TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In his new memoir, my guest Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, writes that in 1954, when he was 14, he realized there were two ways in which he was different from the other guys. He was attracted to the idea of serving in government, and he was attracted to the other guys. Frank assumed being gay would make a career in politics impossible, yet he managed to do it. But in order to do it, he spent a lot of time in the closet. Even when he was closeted, he fought for gay rights legislation. He was elected to Congress in 1980, after serving eight years in the Massachusetts legislature. He came out in 1987, and in 2012, became the first member of Congress to enter into a same-sex marriage. He describes his new memoir, "Frank," as a personal history of two seismic shifts in American life - the sharp drop in prejudice against LGBT people and the equally sharp increase in antigovernment opinion.
Barney Frank, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to talk with you. You write that you initially resisted a life in politics because you knew it meant being closeted. But when you decided to pursue politics and enter public life in 1968, had you yet experienced what you knew you'd have to give up? Had you yet had an out, open relationship with another man?
BARNEY FRANK: No. I began by being repressed. I evolved into be closeted.
FRANK: I was terrified. Remember - well, there's no reason for you to remember, but this is 1954. 1953 was when I actually first realized I was gay. It was '54 when I focused and said, gee, I want to go into politics, but how's that going to work when I'm part of this group that people despise? And I was too frightened to do anything. And in particular, given that I was thinking about at least a semi-public kind of thing - well, I take it back. I didn't even know how to meet people. I'm talking now about the '50s and the '60s. Even putting myself in a position where I would have a chance to meet another man for some kind of serious relationship, I didn't know how to do it. And I was intimidated if somebody had told me.
GROSS: So you started your political career in the late '60s in local politics. So the start of your political career coincides with the start of the widespread gay rights movement and Stonewall. So just as gay people are coming out, you're kind of locking the closet door to start a career in politics. How did it feel to be knowing that you were doing that at a time when gay culture was becoming more and more open and rich?
FRANK: It became a frustration. Actually, the exact timing for me was I was working for the mayor of Boston when Stonewall happened. And I have to say that being the chief assistant to the mayor, what I remember from 1969 were the Vietnam War demonstrations and other very serious kinds of issues. And of course I'd been there when Martin Luther King had been murdered. So I do not remember focusing that well on Stonewall. It was only really after I retired, which was a year later, early '71, that I had the kind of intellectual and emotional space to think about other things. And at that point, I did say, oh, yeah, there was this new thing going on. And it really came to a head because in 1972, so now three years after Stonewall, I decided I was going to run for the state legislature. And I also decided at that time very explicitly - I remember this to myself - OK, I cannot be open about my sexuality 'cause I'll never win and I want to do that. I want to be involved in ways that I think make society better, but I'm not going to be a hypocrite. I could not live with myself if I did not oppose the discrimination.
And so in 1972, actually there were two organizations, one of men and one of women, that did a circulation to people running for the state legislature saying would you support a gay rights bill or would you sponsor it? And I said great, of course I'll sponsor it. Fortunately, other freshman, there'll be senior members who will be sponsoring it as well, and they'll take the lead. So I won't to be out front, which I was a little afraid of because I was 32, unmarried - what would - people were going to draw inferences. What happens then is that I'm the only member of the legislature running that year who won, who said he'd sponsor the bill. So I wound up becoming the main sponsor. And then - but exactly the attention you were talking about then came into play. Throughout the '70s, I became more and more an active and prominent leader on gay rights. And I was increasingly depressed by the disparity between my advocating the rights for everybody else and then denying myself any chance to participate in it.
GROSS: So you were kind of afraid that if you took a leading role in gay rights legislation, as you did, that it would give away that you were gay, which you were trying to hide? Did it give away that you were gay to people you didn't want to tell that to?
FRANK: No, it was an odd thing. There did not appear to be any widespread perception. It is interesting - increasingly, gay men and some lesbians understood that I was gay, gay men in particular. I asked one man - who I came out to later in the '70s, who I'd been working with - and he said yeah, of course I knew that. And I said, well, how'd you know that? He said I watched your eyes. He said we'd be walking around, and you were looking at the same guys I was looking at.
