Barney Frank is in love. This is not exactly news — he’s getting married in July — but it’s still striking, the way a congressman who has cultivated a reputation for prickliness can be so publicly, sweetly sentimental. “It’s funny,” Frank said last week, musing about his relationship with his fiance, Jim Ready. “I used to listen to these songs about love and . . . they didn’t mean anything to me. I would almost be kind of annoyed by them, you know — it’s like I was left out. The whole thing takes on a meaning it didn’t have.”
Especially when you consider the monumental change that has taken place over the course of Frank’s 40-year public career, which began with his utter certainty that he couldn’t come out to his colleagues in Boston City Hall, and will end a few months after the president of the United States has publicly endorsed gay marriage. Once, Frank lived in fear of being outed. Now, he jokes that his big problem is that members of Congress keep inviting themselves to his gay wedding.
“I can’t think of an issue in America which has moved so rapidly,” Frank told me in his Newton office, two days after President Obama’s announcement. In 1970, when he was working for Kevin White, he said, “I knew I was gay, but I also believed if I told anybody, I would have not just no political career — at that point, the whole thought that you could have a normal life interacting with people wasn’t there.”
This is how fast progress can happen: It’s hard, in the age of Joe Biden and Goodridge, Lady Gaga and “Glee,” to think back to a time when the closet was such a powerful force. But Frank lived under this assumption for more than two decades.
He also lived with a paradox: How to keep the personal and the professional separate, while finding ways to secretly combine them. Even though he wasn’t out, he felt an obligation to support the modest agenda of Boston’s nascent gay-rights activist groups. (“You have a right to privacy, but not hypocrisy,” he said.)
As a freshman in the State House, he was the first Massachusetts legislator to introduce bills on his own, outlawing anti-gay discrimination and repealing sodomy laws. But he knew the consequences, for himself, could be dire.
“I remember going to a hearing on nondiscrimination in the private sector, and I was [thinking] ‘What if somebody asked me?’ ” Frank said. “I don’t know to this day what I would have said if I was asked. I didn’t want to lie, I didn’t want to tell the truth. I don’t know what I would have done.”
At first, he tried to quash his private life entirely. He went on sham dates with women until 1976, when, he said, “It became increasingly awkward. It was just unfair to the women involved and I finally just stopped it.” He didn’t dare date men in Boston: The gay community was too small, the threat of word getting out too large.
So in the late 1970s, Frank made a decision: He would pass the bar, retire from the Legislature, come out, be a gay rights activist. He started telling his siblings and friends. “This is 35 years ago,” he said. “There’s kind of trumpets, you know, it’s a big deal . . . people were very gracious about it and very emotional,” Frank said.
Then a congressional seat suddenly became open in Newton, and Frank reversed the coming-out process. At the time, he told his brother-in-law, “You just heard a closet door slam.”
In Washington, Frank tried to live a double life: gay in private, neutral in public. From 1981 to 1987, he quietly dated men, though he trained himself not to use pronouns — to say “the person I was with,” instead of “him.”
This was the height of the AIDS epidemic, but by the time he was sexually active, Frank said, he knew how to be careful. His more immediate fear was that his two worlds would collide. He recalled once being with a group of gay cops, in town for a convention, walking on Pennsylvania Avenue. A truck drove by, filled with people yelling homophobic slurs. Frank realized, with some horror, that the cops wanted the truck to stop — they were eager for a fight.
The need to hide took its toll: Frank was a sharp thinker, a great debater, a skilled legislator, and on a deep, important level, he was miserable. “The best career in the world,” he said, “is no substitute for the emotional and physical needs that almost every human being has.”
This is how he explains his relationship with the man he now refers to as “that hustler”: Stephen Gobie, whom Frank paid for sex, and later hired to run errands, who said he ran a prostitution service out of Frank’s house, and who tried, quite deliberately, to bring down Frank’s career.
“It was nobody else’s fault but my own, but I was dealing badly with the physical and emotional issues,” Frank said. “I was emotionally vulnerable, so he pretended to, you know, have feelings for me other than the purely monetary, which I was too stupid emotionally to recognize.”
By the mid-1980s, several events made Frank think he should finally come out. His fellow Massachusetts congressman, Gerry Studds, was censured for having sex with a 17-year-old male congressional page. Studds admitted that he was gay (instead of just drunk, as other scandal-ridden congressmen had said) and still won reelection the following year. In 1986, Robert Bauman, a former Republican congressman, tried to out Frank in a book about his own closeted life.
Then in 1987, Stewart McKinney, a liberal Republican congressman from Connecticut, died of AIDS. “There was a big debate about whether he was or wasn’t gay,” Frank said. “Here’s this wonderful man with a great career, and they’re just talking about whether or not he was gay, not his great work.” At one of McKinney’s memorials, he recalled, “I said, ‘This is crazy. I’ve got to deal with this.’ So I called the Globe.”
Frank’s sexuality was not news to the Globe reporters in Washington. But newspapers would out someone only in one of two circumstances: He volunteered the information, or he was caught in a gay scandal. “The problem with that,” Frank said, “was that the only people who came to be known as gay were the people who had done something wrong.”
So Frank changed the rules: In a carefully negotiated and choreographed exchange, he invited the Globe to ask him the question. Reporter Kay Longcope, who was gay herself, pulled out a tape recorder, set it on on Frank’s desk and said, “OK, are you gay?” Frank’s practiced reply, which masked his deep insecurity, was: ‘Yeah. So what?’”
The news broke on a Saturday, the day of a Memorial Day parade in Attleboro, one of the most conservative parts of Frank’s district. As soon as Frank showed up, David Locke, a conservative Republican state senator — who held the seat that was later held by Scott Brown — invited Frank to walk with him. The crowd was supportive. The next day, at a Cirque du Soleil show on the Boston waterfront, Frank got a bigger, more boisterous round of applause than the actor Christopher Reeve.
Frank contends that being out helped him weather the storm when Gobie — with whom he cut off ties soon after coming out — launched a public scandal in 1989. And he said being out has made him a better legislator, “because all sorts of tension in my personal life had diminished.” Now, he could advocate by example, as well: In a string of public relationships, he deliberately treated his boyfriends just like any other congressional spouses.
And then came Ready. They met in October 2005, at a fund-raiser in Maine. They started dating in 2007 and announced their engagement last January. President Obama’s announcement on gay marriage came less than four months later.
Frank said the president’s news felt anticlimactic: The real emotional triumph came when Obama announced that he wouldn’t enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, and that he would hold any legislation dealing with gay people to a “higher constitutional standard.”
“Politically,” Frank said, “that was the big deal.”
Regardless, he said, Obama is not invited to his wedding. It’s nothing personal. “The Secret Service could ruin any party,’’ Frank said. “I think they overdo things. They shut down too much. I don’t want to be blamed for ruining everybody in the Greater Newton area’s Saturday.”
Barney Frank has never been especially good at hiding his feelings. In matters of love, that’s how it should always be.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.