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OPINION

Beyond Barney

By Tony Giampetruzzi
Boston Spirit Magazine / January 1, 2011
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Jan. 1, 2011—This is a reprint of an article that ran in the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of Boston Spirit Magazine. For more information on Boston Spirit Magazine, visit them online at BostonSpiritMagazine.com.

It’s hard to imagine gay life without our fave national LGBT rights leader and congressperson from New England; but Frank just turned 70 and some are wondering about a coming potential leadership vacuum.

For those in the gay community, it’s tough to imagine a time before Barney Frank. An avuncular congressman, known nationwide for his wit, strong will, and bellicosity, Frank has endured as the most stalwart champion of LGBT issues in Washington for decades. From funding for AIDS in the ‘80s to gays in the military in the ‘90s, to, most recently, gay marriage and trans inclusion, Frank has been an unforgiving crusader for LGBT equality. And, after handily winning election after election, he has risen to the most senior ranks of the House, giving him unusual influence in a government grudgingly slow at codifying equal rights.

His star ascended against the odds: only four years after first being elected in 1980, Frank opened his doors to a gay prostitute, showering him with money and (unwittingly) subsidizing his checkered life. After he kicked out the notorious Steve Gobie in 1987, the n’er do well set out to pull a Christina Crawford and tell his story — and that of Frank — to the highest bidder. The effort was in vain, and Frank emerged from a highly publicized, albeit self promoted investigation by the House Ethics Committee (ironically led by public bathroom vulture, former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig) with a slap on the wrist and a remarkable 66% at the polls in 1989.

But Frank was among those who were battered in 2010. He carried his district with just 54% of the vote, his lowest—by far—in years, following an effort by his detractors to vilify his personal life once again. A boyfriend was once again at the center of the storm, and this time the press seized upon Jim Ready, a Mainer with a penchant for pot and for publicly taunting Frank’s opponent, Republican Sean Bialet. He and Ready went on to become frequent topics of gossip including on Page Six.

The lemon became lemonade. According to Frank, the publicity only further illuminated his cause célèbre. “Jim became a very large part of the last campaign, and there was controversy. In some ways that was painful for us, but [the exposure] was important because it’s about time that we are presented as a couple, as real live people who love each other,” explains Frank. “Prejudice is ignorance, and reality is the best antidote to prejudice.”

Frank turned 70 this year, he’s beginning his 16th term in the House, he’s ostensibly enjoying the domesticity that comes with a solid relationship, his list of accomplishments is outstanding, and he could likely have a very lucrative post-Congressional career as a pundit.

So, the question many are now asking is, what would life after Barney look like?

Retirement?

“Is the alternative that I will be in Congress forever?” Frank responds when posited with the likelihood that he will halt future efforts at campaigning. “It is accurate to say that I am eventually going to retire.” Colleagues and activists confirm that they’ve heard the rumors as well, although no one is qualified to say with any authority that retirement is imminent. Nonetheless, many are opining on the state of affairs in Washington absent Frank.

“Personally, I feel that he’s served the country for a very long time. He’s 70 years old, and I wouldn’t begrudge him a minute when and if he decided to retire. But I’m going to enjoy every last minute he’s there,” says U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-ME, a gutsy supporter of LGBT equality, who knows that, to be gay and senior in Congress has been golden to Barney and his efforts.

“When he goes to talk to one of his colleagues, when he says, ‘personally this is really important to me, it’s important that I can marry or have these rights,’ well, it makes a huge difference because he is such a senior member, and someone who is openly gay, to speak about their life. It’s not the same [for straight allies].”

Pingree joins a loud chorus of those who point to the other out members of Congress for expert leadership on all issues gay. Two-term U.S. Rep, Jared Polis, (D- Colorado) and six term U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) are obvious successors, and freshman U.S. Congressman-elect David Ciciline (D-Rhode Island) is noted by New Englanders as a surefire LGBT ambassador — to be sure, Frank has not been a king maker, his throne will take a long time to fill, and no one will completely fill his shoes for a long, long time.

“I couldn’t even begin to speculate [on who will replace Frank] because these are things that don’t really become clear until the transition begins to happen, “ said Kara S. Suffredini, Executive Director, MassEquality. “There are LGBT leaders in the House and certainly they will continue to be champions on LGBT issues, but the fact remains that Barney Frank is very senior, and it will be sad to watch a senior member of the House go.”