FRANK: So, you know, the - but straight people had no idea what I was doing with my eyes. And so I became the leading advocate of the gay rights movement in the state of Massachusetts and it did not seem to send many signals to people. Part of it, I would say, is this - there was at that time these stereotypes of what it meant to be gay, and I did not conform. I mean, I - in some good ways and some bad ways, I did not have some of the sensibilities about some things that many gay men have. I didn't dress that way. It just - I was, at that point, I gained a lot of weight and I smoked cigars. It just did not - I guess my aspect discouraged that inference.
GROSS: You were elected to the U.S. Congress in 1980, the same year as Ronald Reagan was elected president. At this point in time, the Christian right was becoming increasingly powerful and politicized. And the Christian right, of course, you know, has opposed - especially then - really opposed gay rights bills that you advocated. By 1981, when you were sworn in, you can no longer say overtly racist things in Congress. If you - if you were afraid of black people, you couldn't come out and say that. If you thought they were inferior, you couldn't come out and say that. You had to couch that and other language. If you wanted to oppose certain rights legislation, you couldn't do it overtly. You had to find, like, more roundabout ways of doing it. But if you were anti-gay - no problem. You could come out and say that. You could say that being gay was a sin against God. You could say gay people shouldn't teach; gay people shouldn't marry; gay people should convert to heterosexuality. So I'm wondering what were some of the most disturbing things you heard your fellow congressmen say or heard people lobbying your fellow congressmen saying?
FRANK: Well, first of all, I mean, just along the line, you make a very important point about it became inappropriate to be explicitly racist. You know, we've all developed, at a degree, the concept of the dog whistle - that is of politicians appealing to racial sentiments but in ways that aren't explicit. You know, so that other racists will know what they're talking about. Well, I believe it began in '73 and I've noted this - I began lobbying for the gay-rights bill, as we then called it. It was just the one name. And people would be very open and say, hey, pal, are you kidding? I'm not going to have some dike in my store. You think I want some bleep bleep guy hanging around where I might have kids? So yeah, it was unrestrained. And then in 1981 - the first issue I dealt with in Congress - the District of Columbia had repealed its criminal law against sodomy, against people of the same sex having voluntary sex with each other. And at that time, there was a move that either house of Congress could pass a law and cancel anything in the criminal area that the District of Columbia did. And the House passed that, cancelling it, by a 3 to 1 margin. Even many Democrats voted against it. I got barely a majority of the Democrats. And when I went around lobbying, it was again, oh, these people are disgusting. Are you kidding, pal? What they do, oh, that turns my stomach. I can't allow that to happen.
GROSS: So you couldn't really say did you know I'm gay 'cause you weren't out yet. What would you say in response to that?
FRANK: At that point, it was not - look, when you're in a legislative body trying to - you try to win the argument on the easiest grounds to win the argument. Obviously I disagreed with the moral disapproval, but it was unnecessary for me to win that one. It's almost like arguing in court. You focus on what you can win. And I would say to them, well, nobody's asking you to like it or not like it or approve it or not approve it. The only question is don't prevent other people. It doesn't hurt you. And that was the argument - and, by the way, that evolved into the argument with which I think we were successful in same-sex marriage. You begin by saying nobody's asking you to say this is moral. Nobody's asking you to give up whatever view you have that this is a bad thing or the way that we progress to that. At this point, all we're asking you to do is leave people alone. And even if people are doing something that you disapprove of, if it has no impact on you whatsoever, if it has no negative impact on anybody else, it's simply what these two people are doing, please don't mistreat them because of it. And that's, as I said, basically the way we started with same-sex marriage as well.
GROSS: But then, of course, there was the argument no, but if gay people get married, that hurts the institution of marriage. That hurts straight people who are married.
FRANK: You're absolutely right. And, by the way, I think that's why - one of the reasons we ultimately win. And your question is really quite good in getting at that. By the time the Defense of Marriage Act came up, which is now 1995-'96, we had made some progress. So just as you correctly pointed out, by 1981, even people who had racist feelings didn't feel comfortable in articulating them. By the '90s, it was not considered respectable to talk about fags and dikes and to be very abusive of out people. You could be disapproving, but you had to moderate it. So the real argument against our being able to marry was, as I said - look, there were people who didn't like one of us and the notion of two of us getting together and being happy was geometrically worse. But they couldn't come out and say that. It was not, at that time, acceptable - respectable - to say, hey, we don't like those people and we don't want them hanging out with each other and being happy.
