Culture » October 11, 2009
The Barney Frank Story
Not your average left-handed, gay, Jewish congressman.
Brilliant, compared to the mediocrities with whom he serves, Frank has a self-confidence that often spills over into arrogance
When Barney Frank discussed his sexual orientation with the Boston Globe in May 1987, he entered history as the first member of Congress–among dozens of same-sexers in the House and Senate–to voluntarily disclose that he was gay. Frank’s politically risky, extraordinarily courageous coming out, was a long time coming–he was 47-years-old, and would later admit, “One of the stupidest things I ever did was to wait so long … What I thought was going to be a very tough time turned out to be a surprisingly easy one.”
In 1979, Frank finally told a handful of close friends that he was gay. In 1980, before his first–and successful–race to represent Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, he told his siblings. And as he prepared to run for re-election two years later, he at last told his staff. When he told House Speaker Tip O’Neill, an old-fashioned Irish Catholic pol, Tip replied, “I don’t believe it. You’re one of the back room guys, smoking cigars.” When Frank insisted it was true, O’Neill said, “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a shame. … I thought you were going to be the first Jewish speaker.”
In this authorized biography, Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman (University of Massachusetts Press, September), Stuart Weisberg writes that Frank “found Abraham Lincoln’s aphorism to be as relevant to an individual as to a country. ‘I could not live half slave and half free, privately free to be a gay man but publicly a slave to the prejudice that would not allow me to acknowledge it,’ he said.’ “
Being in the closet is a culturally induced mental disease. For a public figure, the effort required to live a clandestine emotional/sexual life involves an all-consuming strangulation of one’s fundamental identity. It is psychologically, emotionally and mentally exhausting, all the more so if one is in a prominent political office, in which image is all-determinant. It leads to cracked judgments–particularly those involving people–since one’s ability to see others clearly is spavined by emotional chaos in order to successfully live the lie.
As a closeted congressman, Frank found it impossible to meet people for romantic attachments, and in his loneliness he frequented prostitutes. His judgment impaired by the closet syndrome, Frank became attached to a bisexual hustler and ex-felon drug abuser named Steve Gobie. He hired him (out of his own pocket) as a driver and aide, and after their sexual trysts ended let this louche character, whose presence in Barney’s entourage appalled his staff and friends, use his Capitol Hill apartment when he wasn’t there. When Frank’s landlady informed him that Gobie was running a female prostitution service out of the congressman’s apartment, Frank broke off all relations with this creepy user.
But it was too late. Three months after he came out, Frank was threatened with political extinction when Gobie gave a handsomely remunerated interview to the ultraconservative Washington Times in which he falsely claimed Frank was au courant with Gobie’s “escort service.” Although the newspapers serving his district, including the Boston Globe, all called for his resignation, Frank survived the scandal by admitting his stupidity in having a relationship with Gobie and exposing the many lies Gobie told about him. Despite a congressional reprimand, Frank was re-elected with 66 percent of the vote by his constituents, who appreciated his politics and candor, if not his sexual predilection.
Weisberg, who worked for Frank for nine years on the government operations subcommittee on employment and housing that Frank then chaired, does a good job recounting how Frank survived the Gobie scandal. But we learn surprisingly little about Frank’s emotional life in the years before his coming out, despite the author’s assertion that Frank was candid in interviews for the book.
That’s a pity because this exhaustively researched book does a good job of detailing Frank’s political evolution: from a popular Harvard instructor, to the chief of staff who ran the city of Boston for Mayor Kevin White, to a pioneering state legislator, and then to Congress. Brilliant, compared to the mediocrities with whom he serves, and with a self-confidence that often spills over into arrogance, Frank exhibits what the author describes as a “well-deserved reputation for being abrupt, impatient, rude, and sometimes infuriating.” But according to his staff, Frank became a much nicer person after his coming out.
Weisberg is not a felicitous writer, but for those willing to slog their way through his pedestrian prose, unenlightening anecdotes and overly long excerpts from the Congressional Record, this book–despite a tendency toward hagiography–is a valuable study of the political life of an influential man who has become, as one gay newspaper put it, “a national gay monument.”
Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. Hes a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.