In one of his last interviews before leaving Congress, Rep. Barney Frank gave a preview of the kind of no-holds-barred pundit he will be as he moves on to write books and become a TV commentator. The retiring 16-term openly gay Massachusetts Democrat called for the legalization of prostitution, cheered Washington State and Colorado for legalizing marijuana, labeled Justice Antonin Scalia “an unreconstructed bigot,” criticized those who took Prop 8 to the Supreme Court, defended the free speech of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, and heralded the arrival of Congress’s first “gaysian” -- the election of Mark Takano, an openly gay Asian-American from California to the House. (Listen to the full interview below)
Reflecting on his career, Frank recalled when he first came out publicly as gay in the House in 1987, though the media today often erroneously reports that he came out or was outed two years later in a sex scandal. It was after seeing the AIDS death of married, closeted bisexual Connecticut Republican Congressman Stewart McKinney that Frank decided it was important to move on from being privately open to friends and family to being publicly out.
“He was a wonderful congressman,” Frank said of McKinney. “A genuinely liberal Republican congressman. He could not have existed as a Republican today and be welcome in the party given his views. He died of AIDS and there was a major debate: Was he gay? Was he not gay? How did he contract AIDS? That was early ‘87. Now, I had been thinking of coming out for some time [as a state legislator in Massachusetts]. And I was going to go public with it. And then, the Pope intervened -- mainly by ordering my predecessor, [Congressman] Father Robert Drinan, not to run for re-election. And I knew I had a chance to run for Congress.”
"I simply would not have won in 1980 if I was out,” he continued. “The fact would have destroyed my chances. I didn’t deny it but just did not volunteer it. I came to Washington and it was just not satisfactory. I told myself, ‘I’m going to be a gay man privately and publicly I’m not going to say anything.’ And what I learned is that, particularly in a prominent position, you can’t live half gay and half closeted. So I decided to come out, and I was wrestling with when to do it, and the Stewart McKinney funeral drove me over the top.”
At the time, colleagues thought he should have stayed closeted.
“When I did come out in ’87,” he recalled, “many of my straight friends, my group of colleagues who supported me, said, ‘Oh, why do you have to tell anybody?”
But Frank realized it was important to be out, particularly two years later, when a male prostitute that Frank had befriended and who was living with him, tried to use Frank’s personal life to blackmail him, going public about their relationship and claiming he was running a prostitution ring from Frank's home.
“Two and half years [after coming out], a hustler I was involved with tried to extort me,” he says bluntly.
Frank asked the House to investigate the claims of Steven Gobie, the male prostitute. The investigation found that Frank had no knowledge of any illegal activity on the part of Gobie, and Frank was reprimanded mostly for fixing Gobie’s parking tickets. Frank did acknowledge he had paid Gobie for sex early on, before they became friends.
“I always have thought prostitution should be legal,” he said. “I know people said, ‘Oh it victimizes women.’ And the women are vulnerable. We’ve seen this recently where the women are prosecuted when the customers, the men customers, have gotten away with it. But I think in the first place it’s a matter of personal choice. I’m for legalizing marijuana. I’m for legalizing gambling. I don’t think the government should be trying to make you a better person. But beyond that, the practical effect, the women, who are predominantly the prostitutes, they’re worse off when it’s illegal, because they’re outside protection of the law. They’re more subject to violence and subject to abuse because they can’t go to the law for protection.”
Though he was was reprimanded in the House in the Gobie affair, there was a failed attempt to go further and censure him, a move that he says was driven by attitudes about his being gay.
“Newt Gingrich, that exemplar, was the one who led the [failed censure] vote,” Frank recalled. Also supporting censure was Larry Craig, then a House member, who in 2007, as a senator from Idaho, was arrested for trying to have sex with an undercover cop in an airport men’s room.
“Hypocrisy,” Frank says in regard to Craig, underscoring that he continues to support the outing of politicians who vote antigay while living a closeted life.
“Yes, I believe the policy should be that people have a right to privacy but not to hypocrisy.” he said. He noted that he’d once written a letter to Ken Mehlman, the former Bush campaign chief and chair of the Republican National Committee, who came out as gay in 2010.
