Brother Outsider

PBS Premiere: Jan. 20, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Out in Politics

Barney Frank

POV: Did you ever consider being out as a challenge to your career in politics? Are openly gay politicians held to a different level of scrutiny than heterosexual public figures?

Barney FrankBarney Frank: Having been born in 1940, and having first gone to work in the public sector in the sixties, being out was not only a challenge to a career in politics, but an absolute bar. That is, when I first went to work for the Mayor of Boston in 1967, I was sure that if I had come out, I would have had no chance at a public career. Indeed, the sense I had that even as a closeted gay man I would find great obstacles in getting ahead politically, helped persuade me when I graduated from college in 1962 to go to graduate school for a PhD rather than a law degree, since I thought life in academia would be an easier place in which to deal with my being gay. When I had to conclude that I was simply temperamentally not suited to be an academic and was much better in a line of work where a short attention span was an asset and not a handicap, I assumed I had to keep my homosexuality secret. That remained my assumption through my first elected office in 1972, and on into my second elective office to Congress in 1980. In fact, in the late seventies, I had begun to come out to friends because I thought then my political career was ending, but when a surprising decision -- by the Pope of all people -- opened a Congressional seat for me in 1980, I slammed the closet door shut again because I was sure I could never be elected had I been honest about my sexuality. I am still as sure of that as in 1980.

After a few years in Washington, however, trying to live half out and half in, I concluded that I was making myself too crazy and decided to come out even though I thought it would have some negative impact on my career. I did not think I would lose, having been elected at that time to Congress four times, but I assumed it would have some negative effects on my influence. In fact, many of my straight liberal friends who had heard that I was planning to come out urged me not to do so, because they were convinced that it would lead to a diminution of my influence in areas other than gay and lesbian rights. I could not disagree with them, but I did argue that me sanity required this. Fortunately, they and I were wrong. I did fear that coming out in 1987 would hurt my career, but it has not. Indeed, the fact that I had come out voluntarily in view of 1987 helped me survive an unpleasant set of accusations two and a half years later from a hustler with whom I had been involved during my closeted period. A little of what he said was true, most of what he said was false, but all of it turned out ot be survivable because I could put it in the context of having once been closeted and having subsequently voluntarily come out.

POV: Did you have any role models as you grew into your career in the public sector? What influence did Bayard Rustin have on you?

Frank: I had several role models in my career, and I divide them into two categories -- those who were important in my deciding how to be an effective advocate for liberal causes, and those who were role models in my dealing with my own position as an openly gay official.

Interestingly, two of those whom I considered when I was in my twenties to be role models because of their general effective advocacy on behalf of social justice, I later learned were definitely in one case and probably in the other dealing with some of the sexuality issues that I was also dealing with at the time. The two role models in question were Allard Lowenstein, the murdered civil rights, peace and human rights activist, and Bayard Rustin. I had no idea at the time that I first became aware of them that either was anything but heterosexual. I realize that this was not always a great secret regarding Bayard, but I have never claimed to be exceptionally perceptive in personal matters of this sort and was certainly not before I came out myself. Both men impressed me bacause of their passionate combination of idealism and pragmatism. Lowenstein and Rustin were both zealots in their dedication to fairness in the world, and they were equally zealous in their determination to be effective in that advocacy. Both were embattled primarily on their right, against people who were promulgating racism, social injustice, and oppression. But neither shied away from debating critics to the left who advocated tactics which Lowenstein and Rustin -- almost always rightly in my view -- believed to be ineffective and self-defeating. Their willingness to be tough advocates of their principles even when some on their own putative side disagreed impressed me, and they were both extraordinarily effective. The fact that Rustin was gay and that Lowenstien was very probably struggling with some gay feelings himself now strikes me as a great irony because I saw both men as important role models without realizing exactly how much we had in common.

With regard to dealing with me being gay as a part of an effective political career, there are two other role models. One was not only straight, but militantly so -- the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell. Powell was an extraordinarily effective liberal member of Congress for years, until personal difficulties undid him, and he also had to deal with the issue of being the first African American member of Congress to confront the racism of the Congress itself. He became my role model when I publicly adknowledged being gay in 1987. I then had to decide how to deal with the institutionalized homophobia in Congress. My decision -- based on my reading of Powell's life -- was to insist on being treated like anyone else, to bring the man in my life to events whenever any other member of Congress would have brought his spouse or companion, and to fight for equal treatment in every relevant respect, whether as an individual or as a member of a couple. I sought out a biography of Powell because I was aware that he had faced similar issues and I have tried to model myself on his dignified but militant refusal to be discriminated against in Congress in the early forties. The other model was the late Steve Endean, who tragically died of AIDS. Steve was the first openly gay man I knew to revel in calling himsef a political hack, and to breach as an openly gay man the roles of organized liberal political activity. He became a member of the board of the Americans For Democratic Action -- the first openly gay person to do so I believe -- and led the way in insisting that he as an openly gay man be accepted as a sole ally of liberal politicians. Today the kinds of things Steve fought for are taken for granted, but they were hardly gimmes at the time and he was a very important role model for me in how to integrate effective political liberalism with openness about one's sexuality.