Let’s Be Frank
Barney Frank Talks AIDS, Government, and Fending Off the Homophobes in the Early Years of the Epidemic
by Lester Strong
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Barney Frank: elected a Democratic member of the Massachusetts state House of Representatives in 1972, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, where he served until his retirement in 2013. Newsweek magazine described him as “a viscerally committed liberal: agile, acerbic and ferociously intelligent….” Playboy magazine called him an “enormously effective legislator, popular with his constituents and many of his peers in the House.” And to The Boston Globe Magazine he was a “master parliamentarian with a razor-sharp wit.”
Barney Frank may have been popular with his constituents and many of his Congressional colleagues, but during his thirty-plus years as an elected official, he was no stranger to controversy and hard choices. As an unabashed liberal, he faced criticism not just from the political right, but from the political left. As a gay man who consistently supported and even initiated pro-gay legislation, he ran into opposition not only from homophobic politicians, but from LGBT activists who disagreed with his approach to achieving equal rights. And as a gay politician serving in the 1990s on the House Budget Committee who was greatly concerned to help alleviate the AIDS crisis, he often ran into difficult decisions on the allocation of government funding for medical research efforts versus funding for care of those suffering from the disease.
During a recent wide-ranging interview, Frank discussed the controversies he encountered during his political career, especially as they related to AIDS, and suggested strategies he thinks are needed these days for dealing with a healthcare crisis that despite all the progress on the medical front refuses to go away.
Born and reared in Bayonne, New Jersey, from early adolescence on, Frank knew two things about himself: He wanted to be part of the governmental process, and he was gay. “I was early on very angry at racial injustice,” he said during the interview. “In particular, I remember learning about the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager who, at fourteen years old in 1954, was exactly my age. He had been brutalized and severely tortured before being lynched by two white men in the Jim Crow-era South based on what later proved to be fabricated charges. I was outraged, and said, ‘You know, I’d like to change that.’ Politics is the ideal way to do that because it’s a way to change things on a big scale.”
As for being gay, he also understood that it would pose problems for him trying to become an elected official. “However,” he noted, “I began to learn there was a way you could get involved in government not as an elected official, not as a person out front, but as an aide to elected officials, which wasn’t so problematic for gay people.”
Frank’s outrage over racial injustice led him to participate in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, when he joined many other college students in Mississippi for a black voter registration drive. After graduating from Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he left graduate school in 1968 for his first job in government as Chief Assistant to the then Mayor of Boston, Kevin White, followed in 1971 by becoming Administrative Assistant to Massachusetts Congressman Michael Harrington in Washington, D.C.
His breakthrough into electoral politics came in 1972. At the urging of friends, and contrary to his own earlier conviction that he would be unelectable to any office, he decided to run for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in Boston’s Ward Five, a seat being vacated that year by a moderate Republican, and he won. “Of course, this was 1972,” Frank commented. “I wanted very much to be in office, but I decided I couldn’t come out [as gay] and be successful. However, being gay, I felt it would be hypocritical, even despicable, to be anything other than an advocate of gay rights. So when I received a questionnaire from a gay group asking if I would sponsor a gay rights bill in the Massachusetts legislature, I said yes, I’d do it. So in my first year in office I filed the first gay rights bill in the history of the state.” The bill went down in defeat, but this was the first of many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues he would support over his decades as an elected official.
In 1980, Frank ran for the U.S House of Representatives and won. For most of his time in Congress he represented a varied district encompassing some Boston suburbs down to the coastal communities of Fall River and New Bedford. A varied constituency, to say the least, but one that he represented so ably until his retirement in 2013 that he seldom faced any serious opposition to re-election.
Then by 1984 or 1985 it became clear there were things we could do, specifically three things: The first was to search for a cure to this incurable disease. The second was to provide help for those who were sick or dying because of it. The third, and increasingly more important as time went on, was to prevent people with the disease from being discriminated against.
