In the midst of his 21st year in Congress, openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., sat down with Roger Weber last week to assess the state of the gay union.
Roger Weber: I understand surviving same-sex partners of Sept. 11th victims might get some compensation from the feds.
Barney Frank: The legislation that was passed leaves open the definition of survivor and theres room to define this broadly and we have been working to try to make sure the administration defines it broadly enough to include domestic partners ... including any people who shared expenses. Weve gotten some good indications from some Republicans that theyre ready to support this. Im reasonably optimistic.
RW: What would the benefits be?
BF: Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per survivor. Its part of the airline bailout bill. Congress voted compensation for victims. Its meant to be an alternative to lawsuits. People will have to pick. They could still have a lawsuit if they wanted to.
RW: Did the recent Congressional vote that finally allowed the District of Columbia to give benefits to domestic partners of its employees create momentum for this?
BF: Yes. It was very helpful. In both causes, these are indications that we are making progress. The country as a whole is getting better and better on the issue. As more and more people come out to their friends and relatives and customers and teammates and bosses and subordinates, the average American has discovered that its OK not to be homophobic. Most people werent homophobic but they had always thought they were supposed to be. Now theyve learned that you dont have to be. Were gaining. Theres a drag on that, in that the right wing has taken over the Republican Party.
Thirty-five years ago, both parties were awful. The Democrats have gotten better and better and better, and the Republicans havent. Theyre not much better now than they were 20 years ago because there are countervailing forces in the Republican party. The country is going in one direction but their base pulls them in the other. On that D.C. domestic-partner vote, we got 91 percent of the Democrats and 19 percent of the Republicans.
What is interesting is that it was the Republicans who were unhappy at their leadership for bringing it up. The House Republicans said to their leadership: What the hell is the matter with you? Why are you making us vote on this? Thats very interesting. Ten years ago, if wed had a vote on that issue, it would have been the Democratic members complaining that they hate to have to vote on this. Until fairly recently, the Democrats thought they were caught between the anti-gay feelings of the general public and the pro-gay activism within the Democratic party. Now the Republicans feel torn. People dont like gay-bashing. ...
RW: Many Republican politicians now very much dont want to be seen as gay-bashers. I dont think its right to say theyre no better than they were 20 years ago. Theyre certainly better than they were 10 years ago.
BF: I wish there were pressures in the Republican party to make them better. There are not. There are pressures in the general electorate.
RW: How about [Republican gay-rights activist and party advisor] Mary Matalin?
BF: She advocates the position but shes not in a position to pressure them. Marys not going to turn against someone because he or she didnt vote right. ... Shes very supportive. She can help. ... When I say the Republicans are no better than they were 20 years ago, thats based on the roll call. Youre right, though. The Republicans got much worse, then they got better again. I agree with that. Thats fair. Theyre better than they were 10 years ago, not so much in the number of votes we get, but in the diminution of gay-bashing.
RW: The things they wont say.
BF: They learned from Pat Buchanan in 1992. And from the fact that the passage of DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] did not bring them any political benefits. ... People dont want to hear Jesse Helms calling their gay kids names, so the Republicans have got it on gay-bashing. Ten years ago they were actively trying to roll back pro-gay things when they happened; now they dont want to do that.
RW: They just wish the topic wouldnt come up.
BF: When I first came to Congress, gay rights was for a lot of Democrats a no way issue. After AIDS, gay rights went from a no way issue to an oh, shit issue. Oh, shit, Ive got to vote on this. Now, for the Democrats, its an easy vote and for the Republicans its become an oh, shit issue. But they still vote wrong. ... Theyre in this transition phase where they cant do anything right but they dont want to do anything wrong.
RW: How about [Bushs gay AIDS adviser] Scott Evertz and the new openly gay U.S. ambassador to Romania?
BF: Evertz is a throw-away. Hes low-level. ... I doubt Bush has met him more than once. Theres no sign he has any influence about anything. The ambassador appointment was a very useful thing ... but Bush didnt go out of his way to appoint this guy. He was a career foreign-service guy who had reached a point where he was due for an ambassadorship. To have refused him would have been gay-bashing. He was entitled to it.
RW: Its still progress that they let these things happen even though they know theyll get crap from the right-wing of the party. Its not much but its progress.
BF: Theres no question. The country as a whole is getting better. But the Republicans are still lagging behind the country as a whole.
RW: Is TV helpful in making the nation more gay-friendly?
BF: Not much. I think its personal coming out. I dont think watching Will and Jack makes people more supportive. I think its the other way around. Thats an indication of our progress, not the cause of it. Maybe Ellen had some effect. Why if you watch Will & Grace would you be any more pro-gay then you were before?
RW: Familiarity. Even if you dont know anyone gay, theres 20-some network TV gay characters beaming into your living room.
BF: Many of them arent the kind of people who make you want to be like them, or like them. Theyre not admirable. Overwhelmingly, our progress is the result of person-to-person coming out. Television may make a minor contribution.
RW: Do gay activists and lobbyists work in a different environment since September 11th?
BF: Theres an attention issue but, actually, I think its marginally better now. ... The post-September 11th rhetoric is, Hate is bad. Religious fundamentalism has been somewhat discredited. We are able to argue, Lets all be together, united we stand. Thats helped us.
RW: What are the top three gay issues youre personally concerned about right now?
