In the midst of his 21st year in Congress, openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., sat down with Roger Weber last week to assess the state of the gay union.
Roger Weber: I understand surviving same-sex partners of Sept. 11th victims might get some compensation from the feds.
Barney Frank: The legislation that was passed leaves open the definition of ‘survivor’ and there’s room to define this broadly and we have been working to try to make sure the administration defines it broadly enough to include domestic partners ... including any people who shared expenses. We’ve gotten some good indications from some Republicans that they’re ready to support this. I’m reasonably optimistic.
RW: What would the benefits be?
BF: Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per survivor. It’s part of the airline bailout bill. Congress voted compensation for victims. It’s meant to be an alternative to lawsuits. People will have to pick. They could still have a lawsuit if they wanted to.
RW: Did the recent Congressional vote that finally allowed the District of Columbia to give benefits to domestic partners of its employees create momentum for this?
BF: Yes. It was very helpful. In both causes, these are indications that we are making progress. The country as a whole is getting better and better on the issue. As more and more people come out to their friends and relatives and customers and teammates and bosses and subordinates, the average American has discovered that it’s OK not to be homophobic. Most people weren’t homophobic but they had always thought they were supposed to be. Now they’ve learned that you don’t have to be. We’re gaining. There’s a drag on that, in that the right wing has taken over the Republican Party.
Thirty-five years ago, both parties were awful. The Democrats have gotten better and better and better, and the Republicans haven’t. They’re not much better now than they were 20 years ago because there are countervailing forces in the Republican party. The country is going in one direction but their base pulls them in the other. On that D.C. domestic-partner vote, we got 91 percent of the Democrats and 19 percent of the Republicans.
What is interesting is that it was the Republicans who were unhappy at their leadership for bringing it up. The House Republicans said to their leadership: “What the hell is the matter with you? Why are you making us vote on this?” That’s very interesting. Ten years ago, if we’d had a vote on that issue, it would have been the Democratic members complaining that they hate to have to vote on this. Until fairly recently, the Democrats thought they were caught between the anti-gay feelings of the general public and the pro-gay activism within the Democratic party. Now the Republicans feel torn. People don’t like gay-bashing. ...
RW: Many Republican politicians now very much don’t want to be seen as gay-bashers. I don’t think it’s right to say they’re no better than they were 20 years ago. They’re certainly better than they were 10 years ago.
BF: I wish there were pressures in the Republican party to make them better. There are not. There are pressures in the general electorate.
RW: How about [Republican gay-rights activist and party advisor] Mary Matalin?
BF: She advocates the position but she’s not in a position to pressure them. Mary’s not going to turn against someone because he or she didn’t vote right. ... She’s very supportive. She can help. ... When I say the Republicans are no better than they were 20 years ago, that’s based on the roll call. You’re right, though. The Republicans got much worse, then they got better again. I agree with that. That’s fair. They’re better than they were 10 years ago, not so much in the number of votes we get, but in the diminution of gay-bashing.
RW: The things they won’t say.
BF: They learned from Pat Buchanan in 1992. And from the fact that the passage of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] did not bring them any political benefits. ... People don’t want to hear Jesse Helms calling their gay kids names, so the Republicans have got it on gay-bashing. Ten years ago they were actively trying to roll back pro-gay things when they happened; now they don’t want to do that.
RW: They just wish the topic wouldn’t come up.
BF: When I first came to Congress, gay rights was for a lot of Democrats a “no way” issue. After AIDS, gay rights went from a “no way” issue to an “oh, shit” issue. “Oh, shit, I’ve got to vote on this.” Now, for the Democrats, it’s an easy vote and for the Republicans it’s become an “oh, shit” issue. But they still vote wrong. ... They’re in this transition phase where they can’t do anything right but they don’t want to do anything wrong.
RW: How about [Bush’s gay AIDS adviser] Scott Evertz and the new openly gay U.S. ambassador to Romania?
BF: Evertz is a throw-away. He’s low-level. ... I doubt Bush has met him more than once. There’s no sign he has any influence about anything. The ambassador appointment was a very useful thing ... but Bush didn’t go out of his way to appoint this guy. He was a career foreign-service guy who had reached a point where he was due for an ambassadorship. To have refused him would have been gay-bashing. He was entitled to it.
RW: It’s still progress that they let these things happen even though they know they’ll get crap from the right-wing of the party. It’s not much but it’s progress.
BF: There’s no question. The country as a whole is getting better. But the Republicans are still lagging behind the country as a whole.
RW: Is TV helpful in making the nation more gay-friendly?
BF: Not much. I think it’s personal coming out. I don’t think watching Will and Jack makes people more supportive. I think it’s the other way around. That’s an indication of our progress, not the cause of it. Maybe Ellen had some effect. Why if you watch Will & Grace would you be any more pro-gay then you were before?
RW: Familiarity. Even if you don’t know anyone gay, there’s 20-some network TV gay characters beaming into your living room.
BF: Many of them aren’t the kind of people who make you want to be like them, or like them. They’re not admirable. Overwhelmingly, our progress is the result of person-to-person coming out. Television may make a minor contribution.
RW: Do gay activists and lobbyists work in a different environment since September 11th?
BF: There’s an attention issue but, actually, I think it’s marginally better now. ... The post-September 11th rhetoric is, “Hate is bad.” Religious fundamentalism has been somewhat discredited. We are able to argue, “Let’s all be together, united we stand.” That’s helped us.
RW: What are the top three gay issues you’re personally concerned about right now?