Over the years, Frank worked hard on a number of issues: affordable rental housing for low-and moderate-income people; civil rights, including LGBT rights; defending affirmative action; controlling military spending to free up funding for other important needs, and financial regulation, especially after the economic meltdown in 2008. But in 1981, a problem reared its ugly head that spoke to him personally as a gay man: the AIDS crisis.
Asked how he learned about the disease, Frank replied: “At first I learned of it the way a lot of people did, by reading about it. But I had a friend, a young gay man who really knew a lot about it because when the testing for it came out he discovered he was HIV-positive. He talked to me quite a bit about the disease before he died of AIDS-related causes. I wasn’t on any of the Congressional committees that dealt with healthcare, so early on other colleagues of mine were much more active than I was in dealing with the crisis, especially Henry Waxman, who represented a part of Los Angeles where it was a serious issue, and my colleague from Massachusetts, Gerry Studds, the first man to acknowledge being gay in Congress.”
Frank continued: “I was aware of the illness, but not focused on it at first since there didn’t seem to be much we could do about it. Then by 1984 or 1985 it became clear there were things we could do, specifically three things: The first was to search for a cure to this incurable disease. The second was to provide help for those who were sick or dying because of it. The third, and increasingly more important as time went on, was to prevent people with the disease from being discriminated against.”
Perhaps another reason Frank was less attentive to the AIDS crisis during its early years was his limited social contact with the gay community. “Look,” he said during the interview, “until 1987 I was closeted. I met some gay people politically, but my gay circles were still somewhat restricted. I was always very active as an advocate, but I didn’t become fully part of the community until 1987, when I came out.”
To be specific, Frank came out publicly as a gay man in a Boston Globe article on Memorial Day in 1987, and on the following day he marched in a Boston AIDS march. “So, most memorably,” he said, “I addressed an AIDS march as an openly gay man for the first time in May 1987.”
On the AIDS front in Washington, D.C., by the mid to late 1980s, according to Frank, he along with his colleagues Gerry Studds and Henry Waxman were working hard on a number of issues: “Gerry was doing a great deal to press the [Reagan] administration to educate the public about AIDS. Henry was working on health policy. And I was focused on fighting discrimination against people living with AIDS and leading the fight against what we jocularly called the ‘No Promo Homo’ amendments to spending bills for medical research on AIDS and providing care for those sick from the disease. You have to remember, at the time AIDS was overwhelmingly identified with gay men, even though others were known to have it. But by the mid to late 1980s, the right-wing homophobes couldn’t come right out and say, ‘Let them die.’ So instead of trying to kill the legislation outright, they had a strategy of trying to retard our efforts to fight the disease and deal compassionately with people who had it by attaching riders to bills saying that none of the government funds provided for research, for caring for people in hospitals, or to social service agencies dealing with AIDS could be used to promote homosexuality.
“Well, the notion of promoting homosexuality is a great stupidity. Thinking you can promote it or retard it by what you say! But if these amendments had passed, people would have been afraid that if they were nice to gay people, if they told people they should feel good about being gay, if they tried to counter the shaming of gay people it would be considered ‘promoting homosexuality’ and would get them in trouble. So I spent a lot of time trying to defeat these amendments, which, if they had passed, would have made our pro-gay efforts, and our anti-AIDS efforts, ineffective.”
In those days, “before the Tea Party Republicans,” according to Frank, Democrats and Republicans could sometimes work across party lines on legislation they considered important. One such instance was an immigration rule stating that no one with an infectious disease could come to the United States. Along with Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Frank and other Democrats fought to remove AIDS from the list of infectious diseases on the grounds that it could not be transmitted by casual contact (i.e., by shaking hands, by sneezing, by being in the same room, etc.). They lost that fight because of machinations by arch anti-gay bigot Jesse Helms, a Republican Senator from North Carolina. Following the defeat, however, a coalition of Democrats and some Republicans—most notably Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah—devised an effective counterstrategy: They managed to amend the damaging language in other bills so that while it expressed negative sentiments, it had no legal force.