BF: Getting high schools into the business of protecting gay kids. ... Domestic partnership, especially health benefits. The absence of universal health care is one of the worst things about America. On the federal level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] will help, and also, repealing the really obnoxious part of DOMA that says even if a state recognizes a same-sex marriage, the federal government wont. Third, immigration rights for gay and lesbian people who have non-American lovers. These are areas where people are really hurting. With ENDA, were at the point now where if the Democrats take control of the House, Congress will pass it. Bush wouldnt sign it.
RW: Are you sure?
BF: And got bullshitted.
RW: At past Republican conventions, all there was for me to cover for the gay press was Young Americans for Freedom walking around in surgical masks carrying AIDS Patrol signs, and ACT UP getting beat to death by the cops. This time there were numerous stories from inside the convention hall. ...
BF: But what have they done? Where have they been supportive?
RW: I guess its just that they were so much less mean.
BF: Thats like you send your dog to obedience school and he comes back and he shits all over the house and you complain and the trainer says, Well, at least he didnt bite you. ... What have they done affirmative?
RW: The crazy fundamentalist Christians are all upset that Bush is too pro-gay. They have a list of eight or nine things.
BF: Scott Evertz. The ambassador.
RW: Mary Matalin. This new D.C. unity group of gay and straight Republicans working together.
BF: Which is a group that tells gay people to vote Republican even though the Republicans dont do anything for them. ...
RW: Bushs meeting with gays during the campaign.
BF: Jesus. Whats the matter with you? Isnt that nice that he petted us on that?
RW: Putting an openly gay Congressman on stage at the Republican Convention to talk about trade issues. Theres a list of things theyre pissed off about.
BF: Whats the matter with you? Just because really crazy, vicious people I mean, youre validating the right wing with this. Youre letting the crazies move the goal post.
RW: Under Reagan, the crazies had nothing to bitch about. Now they do. Its gotta mean theres been progress.
BF: Yes, the country as a whole has gotten better, so theyve mostly stopped gay-bashing. You havent mentioned a single public policy that deals with the problems of mistreatment of gay and lesbian people.
Theyre against a gay-inclusive hate-crimes bill. Theyre against ENDA. They have decided not to be uncivil now. Theyll allow gay people who are willing to support them despite the anti-gay agenda, to do so. Thats what it amounts to. Its leading you to infer theres some real stuff there. And there isnt.
RW: If they cant say anti-gay things as freely as they used to
BF: Thats better than if they did. But theyre still against ENDA. And George Bush wont sign it. Its a mistake to give them credit for meeting with people.
RW: I have a gut feeling that were getting to them. They cant say the things they said before.
BF: Because they understand it will hurt them politically. That doesnt lead them to do anything good.
RW: But it will.
RW: This new, less-nasty Republican environment vis-a-vis gay people is only two or three years old. Give it two or three more years.
BF: Are they going to start voting differently?
RW: Some of them. Or something is going to come up and the right wing is going to want them to take an anti-gay position, and theyre simply not going to do it.
BF: You have no basis for that.
RW: Even saying, We welcome gay people into the Republican party if they agree with our ideas and principles
BF: Youre self-esteem must be your toes. If we are prepared to swallow hard and support them even though they have all these anti-gay positions, theyll let us do that. Oh, lucky us! ... You see this as evolution, I see it as politicians being smart enough to know what not to say, and what they have to say. ...
RW: I think you have a stake in being careful that all of those gay white men out there with Republican leanings who nonetheless dont vote Republican because they are gay and they dont want to be discriminated against by Republicans you dont want to say anything, and you dont want me to write anything, that encourages those gay white men with Republican leanings to go ahead and vote Republican.
BF: Not if they care about gay rights. If gay rights is not your issue, if youre an economic conservative, then go ahead and vote Republican. I dont want them to vote Republican on the grounds that this is a good way to advance gay rights. If you say, Look, Im fine, and Im not being discriminated against, and my lover and I both have our health benefits, then thats a rational vote if you care more about taxes, or you think the Democrats are whacked out on the environment. ... Weve made real progress. In your day-to-day life, are you discriminated against as a gay man?
RW: No. Never.
BF: Fine. Unlike 30 years ago when almost everybody was. ... In many metropolitan areas today, you can live as a gay man or lesbian without anybody impinging on your life. Therefore, not everybody votes for the cause. They vote for things that affect their life. In a purely self-interest sense, thats rational [for a gay person to vote Republican].
RW: I dont vote Republican. ... You know, its not only that I never get discriminated against in any way, and that my gayness doesnt have any impact on my daily existence any more. I think I sometimes get special treatment because its cool or hip to be gay now.
BF: No question. Thats absolutely right. I certainly get it.
RW: I get mainstream journalistic assignments because Im gay.
BF: I know thats right. ... Once it became clear my boyfriend and I were together and it got in the papers he works at World Bank we started getting invitations from straight colleagues of his to go to boring parties, because it was cool to have a gay couple.
RW: Thats the environment now in urban areas of all First World countries.
BF: Yes. Which is why, then, you get white gay men who are making good incomes if they werent gay, theyd be voting 70 percent Republican, not 70 percent Democratic. Thats the explanation. Its not a surprise that there are gay people who dont feel the negative. If youre purely self-interested, its rational to vote Republican, as long as you dont tell me thats a way to help gay rights.
RW: Agreed. Thanks, Barney.