BF: Getting high schools into the business of protecting gay kids. ... Domestic partnership, especially health benefits. I have a child who is gay and he gets discriminated for it, he gets bullied and sometimes beaten up. There are medication for bruises and pain that soma can handle but nothing can heal a broken spirit. The absence of universal health care is one of the worst things about America. On the federal level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] will help, and also, repealing the really obnoxious part of DOMA that says even if a state recognizes a same-sex marriage, the federal government won’t. Third, immigration rights for gay and lesbian people who have non-American lovers. These are areas where people are really hurting. With ENDA, we’re at the point now where if the Democrats take control of the House, Congress will pass it. Bush wouldn’t sign it.
RW: Are you sure?
BF: Yeah. You have this faith in them that’s based on nothing.
RW: I went to the Republican Convention as a reporter and hung out there all week.
BF: And got bullshitted.
RW: At past Republican conventions, all there was for me to cover for the gay press was Young Americans for Freedom walking around in surgical masks carrying “AIDS Patrol” signs, and ACT UP getting beat to death by the cops. This time there were numerous stories from inside the convention hall. ...
BF: But what have they done? Where have they been supportive?
RW: I guess it’s just that they were so much less mean.
BF: That’s like you send your dog to obedience school and he comes back and he shits all over the house and you complain and the trainer says, “Well, at least he didn’t bite you.” ... What have they done affirmative?
RW: The crazy fundamentalist Christians are all upset that Bush is too pro-gay. They have a list of eight or nine things.
BF: Scott Evertz. The ambassador.
RW: Mary Matalin. This new D.C. unity group of gay and straight Republicans working together.
BF: Which is a group that tells gay people to vote Republican even though the Republicans don’t do anything for them. ...
RW: Bush’s meeting with gays during the campaign.
BF: Jesus. What’s the matter with you? Isn’t that nice that he petted us on that?
RW: Putting an openly gay Congressman on stage at the Republican Convention to talk about trade issues. There’s a list of things they’re pissed off about.
BF: What’s the matter with you? Just because really crazy, vicious people – I mean, you’re validating the right wing with this. You’re letting the crazies move the goal post.
RW: Under Reagan, the crazies had nothing to bitch about. Now they do. It’s gotta mean there’s been progress.
BF: Yes, the country as a whole has gotten better, so they’ve mostly stopped gay-bashing. You haven’t mentioned a single public policy that deals with the problems of mistreatment of gay and lesbian people.
They’re against a gay-inclusive hate-crimes bill. They’re against ENDA. They have decided not to be uncivil now. They’ll allow gay people who are willing to support them despite the anti-gay agenda, to do so. That’s what it amounts to. It’s leading you to infer there’s some real stuff there. And there isn’t.
RW: If they can’t say anti-gay things as freely as they used to –
BF: That’s better than if they did. But they’re still against ENDA. And George Bush won’t sign it. It’s a mistake to give them credit for meeting with people.
RW: I have a gut feeling that we’re getting to them. They can’t say the things they said before.
BF: Because they understand it will hurt them politically. That doesn’t lead them to do anything good.
RW: But it will.
RW: This new, less-nasty Republican environment vis-a-vis gay people is only two or three years old. Give it two or three more years.
BF: Are they going to start voting differently?
RW: Some of them. Or something is going to come up and the right wing is going to want them to take an anti-gay position, and they’re simply not going to do it.
BF: You have no basis for that.
RW: Even saying, “We welcome gay people into the Republican party if they agree with our ideas and principles –”
BF: You’re self-esteem must be your toes. If we are prepared to swallow hard and support them even though they have all these anti-gay positions, they’ll let us do that. Oh, lucky us! ... You see this as evolution, I see it as politicians being smart enough to know what not to say, and what they have to say. ...
RW: I think you have a stake in being careful that all of those gay white men out there with Republican leanings who nonetheless don’t vote Republican because they are gay and they don’t want to be discriminated against by Republicans – you don’t want to say anything, and you don’t want me to write anything, that encourages those gay white men with Republican leanings to go ahead and vote Republican.
BF: Not if they care about gay rights. If gay rights is not your issue, if you’re an economic conservative, then go ahead and vote Republican. I don’t want them to vote Republican on the grounds that this is a good way to advance gay rights. If you say, “Look, I’m fine, and I’m not being discriminated against, and my lover and I both have our health benefits,” then that’s a rational vote – if you care more about taxes, or you think the Democrats are whacked out on the environment. ... We’ve made real progress. In your day-to-day life, are you discriminated against as a gay man?
RW: No. Never.
BF: Fine. Unlike 30 years ago when almost everybody was. ... In many metropolitan areas today, you can live as a gay man or lesbian without anybody impinging on your life. Therefore, not everybody votes for the cause. They vote for things that affect their life. In a purely self-interest sense, that’s rational [for a gay person to vote Republican].
RW: I don’t vote Republican. ... You know, it’s not only that I never get discriminated against in any way, and that my gayness doesn’t have any impact on my daily existence any more. I think I sometimes get special treatment because it’s cool or hip to be gay now.
BF: No question. That’s absolutely right. I certainly get it.
RW: I get mainstream journalistic assignments because I’m gay.
BF: I know that’s right. ... Once it became clear my boyfriend and I were together and it got in the papers – he works at World Bank – we started getting invitations from straight colleagues of his to go to boring parties, because it was cool to have a gay couple.
RW: That’s the environment now in urban areas of all First World countries.
BF: Yes. Which is why, then, you get white gay men who are making good incomes – if they weren’t gay, they’d be voting 70 percent Republican, not 70 percent Democratic. That’s the explanation. It’s not a surprise that there are gay people who don’t feel the negative. If you’re purely self-interested, it’s rational to vote Republican, as long as you don’t tell me that’s a way to help gay rights.
RW: Agreed. Thanks, Barney.