Friday, November 13, 2009
The Controversial Gay Congressman Keeps It Real
Author Stuart Weisberg captivated a small audience at Books Inc. in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood on November 19, 2009, with his stories about Congressman Barney Frank’s career and personal life. His new book Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman made a distinct impression on the attentive group.
Weisberg worked in the Clinton administration and he now works in labor relations in Washington D.C. He explained that Frank is a complex person. A Korean diplomat once asked what language was Frank’s first language, because he did not believe that it was English. Like a number of prominent people in this country’s Northeastern area, Frank thinks too fast for him to get the words out. He speaks very quickly and with a distinctive accent, and he is known for his sharp mind and quick wit. He believes that he has a constitutional duty to debate his opponents, but if they are not well known he will not give them the attention. That is along the lines of Gore Vidal’s thinking, who said that if someone has a vastly different view of reality, he would not even discuss the weather with them.
An electoral opponent challenged Frank to take an AIDS test, and he answered that his opponent should take an intelligence test. And he claims to be the only left-handed, gay, Jewish Congressman.
Frank was raised in a low income family and he adored Hubert Humphrey’s liberal agenda. He knew that he was gay at age 12 but did not make it public until 25 years later. When a friend came out to him in college he was too repressed to express his own gayness.
In 1972 Frank was elected to the Massachusetts legislature, as part of George McGovern’s very limited coattails. A photo caption of that era quipped: “Who is that with Barney Frank?” His wit came out when he criticized the nation’s most expensive public works project, Boston’s Big Dig. Frank said that it would be cheaper to just raise the city.
His opportunity for a Congressional seat opened up when the Pope realized that Congressman Father Drinan, a priest, was too liberal for his taste and made him quit his seat. Frank said the Pope must have questioned his own judgment when the seat was won by Frank, a much more liberal politician.
Being half in and half out of the closet placed a strain on Frank’s life. His close friends knew, and few others. Democratic powerhouse Tip O’Neil was disbelieving, because he said that Frank “is one of the backroom guys who smokes cigars.”
It all came out with the 1980 sex scandal when a sex worker well known to Frank was arrested for selling men out of Frank’s apartment. He avoided Congressional censure and worse because of the high regard that he was held in by his fellow legislators.
Frank visited legislators and their family members when they were in the hospital, he sent birthday cards, and he showed compassion for the people he worked with on Capitol Hill.
The Boston Globe demanded that Frank resign, and predictably Congressman Larry Craig was the most vehement that Frank quit his job. Frank later said that Craig could not be trusted to go to the bathroom by himself.
When arch conservative Dick Armey called Frank “Barney Fag” he claimed it was a mispronunciation. Frank called him out and said that it was a homophobic attack and that he should be ashamed of himself.
Frank delights in digging at the numerous people who write him hate mail, making fun of their illiteracy and irrationality.
Frank knew that settlements to bail the country out of the current financial crisis would be unpopular, but he felt that it was necessary.
The Q&A started when local activist Michael Zanoni asked about Frank running for a U.S. Senate seat. Author Weisberg said that it could have happened if John Kerry had been elected president. This journalist mentioned that Frank had been picketed with angry protest signs in San Francisco after he stated that California should wait for Massachusetts to establish same-sex marriage first, and that he may have been picketed for his stance on transgender rights and ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) if he had accompanied Weisberg to the reading.
Weisberg said that Frank felt that he was being pragmatic, and that ENDA would not pass with transgender inclusion. And he added that Frank felt the same way about legislation allowing lesbians and gays to serve openly in the military. Frank also felt the latest march on Washington D.C., the National Equality March, was a wasted effort because the organizers had not coordinated lobbying on Capitol Hill.
Author Weisberg finished off the event by reminding everyone about admirable legislation that Congressman Frank had promoted, including consumer protection bills. Then Books Inc.’s expressive events coordinator Amadeus Martin thanked everyone for coming by and he set up the book signing counter for Weisberg.
Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman by Stuart Weisberg is available for purchase online and in stores at Books Inc., the West’s oldest independent bookseller.
[Photo caption: 11/19/09 — Books Inc. events coordinator Amadeus Martin introduces author Stuart Weisberg to an attentive audience. The ups and downs of Frank's political and private life were discussed, and there was a Q&A.]