The first time Tammy Baldwin decided to run for Congress in the late 1990s, her fellow Democrats, who’d publicly championed gay rights, worried behind the scenes that Wisconsin voters might prefer a straight candidate to one who was openly lesbian.
“I remember thinking how hypocritical of us, and completely contrary to the equality we said we stood for,’’ said Barney Frank, the Massachusetts congressman. “I wouldn’t have it. I said - and I wasn’t alone in making this argument - we have to back her. We can’t allow who she is to be held against her. And we can’t hold it against her. That was 1998. Now Baldwin is running for Senate in Wisconsin with no primary challengers in her own party. A lot has changed.’’
Frank’s reflection about Baldwin’s support from her peers and her political will comes days after he announced on Nov. 28 that he plans to step down from Congress after 31 years, and suggests that perhaps his most important political legacy may be that he helped to normalize being openly gay in public office.
“Next Memorial Day will mark 25 years to the day that I publicly came out, came out in a Boston Globe story, in fact,’’ Frank said recently. “And while I did it primarily for myself, I also wanted to make a point that this was me, this was a part of me, and this was not going to be used to hurt me.’’
Frank was not the first openly gay politician - on the national level, that distinction belongs to another Massachusetts congressman, the late Gerry Studds, whose homosexuality came out in a scandal in 1983, 10 years after he was elected. Frank came out voluntarily in 1987, after six years in office. “I was not the first openly gay politician, but I can acknowledge that by coming out while holding a national office, a federal office, that it has helped other gay politicians.’’
When Frank took office in 1981 there were fewer than 10 openly gay elected officials at any level in the country, he said, including Massachusetts state Representative Elaine Noble, who came out in 1974.
Today, more than 30 states have gay representatives in both legislative houses, according to the Victory Fund, an international advocacy group for gay and lesbian public office holders. This year, 72 gays and lesbians were elected in the United States and 110 were elected in 2010. There are more than 500 openly gay elected public officials in the country today, says Denis Dison, spokesman for the Victory Fund.
Among the most prominent are Jared Polis of Colorado, Baldwin of Wisconsin, and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, all in the US House of Representatives; and Laurie Jinkins in the Washington State House. Just last month, Holyoke elected 22-year-old Alex Morse, who is gay, as its new mayor.
“[Frank] broke a glass ceiling for us,’’ said Polis. “And with him leaving and Tammy Baldwin running for Senate, that leaves me the dean of gay members. I hope - and all indications are that this will be the case - that I will be dean of a group that’s more than a couple of people.’’
Dison said Frank’s personality played a big role in that.
“For all those amazing cultural changes - how AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, how we now have female federal judges and have had several female Supreme Court justices, how automotive technology has changed - the kind of cultural change that Congressman Frank helped bring about had much more to do with personality than technology or policy,’’ said Dison.
Dison spoke while en route to the 27th International Gay & Lesbian Leadership Conference, hosted by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the first out lesbian elected to lead a major US city.
“I think how [Frank] conducted himself really advanced the cause of equality in politics,’’ said Dison.
One incident, however, almost derailed Frank’s career. In 1990, following a 10-month ethics committee investigation, Frank was reprimanded by the House of Representatives after it was revealed that Stephen Gobie, a former companion, had run a gay prostitution ring out of Frank’s Washington apartment for as long as two years. Frank acknowledged having paid Gobie for sex in 1985 and later hiring him as a driver and housekeeper, but denied prior knowledge of the sex business. Frank said when his landlord alerted him to the criminal enterprise in August 1987 - just three months after Frank had come out publicly - he fired Gobie.
The public humiliation caused Frank to enter therapy and take antidepressant medication, but ultimately he only received a reprimand for using his House privileges to help waive 33 parking tickets Gobie may have received while driving Frank’s car, and for writing a misleading memo to help Gobie’s efforts to end his felony probation.
Frank said an anecdote from a book about the late New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell has stayed with him through good times and bad.
“Powell was not the first African-American in Congress,’’ Frank said. “But he was the first to take a strong stand that he wasn’t going to be intimidated about being black. They told him when he got there that he couldn’t use the pool and other facilities. He told them . . . ‘I can, and I will!’ ’’
Frank said his decision to come out was calculated, because the only way to fight prejudice was to serve as an example.
“Prejudice is based on ignorance,’’ he said. “And the best way to counterbalance it is with a living example, with reality. At the time, of course there were gay politicians, but we had been very successful in hiding who we were. And by hiding we inadvertently helped perpetuate the stereotypes about us. So I had to do it.’’
He was elected the same year Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and the Centers for Disease Control alerted the public to a new disease it called GRID (later changed to AIDS), which they described as a gay-specific plague.
“Things are much, much better, but that is not to say that things are good,’’ said Michael Wagner, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who specializes in minorities in politics. “About one in three Americans think that homosexual sexual relationships between consenting adults should be illegal. Not coincidentally, about that same percentage of people say they would not vote for a gay candidate for office.’’
Wagner predicted continued change in politics, but he said it’s easier for a gay or lesbian candidate to get elected locally first, rather than be elected initially to national office.
“That’s partly because national politics are in such turmoil with other issues, and partly because the media, the Internet, sort of evens the playing field in terms of the attention a local versus national politician can get,’’ Wagner said.
Morse, the mayor-elect of Holyoke, agreed.
“I think it’s somewhat ironic that the place in coming years that you’ll see people taking Frank’s message and running with it will be in cities and towns, not on Capitol Hill necessarily,’’ Morse said.
Frank said his mission to foster equality for gay politicians has taken a more familial turn in recent years.
“It’s one thing to say “I’m not prejudiced against a person who is a gay,’ ’’ Frank said. “It’s an entirely different matter to accept that person in their personal relationships. So over the past five years or so, Jimmy [Ready], my partner, and I have made it a point to attend events together, to go to public places as a couple. It’s important that people see that.’’
After he became chairman of the House Financial Services Committee in 2007, Frank said he and Ready attended a number of events hosted or attended by banking industry executives. He would later hear from young employees of those banks who told him they applauded his being out at those events, but they were still too intimidated to come out to those same executives, their bosses.
“It’s for young people like that that I am who I am,’’ Frank said. “They may never run for office. But I want them to feel that they can be themselves and still be successful in their industry.’’James H. Burnett III can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.