In the 1990s, Frank joined the House Budget Committee. “On the Budget Committee, I worked to increase funding for AIDS,” Franks remarked. “But that led to tough choices. There was never enough federal money to fund all the needs related to AIDS. But should what there was go toward medical research on ways to end the epidemic or at least mitigate its physical damage to the immune system, or toward the medical and social service care people living with AIDS required? I was certainly concerned about the care aspect of the epidemic, but my preference was for the greater proportion of funding to go toward research. I thought it was extremely important to end the epidemic.”
As is clear from Frank’s account of his work in Congress in regard to all LGBT issues, including AIDS, he was heavily enmeshed in working within the political system to solve the problems he felt important. And in doing so, he faced criticism from many of those involved with the issues outside of government in LGBT and AIDS organizations, where protests, demonstrations, national marches, and angry confrontations with government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations like pharmaceutical companies were standard operating procedures.
Here we meet up not just with two very different approaches toward achieving political goals, but with approaches that at times were quite antagonistic, certainly in regard to AIDS activism. Asked to comment about those differences, Frank replied: “My relations with ACT UP were almost adversarial. I think that organization failed to make a distinction between pressuring politicians and pressuring private companies. There was no way you were going to intimidate politicians by coercive demonstrations, sit-ins, and putting a gigantic condom over Jesse Helms’s house. If anything, such tactics were counterproductive. They just allowed the politicians to go after more money for their election campaigns from donors who agreed with them politically. On the other hand, putting public pressure on drug companies through demonstrations and sit-ins can be very effective. Private corporations have a much lower tolerance for being publicly criticized than politicians. If a corporation found it was only sixty percent popular, it would be terrified. A politician who can get sixty percent of the vote is very happy.”
I think it’s important to keep up the funding. But while it made sense in the 1980s to focus on AIDS as a separate medical issue, I think today it should be folded into the problem of healthcare across the board. There are so many illnesses that are particularly problematic for low-income people…
He continued: “Another problem was the tendency of activists to denounce the politicians closest to them who didn’t vote just the way they wanted the politicians to vote. They found it somehow emotionally more satisfying to attack the politicians that were helping, but not helping enough as they saw it, as opposed to going after their outright enemies in effective ways that would hurt those enemies politically. I’m no friend of the National Rifle Association [NRA], but they are very, very effective in getting what they want in Congress. How? The NRA has never held a public ‘shoot-in’ or ‘die-in’ in Washington or a state capitol that I know of. But every member is urged to register to vote and to know who all the politicians backing their position are. The NRA lets its members know when any vote on a bill relating to ‘gun rights’ is coming up and has them contact their elected representatives and let them know ‘You better vote for my position.’ It’s a very simple process. It’s not necessarily emotionally satisfying. You’re not on the streets cheering with all your friends. But it is very effective.”
After interviewing Barney Frank, one thing is clear: His many years in elective office have given him an intimate knowledge of how government works, and of how to interact with the legislative branch in such a way as to maximize the possibility of having your own needs met. His words carry weight. He was also active in many areas there is simply no space to cover in an article devoted to his work around AIDS, some that were LGBT related (marriage equality) and some not (low-income housing, the financial crisis in 2008). But, to end this article, there was one additional comment he made about the AIDS crisis worth quoting here: “I think it’s important to keep up the funding. But while it made sense in the 1980s to focus on AIDS as a separate medical issue, I think today it should be folded into the problem of healthcare across the board. There are so many illnesses that are particularly problematic for low-income people, and even for those who are not low income. We should be working on good health policies in general that include AIDS—for good health insurance coverage, for low pharmaceutical costs, and for good research into the causes and cures for many diseases.”
Coming from Barney Frank, these words should be listened to.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U.