete Buttigieg, we have seen the election of Jared Polis (the first out-gay person to be elected a Governor—in Colorado). Lori Lightfoot is the first lesbian and first black woman to be elected Mayor of Chicago. Kyrsten Sinema is the first out-bisexual senator (of Arizona). The great majority of LGBT people are able to live their lives.
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
A continuation of this; that your gender identity and sexual orientation are purely personal characteristics that should not lead to you being subjected to any disapproval, just like your religion.
How do you see your legacy?
I’m very grateful because people were very good to me. I’m a little bit chagrined that in the period before I came out I was dealing with my own closeted issues, and that I screwed up with a hustler. I think, frankly, I am lucky. If I came out 20 years before, I don’t think I would have had any of the successes I had. And if I was in office today, it would not be as important.
Before I came out, several of my straight colleagues came to me and said, “Please don’t come out. You’re valuable as an ally, and if you come out you’ll be diminished as an ally.” I said, “I can’t deny that, but I can’t live this way.” I was trying to hide and was doing stupid things. Once I came out, people were overwhelmingly supportive, including a couple of Republicans. The Clintons were very supportive. In the 1990s, my then-partner Herb Moses and I were fully accepted socially at White House dinners.
A straight colleague and I went to a restaurant. He was surprised: “Barney, they treat you like royalty.”
I didn’t know a lot of closeted politicians, maybe around three or four between the House and Senate. By now, it is fairly easy to be out in the Democratic Party, but if any Republican came out they would suffer for it politically within their party. One of the biggest single differences between the political parties is on LGBT rights: the Democrats have become 99 percent supportive, and the Republicans 90 percent anti.
A couple of well-known homophobes were nice privately to me and publicly critical of me. I said to them, “This doesn’t work. You can’t denounce me and people like me and then say, ‘Let’s be friends.’”
I never had any real dealings with Jesse Helms. From what I heard he was an asshole privately as well as publicly.
When it was announced I was leaving Congress, President Obama had Jim and me to a private lunch at the White House. He was very complimentary. My husband was very happy. He’s anti-onion, and we were served fish with onions. The president swept his onions aside, so Jim was happy—he took it as a signal he could, too.
He gave us a picture taken at his 2009 inauguration of President Obama hugging my husband, with a note written in his hand: “Jimmy, showing you the love for keeping Barney under control.”
I’m 79 now, but I’m uncomfortable answering questions about my mortality and legacy. You either sound offensively egotistical or unconvincingly humble, and I want to avoid that.