Suffredini reminds that, just as important as Frank’s leadership on LGBT issues is his amassed power and clout. Frank’s chairmanship of the Financial Services Committee proved that it is critical to have a gay person out front on an issue that’s not LGBT-related, and to have people see that person functioning in that role and focusing on the merits of the job, not as just an LGBT posterboy.

But Frank has indeed played a critical role in advancing LGBT rights, and he’s the first to point out that, although gay friendly legislators are important, it will take openly gay members of Congress to carry the torch.

“Legislators are very personal and interact with each other more than the executive or judicial branch. So, having someone who is openly gay is very important in terms of getting the message across of who we are,” says Frank, adding that the political climate of the Northeast has helped him advance personally and politically.

“If the people here weren’t so resistant to prejudice, then I wouldn’t be where I am politically. I’ve been able to have this career by being out, I’ve been able to reinforce that — it’s what we call a virtuous cycle as opposed to a vicious cycle,” he says. “Because the lack of prejudice gave me a chance, I was able to use that opportunity to further advance our course.”

Lee Swislow, Executive Director of Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, agrees that openly gay leaders are critical in advancing LGBT policy, but no one has the institutional anchor enjoyed by Frank.

“Well, the other three openly gay legislators will be great advocates [in Congress] as they have been in other roles as public figures, but none of them have the seniority Barney has,” she echoes. “Seniority makes the difference, and committees make the difference, and that will be lost. Of course, there will be other legislators who are not gay who also are great supporters of our issues, so there will be a number of people we will work with, but no one who is ready to step into Barney’s shoes.”

And what makes Barney particularly special? Geography. “It’s always inspirational to have someone local who supports your issues,” says Swislow.

Suffredini says that the sense of pride that follows having a national leader has buoyed efforts at home. “It’s been significant to have a gay voice at the federal level [because] that helps us at the local level, trying to pass the legislation that we’re pushing here.”

Heir Apparent? Cicilline?

And, perhaps that’s why, for New Englanders, all eyes are on the 49-year-old Cicilline. Not green by a long shot, Cicilline navigated the waters of coming out while serving in the Rhode Island legislature where he maintained his seat for four terms, and then proved his grit as the capable and successful mayor of Providence for eight years. He won his election to Congress in November by a decisive margin.

“I was especially pleased to see David win. He is a very skillful guy who has a great commitment to principle, but who is also a very good politician — which is what we want in a leader. So, I think David will be playing a major role [in the future of GLBT politics],” says Frank.

Frank clearly regards Cicilline as a thoughtful leader who will be a champion of the gay community in Congress, and, Cicilline says he won’t let the community down.

“I have always been a champion of equality, including full equality for our community. I, of course, see that as one of my responsibilities in the Congress,” said the very busy mayor as he wraps his tenure in Providence. And, he says, he is under no delusion about living up to one of his longtime mentors.

“There’s no question that Congressman Frank has earned the respect of his colleagues over many years for his hard work, tenacity, and intellect, and as a result, he has tremendous influence in Congress,” said Cicilline. “His retirement would be felt by our community and the entire country.”

To be sure, David DOES have a mentor in Frank. Pingree, says that because Frank is, well, frank, her job has been made easier. “He has helped me know when to push, when to hold back. I’ve learned a lot from him in terms of the personalities and history … and that’s been immeasurably helpful.”

Frank has offered to share the same advice with Cicilline that he has shared with Pingree, namely insight into the personalities he’ll encounter, but, says Frank, Cicilline is already well prepared for his job, a fact that should induce comfort for those in New England. “First of all, David was a state rep, so he knows how to do this, he knows a lot about it,” he says. “What I’ll give him is specific advice about specific people, he knows the process.”

For his part, Cicilline claims that being openly gay will be the least of his worries: “I expect my challenges in Congress to have much more to do with being a freshman congressman in the minority than with my sexual orientation.”

What’s Next?

It’s likely that the next two years, maybe four, or even longer, will prove to be an opportunity for the up-and-comers, whomever they may be, to dig in their heels, forge relationships, and simply wait for the balance of power to tilt in their direction.

“Nothing good,” said Frank of what the LGBT community has to look forward to from Congress in the foreseeable future. “Nothing will happen at the federal level. The republicans will be able to block us, and we’ll be able to block them.” But, says Frank, the action will be at the state level where marriage, trans equality, and even basic equal rights continue to percolate — and where future leaders are made. Such was the case for Cicilline, Polis, Baldwin, Pingree and Frank, who served eight years in the Massachusetts legislature before going on to become the most accomplished, openly gay lawmaker the United States has ever known.

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