So they came up with this notion - and that's why it was called the Defense of Marriage Act. To be intellectually honest it should've been we don't want those people to be able to get together act. But they had to come up with supposed negative social consequences. And one of the reasons that we were able to win this battle was they made the mistake because once Massachusetts broke the logjam and started same-sex marriage, it became undeniably clear that there were no adverse consequences. So they had built their arguments on a false premise. But you correctly said, oh, it's the institution of marriage. In a debate on the Defense of Marriage Act, I get on the floor and said I want to understand how does the fact that I love another man hurt your marriage? What about my relations - voluntary relations - with another guy in any way jeopardizes your marriage? And I said I'll yield to any member of the House wants to explain to me how what I would do would hurt your marriage. And one guy got up - Steve Largent from Oklahoma - and he said, well, I'll tell the gentleman this - no, it doesn't hurt my marriage. It doesn't hurt the marriage of other people here, but it hurts the institution of marriage. And my response was, well, it doesn't hurt any individual marriages, but despite that, it somehow hurts the institution of marriage. That is an argument that ought to be made by someone in an institution.
GROSS: (Laughter) Do you dream these lines up in advance?
FRANK: Not often, they kind of come to me. I'm lucky that way, you know? There are some things I'm not very good at, but I like humor. And some of them - the best humor is offered up to you by the stupidity of your opponents.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barney Frank. The former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts has a new memoir called "Frank." Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Barney Frank who retired from Congress in 2013 and now has a memoir called "Frank." So in Congress, you adopted what you called a hybrid status. You were out - and this was earlier in your career - you were out to LGBT people, but not publicly to colleagues, the voters or, as you put it, other heterosexuals. And so you would describe yourself as being so wrapped up in the job that you just don't have time or a need for a private life. Did the idea of calling yourself a confirmed bachelor seem too old-fashioned (laughter)?
FRANK: Yeah, and actually, what you cited - this notion, oh, he's so wrapped up in his public life - he gets so much satisfaction from being this public figure, he doesn't need a private life - I actually never cited that myself. In fact, I have cited that as a big lie that people tell themselves and tell about others because in my experience, what happens, and it happens with me - not only is a thriving, successful public life no substitute for the emotional and physical needs human beings have in their private lives and in their intimate personalities, but in fact, it can make it worse. For me, there was this increasing disparity between success, good reinforcement about what I did publicly, including, at that point, full participation in these celebrations as we began to win some things on gay rights, and then a total denial - self-imposed - of me being able to deal with it. And so in fact, I found that the successful public life made it even worse.
GROSS: So when you decided that you were going to come out, like, you needed a strategy. Are you going to make an announcement, hold a press conference, talk to the press? What were some of your considerations in how to do it so that you could do it on your terms? And what were your terms?
FRANK: By '86, members of the media who were sophisticated knew that I was gay, so I had this series of conversations with them in which they said, we'd like to write about your being gay. Can we do that? And I would say, no, I'm not ready for that. And they would say, OK. Meanwhile, The Boston Globe, which was then very much the dominant paper in New England for Massachusetts and with whom I had good relations, then - that's when it was still possible to have good relations with a media outlet. They've all mostly now become headhunters. And the editor of The Boston Globe, a man named Bob Healy - again, I recount this - when that book came out, he heard about it in '86, and he came to see me in Washington. And he said, look, I don't want to intrude on your privacy, but we can't afford to be scooped on this. If you're going to - if somebody else is going to identify you, we have to be in on that. Now, we won't do it on our own. So I made him a promise because I knew that no one was going to out me without calling me for comment. So my promise to him was, Bob, look, if I get a phone call from any media outlet anywhere that's going to write about my being gay - 'cause I won't deny it if I'm asked - I will call you up instantly, and you can at least be simultaneous with them. And he found that acceptable.
So when I decided I wanted to come out, I had this commitment to The Globe, and it was mutually beneficial. The Globe was a very influential paper. We were in sync ideologically. They'd been very helpful to me in my career, and so I was eager to have that announcement come in The Boston Globe. I thought that would be the most favorable setting. But then, there was this second complication that I've alluded to. I did not want to make the announcement because I wanted to be able to say, you know what, it's no big deal. Well, if I had held a press conference to announce it, it would be reasonable for people to say, well, if it's no big deal, why did you make a big deal of it? Why did you initiate a discussion? I wanted to be able to say, look, the fact that I'm gay shouldn't have anything to do with this. Then the question is, well, why did you interject it?
