EDITORIAL: Studds, Frank, And How Far We’ve Come

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By: Enterprise Editorial Board
Published: 12/02/11

The announcement this week that Congressman Barney Frank will not be seeking reelection next year prompted us to consider his legacy, which as varied and colorful as it is in many realms, is in large part dominated by his position as a gay trailblazer, the first congressman to acknowledge being a homosexual on his own terms.

Mr. Frank, of course, followed Congressman Gerry Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, who represented the Cape and Islands and other parts of southeastern Massachusetts for 24 years.

While both men had long, productive careers on Capitol Hill, what is striking is the different terms on which both men came out.

Mr. Studds revealed that he was gay following the Congressional page scandal in 1983, when he admitted to having a relationship with a 17-year-old page who worked for his office. His announcement, coupled with the news of the relationship, came with widespread speculation that it would mean the end of his career. It did not, though, as he famously held town hall-style meetings with constituents throughout his district, at several of which he received standing ovations. He remained in office, winning five more elections, until 1993.

It took a scandal like the page relationship, however, to draw him out.

Mr. Frank, conversely, remained closeted throughout the start of his career but came out on his own volition. He stated it publicly for the first time in 1987 and went on to a political career largely unimpeded by his homosexuality. “Largely,” we say, because with his political instincts and policy smarts, he may well otherwise have been speaker of the House or minority leader, seats he says he declined to pursue as a result of personal fears that his sexual orientation would be limiting factors, according to a recent, authorized biography of the sitting congressman.

He went on to become embroiled in a scandal of his own, with the news in 1989 that he had paid a male prostitute for sex and an accusation, later proven false, the the prostitute had operated out of Mr. Frank’s house in Washington, DC. As with Mr. Studds, Mr. Frank was admonished by the House but faced no criminal or electoral punishment.

His reelections in the main were easily won. By digging into the federal policies that most affected his constituents and advocating for their fairness, like fishing regulations for New Bedford, he carried blue collar areas on the south coast just as he did supremely liberal, white collar towns like Newton and Brookline.

His homosexuality was incidental to his performance as an elected representative, as it should be, but he did not shy away from addressing gay rights as the more recent equivalent of the Civil Rights movement.

Early in Mr. Frank’s career, during his first term as a state representative, he filed a bill to repeal the prohibition against certain sexual acts.

According to “Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman,” “Barney began his testimony by noting that when he ran for office from Ward 5, he met with homosexuals in the Back Bay district and became familiar with their problems. ‘You have to talk to pols on their terms,’ he explained. ‘On this bill, I told them that this is a constituent service and homosexuals deserve the same kind of service from me that they give their people. They accept those terms. They don’t accept moral superiority. I don’t want to be a Bella Abzug. I want to get things done.’ He attempted to minimize the moral issue of homosexuality by telling the committee members that the bill was not a statement of support for homosexual rights but simply a request from one group of citizens to work on the same terms as everybody else.”

The bill was defeated in a landslide, but Mr. Frank was not deterred. He vowed to bring the legislation back up in the next session. “If we start now, maybe in twenty years it will change like civil rights,” he said.

He explained his involvement in the push for equal treatment of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people thus: “It would be a lousy world if the only people who were concerned about mistreatment or discrimination were the victims.”

Since Mr. Studds and Mr. Frank, there are now three other openly gay House members and several gay mayors, including the mayor of Houston. A prominent state representative from Washington State is mounting a run for Senate, which would make her the first openly homosexual senator to be elected.

A nonprofit, the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Fund, has formed to promote homosexual candidates of all political inclinations and help train them for their elections and public office. Since the fund was created in 1991 to last year, it has gone from endorsing two to 164 candidates. The effort is modeled off the successful Emily’s List, an organization that has taken a similar approach to promoting female candidates.

Of the approximately 500,000 elected officials across the country, nearly 500 are openly gay, up from about 50 two decades ago, according to the fund.

Far we have come since Mr. Studds and Mr. Frank came out. But still, for equal rights, for cultural acceptance across the country, for ensuring that gay rights travel the same course as other civil rights movements, there is far to go. We look forward to a time when a candidate’s sexuality matters as little as the color of his or her eyes.

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