When former Massachusetts Rep. Gerry E. Studds first acknowledged publicly that he was gay, fellow delegation member Barney Frank was hesitant to follow his lead.
“I had been thinking about coming out, but there was this problem,” the retired congressman from the state’s fourth district told the Gazette this week in Chilmark. “There were going to be two openly gay congressmen in the whole country, and our districts were next to each other. People were going to say, what, is there something in the water there in Bristol County, in Buzzards Bay?”
But in the end Mr. Frank did decide to come out in 1987, and he shares that legacy with Mr. Studds.
Mr. Frank’s visit to the Island this week was his fourth stop on a tour to promote a documentary about him, which first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The film, Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank, showed Wednesday evening at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.
Footage of his emotional public announcement is included in the film, as are scenes from his wedding to Jim Ready in 2012, when Mr. Frank became the first sitting congressman to marry a member of his own sex. The film shows the brief wedding ceremony, which was officiated by Gov. Deval Patrick, along with footage from the party.
While a perfectly respectable choice, Mr. Patrick was not the first person Mr. Frank asked to preside over the wedding ceremony. When he was ready to get married, Mr. Frank called former chief Justice Margaret Marshall.
“I left a voice mail for her, saying, Margie, it’s Barney Frank, will you marry me?”
Regrettably, she was unavailable that weekend.
By the time of his wedding, Mr. Frank had already announced that he would not seek re-election, a decision he stands firmly behind today. The state had redrawn the district lines, which meant Mr. Frank would have ended up with a district that was 50 per cent new, he said. He was also ready to stop working seven days a week.
“I was stressed out,” he said, noting that he had worked full time in politics since 1967, either as a chief assistant for an elected official, a candidate or an elected official.
He said the most stressful period was his four-year term as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. In 2010, Congress passed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which Mr. Frank had introduced to the House.
“Telling some jerk he is a jerk is a lot easier than getting 40 people to agree on the specifics of a complicated issue,” he said.
A year and a half since he left office, Mr. Frank now tours the country giving speeches, and pens a weekly column for the Portland Press Herald. He also has written a memoir due out in March from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is in its final stages.
“I am arguing with the editor. I want more politics, he wants more personal,” he said.
Mr. Frank says he has found a happier balance between the two in his life, now that he’s retired and married. He spends most of his time in Maine with Mr. Ready (pronounced “ready”), who is a welder specializing in awnings. One candid scene in the film shows the couple at work in their very different fields.
“He is putting up an awning while I am on the phone being interviewed about derivatives,” he said. “That’s a marriage.”
Clean-shaven during his political career, Mr. Frank, now 74, has a substantial salt and pepper beard, which he plans to shave for the book jacket of his still untitled memoir. In the fall, he will teach a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights class at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and in the spring, a course on Congress at his alma mater, Harvard Law School.
Each week he drives to Boston to appear as a contributor on MSNBC or NBC. While he’s often portrayed as combative on television, the film brings out a softer side of Mr. Frank.
“When most people see me, it’s on television, and when are you on television you are arguing with someone, fighting with someone,” he said. Film audiences have correctly linked the nicer side shown in the film to his relationship with Mr. Ready, he said.
“It shows me as a controversialist but, also as a human being,” he said.
It also defies assumptions that have developed about politicians in general, he said.
“People have this vision of elected officials living in this bubble, with servants in mansions,” he said. “I like the fact that it shows the reality of our lives, and we are representative of members of Congress.”
He also hopes it will dispel a pervasive narrative about politicians that they don’t listen to young people. “That’s self-fulfilling. They don’t listen to you if you don’t say anything,” he said.
He noted that in his memoir, he talks about the anti-government feeling that now grips much of the country, and how to reverse it. When he came out 27 years ago, it was to show that you can be openly gay and succeed in politics, he said. The example he’d like to set today is slightly different.
“For young gay people, it’s not that you can be gay and be in politics, but that politics is worthwhile,” he said.
The film is a portrait of Mr. Frank’s colorful life, starting with his childhood in Bayonne, N. J., and his years at Harvard College, where he impressed his classmates with a superior understanding of government and reportedly invincible debating abilities. As the film reveals in detail, Mr. Frank neglected his personal life in favor of his political ambitions for much of his career. He said that decades ago, gay and lesbian people would rationalize a lack of a social life by delving deeply into their professional life. He did the same, and feels he suffered as a result.
“There are personal needs you have, emotional and physical, which your job will not satisfy,” he said.
Married life had a positive effect on his work, even in the final months of his tenure.
“I was nicer. I would behave better,” he said.
The film also does not shy away from discussing an episode that threatened to end his congressional career. In 1989, an incident with a prostitute brought a series of ethics allegations against Mr. Frank, most were not validated during an 11-month House Ethics Committee investigation. Despite the negative press, Mr. Frank was re-elected to his seat without difficulty.
Though Mr. Frank is certainly not without adversaries in the Republican party, several Republicans gave interviews for the film in which they spoke of the bipartisanship Mr. Frank promoted during his time in the House. Despite concealing his sexuality for many years, Mr. Frank did not remain silent on issues involving LGBT rights. He worked to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy on gays serving in the military, introduced an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would include transgenders, and in his early years in the Massachusetts legislature, introduced the state’s first gay rights bill.
During a campaign for re-election to the Massachusetts House, Mr. Frank ran under the slogan, “Neatness isn’t everything,” a reference to his somewhat unkempt physical appearance.
His slogan today might be, “Vote Democratic, we’re not perfect, but they’re nuts,” which he’s affixed to the bumper of his car. Or a favorite of his from the aftermath of the financial crisis: “Things would have sucked worse without me.”