I had written to him [before he came out],” Frank says. “I wrote him a letter. It was a little snarky. He knew what I was getting at. I think it would have been a very good thing if this man would have been exposed.”
Frank is an adamant defender of free speech, and was one of only three House members to vote against barring the horrendously antigay Westboro Baptist Church from protesting at military funerals.
“It was me and Ron Paul and one other member,” he said of the vote in the House to defend the free speech rights of the church members who’ve threatened in recent days to protest at the funerals of the victims of the Newtown school shooting. “The test of free speech to me is whether you support the right of people to say vicious things you strongly disagree with.”
On the votes this past November in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, Frank, who has sponsored several bills supporting medical marijuana use and also removing federal criminal penalties for marijuana use, said, “I was very happy to see that.”
“On the question of whether or not you should send someone to prison for possessing marijuana, the public is ahead of the politicians,” he continued. “President Obama said he is not going to prosecute people in those states.”
Regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Prop 8 case, Frank is less jazzed.
“I was critical of the decision to take Prop 8 to court,” he said. “I don’t the think the five-member Supreme Court majority that we have is ready to declare that there is a constitutional right to marry everywhere. To bring a lawsuit when you’re not likely to win it, prematurely, is a mistake. So I was very critical of those people in California who were doing that. When the Supreme Court decides the Prop 8 case, what I believe is likely to happen is that they will accept the decision by of the circuit court in the west coast [ the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had narrowed the decision to apply only to California]. It’s people being rescued from themselves. Some of them are still trying to push the broader case, which I think is a mistake.”
On Justice Scalia and his latest anti-gay outburst, Frank is actually happy to see Scalia being honest.
“I was glad that he made clear what’s been obvious, that he’s just a flat out bigot,” Frank said. “I’d previously said he was a homophobe. And Fox and the rightwing said, ‘Oh just because he’s not for same-sex marriage? And I said, ‘No, let me be very clear. That’s not it. This is a man who has said you should go to prison for having sex.’ It was an extraordinarily abusive sentiment and it was dead wrong. And, by the way, for a guy who is supposed to be so smart -- quite stupid.This young man said to him, ‘Why do you compare sodomy to murder?’ And he said, ‘Well because I have a right to say if I think something is immoral.’ Well the question wasn’t about his right. The question was, By what morality is expressing your love for someone in a physical way equivalent to killing that person? It makes it clear that the man is an unreconstructed bigot, and given that you have a bigot on the Supreme Court like that, it is useful to know.”
Upon retiring in a matter of days, Frank is confident about his LGBT colleagues in Congress taking up the baton.
“We’re now in the majority position in Congress and people know that,” he said. “Tammy [Baldwin] in the Senate will be doing great work. [Openly gay Colorado congressman] Jared Polis is very well-respected and is now joined my Mark Pocan [of Wisconsin] and Kyrsten Sinema [of Arizona] and Mark Takano [of California]. One of the Asian-American straight members of Congress came to me the other day and said, ‘Good for us! We have a “gaysian.’” Mark Takano is a gay Asian.”
He’s also optimistic about the future of LGBT rights, and transgender rights in particular.
“The next time we have a Democratic House, president and Senate,if DOMA hasn’t been found unconstitutional -- which, I still believe it will be -- then it will be repealed,” Frank stated. “And you’ll be able to get a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The transgender issue -- it’s interesting to see how time speeds up. In 1972, I filed the first gay rights bill in Massachusetts history [as a state legislator] and I remember at the time encountering this sense almost of disgust and discomfort from my colleagues. They didn’t want to think about it. And over time we eroded that. Now, the transgender issue is a new issue in the sense of being raised. When we were first dealing with it even five or six years ago, we ran into this same discomfort, unease, etc. We’ve made much quicker progress there. The time on this has sped up. So I believe we are now at the point, which we weren’t at even a few years ago, where we’re we’ll be able to get the transgender legislation.”
And though no one could possibly say Barney Frank wasn’t taken seriously as a member of Congress, Frank says he’s going to be even more of potent force as a pundit and commentator.
“I think I’ll have more credibility,” he observed. “There’s a great cynicism of politicians today -- unduly and excessive in my judgement -- so when I say what I think now, people say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to curry favor.’ Well, they won’t be able to say that anymore.”
Listen to the full interview here: