Since the founding of America, with its deep commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” LGBTQ citizens have found very few seats at the public table. Life for these Americans was often lived in the shadows, as the “pursuit of happiness” in broad daylight was simply too dangerous. And a career in public service was unthinkable.
That was then. Today, there is an explosion of fully out LGBTQ political candidates running—and winning—all sorts of races across the country. This progress, however, would not be possible without the many brave LGBTQ politicians who came out in the 1980s or earlier and endured hostile conditions as they chased uncertain outcomes early in their careers. Former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank and former Houston mayor Annise Parker are two such pioneers who have blazed the trail.
“When the Globe asked me if I was gay, I said ‘Yes. So what?’ Did it change anything?”
Annise Parker was the first out gay woman to serve as the mayor of a major American city. Since 2017, this quiet and determined activist has served as president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ candidates throughout the United States.
The Victory Fund endorsed 178 candidates in the November 2018 elections, with a whopping 115 of those candidates winning offices. Many Americans first met Mayor Pete Buttigieg by watching his campaign-launching speech at a Victory Fund event, when Mayor Parker introduced him.
But 47 years before America would learn to pronounce Buttigieg, a young, gay Boston Democrat named Barney Frank won his first election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972.
From childhood, Frank had a fierce desire to work in politics and contribute to society. By 14, he was also well aware that he was attracted to men, which presented a problem for a politician in the 1970s. His solution was to dive into politics and bury his sexuality.
“I wasn’t even ‘in the closet’ at this time,” Frank told NPR in 2015 regarding his earliest years as a legislator. “I had to evolve into the closet. I was in denial,” he stated with his signature honesty and wry sense of humor.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1980, Frank was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives serving Massachusetts. He won that first congressional seat with a 52 percent margin, a victory that set the trend for every one of his subsequent elections.
Thanks to his charisma, earthy integrity, and whip-smart intelligence, Frank soon earned many friends in Washington. Still, only his closest associates knew he was gay, and none of his constituents knew.
In those early years, he worked tirelessly for civil rights, and was the most powerful and effective proponent of LGBTQ rights in Washington. Still closeted at the time, he remains amazed to this day that none of his straight peers ever put two and two together.
OutSmart spoke with Congressman Barney Frank about his decision to publicly come out in 1987, becoming the first gay man to serve openly in Congress.
“At this point, there was sort of a stereotype, and I suppose I didn’t reflect it. I had gained some weight, and I smoked cigars. I guess my ‘aspect’ didn’t fit the typecasting,” Frank tells OutSmart.
“For example, as a state representative, somebody took a picture of me in which I looked a little disheveled, so I put the photo on a campaign poster that said ‘Re-elect Barney Frank. Neatness isn’t everything.’ I have always had a hard time dressing well. During one of my congressional campaigns, someone wrote an article and said I was wearing an ill-fitting suit. I said, ‘No, that’s unfair. It was a well-fitting suit, I just wasn’t the person it fit,’” he says with a laugh.
There was a price to be paid for staying in the closet. Frank spent his busy legislative days with a dark cloud over his head. He was uncomfortable, unfulfilled, and mad at himself most of the time. Then in 1987, he summoned his courage and came out publicly to the Boston Globe newspaper. This marked the moment that Barney Frank became the first openly gay congressman in the United States House of Representatives.
Did his constituents abandon him after his confession? Frank’s first election after coming out occurred in 1990. He won with a landslide 66 percent margin.
“I didn’t want it to be a big deal, so when the Globe asked me if I was gay, I said ‘Yes. So what?’ Did anything change afterward? My associates told me I became nicer, easier to get on with. They said I wasn’t as grumpy or as quick to snap. I wasn’t angry all the time,” he explains, his voice booming.
Publicly revealing his sexuality provided Frank with peace, but it also brought challenges in dealing with prejudice. There were congressmen, with whom he had worked for years, who now refused to shower with him in the congressional gym, convinced they would “catch AIDS.” A few attempted to have him removed from Congress, and others tried to have him censured, due to “actions that run counter to the acceptable standards.”
Two Republican senators stood out for their hostility to Frank after his admission. In 1989, Larry Craig led an effort calling for severe punishment of Frank for his involvement in a consensual gay affair. Notably, Craig was eventually arrested in an airport men’s room and charged with soliciting a male undercover police officer for sexual favors. He retired soon after his arrest.
Congressman Mark Foley was unrelenting in his resistance to Frank’s presence in the “People’s House,” and launched a fierce campaign to have Frank censured or shunned. Fortunately, Foley left before he could complete his bigoted crusade. In 2006, Foley was asked to resign from the House by GOP leaders after it was discovered he had been sending racy online messages to young congressional pages—teenage boys—including discussing sexual acts and masturbation.
“The Frank Rule”
During his 41 years of public service, Barney Frank has worked tirelessly to advance the interests of human, civil, and LGBTQ rights. Sometimes he did it by sponsoring bold equality legislation. Sometimes he did it in quiet whispers behind closed doors.
Although there were problems with coming out, Frank soon realized that there was power in it, too. When Frank observed closeted gay congressmen or women working against the interests of America’s LGBTQ citizens, he would “have a talk with the individual in a private room with the doors closed. That’s when we’d implement The Frank Rule,” he explains firmly.
“I have always said that everyone has a right to privacy, but no one has a right to hypocrisy. I felt no congressman should demonize others for their private behavior, and then go home and do it themselves,” Frank growls.
When asked about The Frank Rule’s implied threat to publicly “out” a politician who used their power to threaten LGBTQ civil rights, Frank is diplomatic. “As I recall, I never really had to do it,” he concludes quietly.
In July 2012, Frank married his longtime partner, James Ready, and settled into a happy union. Once again, Frank was the first member of Congress to marry someone of the same sex while in office. He retired from Congress in 2013 and is now enjoying busy days full of love, family, friends, and the New York Times every morning.
History in the Making
With all the work that has been done to gain equality for America’s LGBTQ citizens, and the strides that continue to this day, we ask again: Is America ready for an LGBTQ president?
“The next time a reporter asks me if America is ready,” Buttigieg stated in his Victory Fund Speech, “I’m going to tell the truth. I’m going to give them the only answer that I can think of that’s honest, and it’s this: I trust my fellow Americans. But at the end of the day, there’s exactly one way to find out for sure.”
At the time of this writing, Buttigieg maintains a steady spot at the top of the polls in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, the first two states to weigh in. Does this out gay man—with his porcelain-blue eyes, gracious demeanor, extraterrestrial intelligence, and charming husband—really stand a chance?
We will find out on February 3 in Iowa and February 11 in New Hampshire. Barring unforeseen disasters, this writer (a self-identified politi-holic) predicts Buttigieg will come in first or second in both states.
For more candidate information, go to victoryfund.org.
This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.