So what I told The Boston Globe was this. If you ask me if I am gay, I will answer yes. I will tell you that I am. But I don't want to be the one that initiates it. It was important for me - and this sounds silly right now, but this is 27-or-8 years ago. You have to ask me. The Globe then said, well, we can't ask you. Our rule is, we do not initiate conversations with people about their being gay unless they were in some kind of problem where it was relevant.
So we had a little standoff for a couple of months, seriously, where I said, if you ask me, I'll tell you. And they said, we can't ask you, please tell us. And what happened finally was The Globe got nervous that there was so much talk about me going around that they were going to get scooped, so I got a phone call and said, OK, we're going to ask you. And they sent a reporter, a woman - a lesbian who I had known - down to Washington, and she put the tape recorder on the desk and said, Congressman Frank, are you gay? And I had thought about what I was going to say. And remember, my strategy was minimization - honesty, but saying it was not a big deal. And so my explicit answer was - ready for it, prepared - Congressman Frank, are you gay? Answer - yeah, so what?
GROSS: So what changed for you in Congress once you were out?
FRANK: In Congress, what apparently changed was - and this goes back to the very good point you made about the impact on your personality, of being closeted - apparently I got nicer. And that's helpful because niceness is...
GROSS: What do you mean, apparently you got nicer?
FRANK: Well, my colleagues told me that, you know what, you're easier to get along with now. You're not as - you're not grumpy as much, you know?
GROSS: Oh, I see.
FRANK: You don't snap at people. And yeah, the answer was - look, we all know that when, you know - if you're going to ask someone a favor, a colleague, let's - and people say, by the way, so-and-so is in a super bad mood. Let me wait until he's feeling a little more cheerful. Well, I was - there was a kind of a perennial low-level bad mood because I was going around being mad at myself because of this self-denial and what it did.
Now, that's not just a matter of (unintelligible). Being an effective legislator is helped by being nicer to people. Not always - and people need to know that if you are treated badly, you will respond certain - you got to be tough and nice. I mean, the best thing I can say is this. Being effective in a legislative body has something in common with trying to be popular in high school. Actually, I mention that to one of my colleagues, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and she said, no, no, it's junior high school.
FRANK: I mean, there's a lot of personality that goes into it. It's OK to be good at the job, but don't start looking like you feel too superior about it. So what happened was, I just became better at the interpersonal aspects of legislating. And legislating is the most interpersonal thing. There's no hierarchy in the legislature. No member of the House of Representatives can order any other member to do anything. Some people are more influential than others, but if you're - in any other job, there's generally a boss, and someone can hire you, fire you. The only people who fire a member of congress are hundreds of thousands of people, anywhere from hundreds of thousands of miles away. So the ability to get along with people and to persuade people to do what you want and to make that kind of situation work, it's very much a case where your personality helps. So I think I got better at my job because they did not have that negative thing weighing me down.
GROSS: My guest is Barney Frank. The former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts has written a new memoir called "Frank." After a short break, we'll talk about surviving the scandal about his relationship with a gay prostitute. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. He thought being gay was incompatible with a career in politics, so he remained in the closet until 1987. But even while closeted, he advocated for gay rights legislation. He was elected to Congress in 1980, after serving eight years in the Massachusetts state legislature. He retired in 2013, the year after he became the first member of Congress to enter into a same-sex marriage. His new memoir is called "Frank."
Once you were out, somebody named Herb Moses, who you described as an openly gay Jewish man who edited an economics journal for the Department of Agriculture, contacted you, and you started a relationship with him that lasted several years. And you would go together to congressional social events. Was it awkward for you at first to actually be with a man with whom you were in an intimate relationship in a congressional kind of setting like that?
FRANK: Well, we - yes, it was a little bit awkward. We had to be aware that we were entering some hostility. I tell you, it's one of two books I read in my life that I have actually used as a manual for how to behave. The first one was a very good book by a Columbia professor named Charles Hamilton about Adam Clayton Powell, who - well, he was the third African American to serve in the Congress in the 20th century after the Reconstruction Era. He was the first who was really basically willing to challenge prejudice. And when he got to the House - by the way in 1942, he was told - or '44, '43 - he was told he couldn't use the House gym or eat in the House restaurant or use the House barbershop. And he said, no, I'm going to do that. And he established, it seemed to me, a pattern that Herb and I decided we would follow. We would not refuse to do anything so somebody else could make a point. On the other hand, we wouldn't do something just to make a point ourselves. So we insisted on being treated the same as any other congressional couple - not legally because marriage obviously was not then a possibility.
