Independent Voices


by David Waggoner

Once upon a time there were many voices in Congress like Barney Frank’s: pertinent, blunt, outspoken. Tip O’Neill, Robert Byrd, Bob Dole, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., the list is impressive. In today’s politically correct Washington, the independent voices are thinning out. We have Bernie Sanders, of course, but too often members of Congress are seemingly always running for office rather than running the country. Another voice, possibly the most outspoken of the last fifty years, has been that of Barney Frank. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts’s 4th District from 1981 to 2013, Frank has never been known to mince words; only to make mincemeat of his opponents. On a recent airing of Bill Maher’s popular HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher, Barney Frank was more than ever his true self. In a word, he was Bill Maher’s perfect guest—erudite, charming, and laser focused on the current events of the day, especially the ineffectual blowhards that make it to Congress term after term.

In Lester Strong’s exclusive cover story interview (photographed handsomely by A&U’s Senior Editor Sean Black), the Massachusetts maverick son and social revolutionary, the outpoksen Barney Frank told A&U his blunt assessment of the ACT UP legacy: “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.” Frank feels that putting pressure on drug companies was more intuitive and productive as private companies have “a much lower tolerance for being publicly criticized than politicians.” That analysis is crystal clear. Usually politicians like to beat around the bush. According to Frank, “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.”

What is also clear is the fact that so many of today’s voices can be subtle as well. In this issue of A&U, we celebrate other voices that, like Barney Frank’s, aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Through their artistry, they are the true AIDS advocates, the ones whose art speaks to many generations of truth seekers. What they demonstrate is what all good fiction writers know instinctively: show but don’t tell.

For example, Philadelphia-based artist Terrence Gore wants to help others access what has worked for him: healing through creativity. And actor Frankie Grande reflects on his own bold and brash way of talking sex and HIV with girlfriends and other gay men; he is also on PrEP, and unapologetically so. I would be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention our steadfast columnists who bring their independent voices to bear on every word and phrase. Justin B. Terry-Smith always offers advice with clarity and wisdom. Hank Trout is no-holds-barred when it comes to calling out those who stand in the way of HIV long-term survivors accessing information and treatment. In this issue, in particular, George M. Johnson explores the stigma he faces as an out positive writer and advocate; Corey Saucier celebrates the beauty of gay men, forged out of loss and community; and John Francis Leonard delves into the sudden death of a close friend, deftly ruminating on the emotions of grief he had thought he had become inured to.

It’s up to us to keep nurturing our independent voices, whether we are in D.C. or small-town New York or big-city San Francisco. Our democracy depends upon it; our lives depend upon it. To be Frank about it!

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.