U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Massachusetts representative Barney Frank was the second member of Congress to come out as gay but the first to do so willingly. He has been re-elected by his district many times since coming out and has been a champion for civil and gay and lesbian rights.

Summary of Event

There is a long history in politics of closeted gays and lesbians fearing scandal if their sexual orientation became known publicly. During the 1980’s, it was common knowledge in the professional workplace on Capitol Hill that some members of Congress were gay or lesbian, but this was not a subject that was openly discussed or otherwise commented upon. Careers could be ruined, and those dependent upon the ballot box for their positions saw discretion as the better part of valor. A series of events led Barney Frank to question this complicity, and he took a stand in acknowledging his sexual orientation to the press without shame. [kw]U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay (May 30, 1987) [kw]Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay, U.S. (May 30, 1987) [kw]Frank Comes Out as Gay, U.S. Congressman (May 30, 1987) [kw]Out as Gay, U.S. Congressman Frank Comes (May 30, 1987) [kw]Gay, U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as (May 30, 1987) Politicians;gay [c]Government and politics;May 30, 1987: U.S. Congressman Frank Comes Out as Gay[1780] Frank, Barney Robinson, John

A Barney Frank campaign letter from July, 1972, which reads, in part, “Thefollowing constitutes my views on proper government policy towards homosexuals.…”

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(William J. Canfield Papers, Northeastern University Library)

In the first week of May, 1987, the Gary Hart/Donna Rice scandal broke. The scandal revealed an extramarital affair by Gary Hart, the leading Democratic candidate for president, which increased scrutiny of politicians’ private lives by the media and destroyed Hart’s promising campaign. Republican representative Stewart B. McKinney McKinney, Stuart B. of Connecticut died the same week of complications resulting from AIDS, and these unrelated events created an atmosphere of heightened gossiping and journalistic inquiry into the private sexual lives of politicians. Frank had been increasingly open about his sexuality, coming out to more and more associates, but he had maintained that journalistic pondering about his private life was inappropriate, and it diverted attention away from the political and social issues he was championing.

Another factor motivating Frank’s disclosure was the 1986 publication of The Gentleman from Maryland: The Conscience of a Gay Conservative Gentleman from Maryland, The (Bauman) by Republican Robert Bauman. Bauman, Robert Bauman had left Congress in disgrace in 1981 after being arrested and receiving a suspended six-month sentence for soliciting a sixteen-year-old male prostitute, and the book was essentially an apologia, recounting a sordid life. However, in the book, Bauman asserted that he was not the only congressman with “homosexual tendencies,” and he made reference to Frank anonymously but in such a way that it was just a matter of time before reporters would begin to ask specific questions.

Frank had quipped that as a left-handed Jew he was quite used to being different. He realized that formal disclosure of his sexuality would give his future political opponents the tool of homophobia. Still, he had the precedent of Representative Gerry Studds, Studds, Gerry who had been forced to acknowledge that he was gay in 1983 after a scandal with a congressional page. Studds received a formal censure from the House, but he nonetheless was returned twice to office by his constituents. Frank decided the time was right to come out and to emphasize that his sexual orientation was not relevant to his job performance. He believed that coming out would stop his ongoing fear of being outted by someone else. To come out, he granted an interview with a newspaper reporter for the Boston Globe, John Robinson.

The May 30, 1987, issue of the Boston Globe included a front-page story on Frank, in which he acknowledged that he is gay. The story was based on an hour-long interview Robinson had with Frank on Capitol Hill. Kay Longcope wrote a follow-up piece that the Globe published the next day.

Significance

Coming out was a watershed event for Frank. He not only survived the exposure but also has been returned several times to office by his constituents. In the meantime, his seniority has placed him on powerful committees. Immediately following his disclosure, a study was conducted to determine the views of his Massachusetts constituents; they were found to be supportive of Frank, and were generally unconcerned or unsurprised about his sexual orientation. For every letter of criticism he received for coming out came six letters of support. In the election that followed his coming out, his Republican opponent tried to make Frank’s sexuality a negative issue, but Frank nevertheless garnered 70 percent of the vote.

Frank had to deal with his own scandal in late 1989, however. He called for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee when it was learned that a former employee of his had been running a prostitution ring from Frank’s home. In the end, even though right-wing conservatives wanted to censure or expel Frank because of the scandal, the House voted to reprimand him instead, and he was cleared of any knowledge of the prostitution ring. He was, however, held accountable for fixing some traffic tickets the employee had received while using the congressman’s car.

Frank persevered, using his wisdom and political acumen to fight for civil rights and social justice. He went on to become the highest ranking Democratic member of the Financial Services Committee in 2003 and the chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution. In this latter role, he delivered a memorable, thoughtful, and effective speech on May 13, 2004, against the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-gender marriage in the United States, a proposal that was defeated.

Frank has broken barriers, and he serves as a model for young gay and lesbian politicians eager to enter public service. He demonstrated that if one gets the job done, and done well, many voters will support a candidate regardless of his or her sexual orientation. In 2005, he was the highest ranking, out gay political figure in the United States. Politicians;gay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frank, Barney. Speaking Frankly: What’s Wrong with the Democrats and How To Fix It. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hertzog, Mark. The Lavender Vote: Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals in American Electoral Politics. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Eric. Making Gay History: The Half Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. New York: Perennial, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rayside, David. On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yeager, Ken. Trailblazers: Profiles of America’s Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials. New York: Haworth Press, 1999.

1961: Sarria Is First Out Gay or Lesbian Candidate for Public Office

1971: Kameny Is First Out Candidate for U.S. Congress

November 5, 1974: Noble Is First Out Lesbian or Gay Person to Win State-Level Election

November 27, 1978: White Murders Politicians Moscone and Milk

July 14, 1983: Studds Is First Out Gay Man in the U.S. Congress

November 6, 1984: West Hollywood Incorporates with Majority Gay and Lesbian City Council

August 27, 1991: The Advocate Outs Pentagon Spokesman Pete Williams

May 24, 1993: Achtenberg Becomes Assistant Housing Secretary

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