But we were aware that there were problems. And yeah - I'll give you the best example. We went to the annual Christmas party that presidents have for all members of Congress - a very elaborate, black-tie, formal affair. And the - it was Reagan's last year, he'd - or next-to-last year - he and Nancy went up early. And so the members started - it became a dance party on the first floor of the White House. And Herb and I were standing there - said, gee, we'd love to dance. You know, the kind of - not ballroom dancing, but the kind of fast dancing facing each other. And we said, gee, do we? We wanted to dance. We didn't want to make a statement, but we didn't want prejudice to keep us from enjoying the party. So I approached two of my colleagues, later to become fairly well-known. They were the two congresswomen from San Francisco who, if they were caught helping two gay men, would benefit from it. One was later to become Senator Barbara Boxer. The other was Speaker Nancy Pelosi. So the four of us went out on the dance floor, and Nancy and I faced off, and Barbara and Herb faced off, and after a couple of minutes, they discretely left the floor leaving us to dance with each other. So that's the way we kind of had to deal with it.
GROSS: So, like, you knew which members of Congress found the whole idea of homosexuality repugnant and sinful. Did you feel like their eyes were on you?
FRANK: What I felt was - you know what? The reality is going to defeat the prejudice. And I think that's the basic reason we have made so much progress in diminishing homophobia. OK, there was one member of Congress - former Congressman Dan Burton from Indiana, who apparently announced when he found out that I was gay - I was a pretty regular user of the House gym - that he was not going to use the House gym anymore 'cause he was worried he might get AIDS from my being in the House gym.
I don't know whether he was going to get it from the towel or what was never clear. But, in fact, I - later on, a few years later, when we were debating don't ask, don't tell, and some of the anti-gays in the military - people said well, you can't have straight men showering with gay men. That's a terrible thing. I was able to point out to them that many of them had been showering with me in the House gym for many years and nothing at all interesting had happened.
GROSS: So just a bit earlier, we were talking about why you came out and how you came out when you were in Congress. And things were going pretty much as planned for you in terms of coming out, and then the scandal happened. You had had a relationship with somebody named Steve Gobie - and you write about this in the book - and he was a man who'd worked as a male prostitute and a personal escort. And you write that for you, in the two years that you knew him, it had evolved into an ongoing nonsexual relationship, though you don't think that he thought that. He started working for you as, I think, a housekeeper and assistant. Was that, by the way, a cover or was he literally working for you as a housekeeper?
FRANK: No, he literally did. He did my errands. You know, you're in Congress, and you're in Washington part of the time and then you're running back to your district, and things like getting the dry-cleaning become an issue. You know, the normal errands - especially when you're single and you're just doing this. Some of my colleagues - very few, would use their staff to run these kind of errands. I thought that was inappropriate. That's not what these younger (unintelligible) professionals were hired for.
So I first hired him to have sex, and after a couple of times - he was very intelligent, well-spoken. What I later learned was he'd been on heroin and was - had been arrested. He was on probation, and he was forced to stay off drugs, so he was on his very best behavior when I met him. And he was very clever. He clearly understood my emotional state - my sense of emotional and physical frustration. And, basically, he didn't see it as an ongoing sexual relationship. He thought, you know, he could get me to accept that we had this really good friendship, and that's the way it was.
And then what happened, in fact, it was he - his probation expired, and he started to take drugs again and became kind of a jerk again. And by that time, I had come out and I did not - I had a relationship with Herb. I didn't need the kind of emotional support I thought I would be getting from him. There was a very small overlap. So once that happened, I told him that I did not care to - I didn't need him anymore. That may be a little callous, but that, you know, the job I was paying him for, not much, wasn't going to exist, and that was the end of it. He got very angry. And here's where the blackmail came in.
His first instinct was to kind of say, I'll tell everybody you're gay. Well, I said, I just did that. You know, it's been all over the papers in May of '87, so it's a little late for you to do that. He couldn't blackmail me, so he brooded about that for a couple years. And then he went to The Washington Times, this very conservative paper that was then run by the Reverend Moon's organization, and told them about our relationship because he couldn't make any points by saying I was gay. But, yes, the fact that I had had a relationship with a prostitute was of some interest. He then elaborated that and added various charges about I was letting him run a prostitution ring from my apartment. What happened then was this went before the House Ethics Committee and, as I say in the book, I asked people to just read that report. They refuted or found no evidence for any of the charges.
They did find that I had done two things wrong. I had let him use my privilege to avoid parking tickets when he borrowed my car. I had thought he was doing it to run errands for me. It turned out, he was also doing it as part of his prostitution. And secondly, I had written a letter to the probation office about him, and in the letter I lied. I said that I had met him at a party. I did not in that instance want to say that I met him by answering a sex ad. But those are the only two things that were found to be the case, but it was still humiliating for me, not just in terms of the public, but for me to recognize this. And by the way, that was a factor in my coming out. I mean, I started seeing him in 1985, and it was in '85 - '86 that I finally decided to come out. That relationship, even as I was maintaining it, I realized it was certainly irresponsible for me as a member of Congress to risk the causes I cared about by this. It was a bad idea.
GROSS: So after the House Ethics Committee issued their report, they recommended that you be reprimanded, which is the lowest form of punishment. And other people in Congress said, no, you should be expelled or you should be censured.
GROSS: And I read this - I read that - and I'm not sure this is true or not - that one of the people who advocated censure and who wanted you expelled was Larry Craig, who later, shortly after this, was arrested for propositioning somebody who turned out to be an undercover cop in a men's room at the Minnesota St. Paul Airport. So did he advocate for censure?
FRANK: Yeah. He was one of the people who said I was a bad boy, and I think voted for censure. It was led by Newt Gingrich. And Gingrich was really the one who - people asked what happened to bipartisanship and when did partisanship become excessive? And it was through Newt Gingrich, and he consciously said that. He starts in '95 when he becomes the speaker, but he had begun that in the '80s. And, yeah, Larry Craig was one of the ones who voted for censure as opposed to reprimand.
GROSS: And did you know that he had a secret homosexual life?
FRANK: Well, there were rumors about it. There's a network so that - I would say this - a number of people were outed - more Republicans than Democrats because the Democrats tended increasingly to sort of come out. Nobody who was outed surprised me. We had heard rumors about almost everybody. Not everybody about whom we heard rumors was outed. So there had been rumors about him, yes.
GROSS: So - very hypocritical - do you think for him to have argued that you should be censured and then...
FRANK: Oh, yes. One of the - I formulated a rule that was really called, within the LGBT community particularly, the Frank Rule - namely, that the right to privacy does not carry with it the right to hypocrisy, and I applied that in my own case. When I decided I was going to run for office, I made two decisions. One - I cannot afford to come out right now. I won't win. This is 1972. But it would be despicable in my situation to be anything but a supporter of being gay. The notion that you participate in making illegal something in which you personally do, you know, that's the - absolutely totally hypocritical.
What was frustrating in some ways was that the press, in their view that you never expose anybody, were kind of tolerant of that. I would say to people, look, I don't think you should volunteer that someone is gay or lesbian in general, but if you've got a gay man who's voting to prosecute other gay men, I think that's relevant.
GROSS: So what was your reaction when he was arrested for - when Larry Craig was arrested for propositioning a guy who turned out to be an undercover cop?
FRANK: Well, there was a little - use German - schadenfreude, a little gloating, a little sense that - yeah, one more hypocrite bites the dust.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barney Frank, the former congressman - Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. He has a new memoir called "Frank." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barney Frank. The former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts has written a new memoir called, "Frank." You're married now.
FRANK: I am.
GROSS: How does it feel to be able to use the words, my husband?
FRANK: Wonderful. I - look, a lot of gay men (unintelligible) find it hard to do that. I very much enjoy it. I think it's still part of my mission in terms of continuing the fight against prejudice. I get invited to speak and get paid for it. In retirement I get paid a good deal of money to do the things I used to have to do for free all the time. That is, I had my basic salary but - go on television or make speeches or write. And I'm invited to speak to groups that are somewhat conservative - not socially conservative. They're very often financial groups - this or that financial institution or this or that company that specializes in this. And I frequently find occasion - I don't reach for it, but it's a natural thing to make reference to my husband. And I think having me stand there as a figure of some authority talking to them about the subjects - they're paying me to do this - obviously that shows some respect.
In fact, I tried to do that all along. In fact, there was a period - and I made a point of saying, you know what? When we debated gay rights - I became the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee at a time when we had this financial crisis. I was a very important person, but I would say on occasion to my colleagues when the issue came up, look, I'm a bigshot now, but I remember when I was 15 and I was terrified as a gay teenager. And in fact, one debate we had about hate crimes when some of the African-American members had been told by their preachers not to vote to give gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people hate crime protection because that would keep them from making any gay sermons. I said no, it has nothing to do with free speech. Let me be very clear. This deals with violence. And I said - and I think this was frankly an example where I could sort of bring the two together. I said to the Democratic caucus, if we pass this bill tomorrow, it would still be entirely legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn't recommend it if you are in the banking business.
GROSS: (Laughter). That's funny. Do you think the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of your marriage?
FRANK: Yeah. Well, the constitutionality of my marriage is beyond them, fortunately, because I would never want to underestimate the power of Antonin Scalia's homophobia. In fact, I must say it troubles me that he's now being sort of lionized as this cheerful guy. He's a bigot. And if he had ever expressed - and it goes back to, frankly - (unintelligible) let me go back to your opening question about racism. If Antonin Scalia expressed opinions about black people comparable to those he regularly expresses in written opinions about gay and lesbian people, he would not be considered a respectable guy.
But here's the deal. My marriage in Massachusetts is legal because the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that right under the Massachusetts Constitution. But there are many states where that wasn't the case. I think this is very clear. First of all, if you look at Justice Kennedy, who would be the fifth vote here, he has voted for treating gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people equally in every case that's come before the Supreme Court. Secondly, when you had this rash of decisions in various appeals courts saying that states had to do - allow same-sex marriage and the antis appealed to the Supreme Court to put that on hold until they decided, the Supreme Court refused. It would have made no sense for the Court to have said, you know what? We're going to let all these people get married, but in about five months, we're going to cancel, retroactively, all those marriages. So I think that that's pretty clear - that they're going to uphold same-sex marriage.
GROSS: So I have to ask you a Hillary Clinton question. You worked very closely with Bill Clinton when he was president. I'm sure you know Hillary Clinton well. Your sister was highly placed in Hillary's presidential campaign. So do you think - she seems to be, like, the only leading contender for the Democratic presidential nominee right now. Do you think the email scandal, email story - whatever word you want to use, is going to affect her chances of getting the nomination or effect her chances of winning the race if she does get the nomination?
FRANK: Not unless something comes out of those emails - which I have no expectation will happen - that's negative. That is unless - I think the fact that she used private email rather than public email is not something that's going to move voters. That's an insiders problem. If it turns out that in those emails she was concealing something that was embarrassing, that will hurt her. I don't think it'll have any impact in the election, and I think - in the nomination. And unless something bad comes out, it won't effect the election.
GROSS: You kind of make fun of your own Jersey accent in the book. Did you ever try to lose it? Did you ever think, well, if I'm going to be in public office, I have to speak more kind of standard American dialect?
FRANK: I didn't try to lose it. My mother, a wonderful woman who became a great advocate later in her life, did enroll me in elocution classes when I was 7 or 8, but - it was a well intended gesture, but it didn't work. No. In fact, I what I learned how to do was to - kind of a political judo. I think I was able to make an asset out of some of my defects. For example, I have a hard time dressing well. Jim - God bless him - works very hard to keep me in good shape. But in my first campaign, somebody wrote an article and said I was wearing an ill-fitting suit. And I said, no, that's unfair. It was a well-fitting suit. It just - I wasn't the person it fit.
FRANK: And as a state representative, somebody took a picture of me in which I looked a little disheveled, and I put it up - said, re-elect Frank, neatness isn't everything. So - the same with my voice. You become kind of - I think there was a certain blandness politicians have that does not work to your favor. So if you can be somewhat distinctive in ways that are not offensive, I think that's helpful.
GROSS: Barney Frank, thank you so much for talking with us.
FRANK: Thank you. I really enjoyed this. We had some good questions here.
GROSS: Barney Frank's new memoir is called "Frank." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. And we have an interesting extra from our interview on our podcast about whether Frank would have been willing to out gay members of Congress as he threatened to do in 1995 if House members refused to end the prohibition against gays receiving security clearances from the government. So that's an extra on our podcast. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new Brandi Carlile album, which he says is her best yet. This is FRESH AIR.
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