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When Barney Frank announced he was ‘coming out of the room’ (er… the closet)

The story of when Barney Frank came out to his colleagues involves a double date with flight attendants on New Year’s Eve in Egypt.

Frank, 72, is retiring next month after more than three decades in Congress. The liberal, wonky lawmaker will be remembered as a champion of financial regulatory reforms enacted since the 2008 economic collapse and for his sharp-tongued attacks on critics and journalists asking questions he doesn’t like.

But Frank (D-Mass.) also is indisputably the nation’s most prominent gay politician, who once faced formal reprimand from his House colleagues for improperly helping a gay prostitute, but later emerged as a figurehead in the gay rights movement.

During a recent conversation with 2chambers — part of a series of exit interviews with retiring lawmakers — Frank recalled his decision not to publicly disclose his homosexuality until 1987, saying that he considered announcing it when he first ran for Congress, but realized it might typecast him for life.

“When I decided to run, I said either you come out and become an activist and have a major role there or I run for Congress,” Frank said. “There was no way I could have been out and won. In the end I almost lost on suspicion.”

Once in Washington, the issue came up in casual conversation one day with the late Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), who asked Frank whether he had a girlfriend.

“No,” Frank told Synar.

“Are you gay?” Synar asked Frank.

“Well, yeah,” Frank said.

That was it. They moved on.

Frank later told another colleague, then-Rep. Tom Carper (D-Del.), during a 1982 trip to Israel and Egypt.

“We spent New Year’s Eve in Egypt and Tom, who was then not married, had met this flight attendant and they were going to have dinner together and she had a friend and so he asked me if I would be with the friend,” Frank said. “And I said okay, but it was clear that I was not nearly as interested as he was. So he asked me the next morning whether, why I was not more forthcoming with the friend, and I told him.”

Carper, who said he had no idea that Frank was gay, recalled that “I was pretty nonchalant about it. And Barney told me later that it was one of the conversations that gave him the courage for him to tell others. It was a funny moment, but it was an important moment for him, and maybe for the rest of us.”

“He was and is so smart and so funny and a force of nature in the House of Representatives, so I thought that was fine by me,” Carper said. “And as it turned out, I think other people came to see it that way too.”

Four years after telling Carper, Frank told his mentor, House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), because former Rep. Bob Bauman (R-Md.) was on the verge of publishing a book that indirectly implied Frank’s homosexuality. Concerned that the book might cause a stir, Frank went to see O’Neill, who initially dismissed the news as a bad rumor.

“But I said, ‘Well, in this case it’s true,'” Frank recalled, adding that O’Neill responded with some sadness and told him: “I thought you might be the first Jewish speaker.”

O’Neill then alerted his press secretary, future talk show host Chris Matthews, that Frank soon “may be coming out of the room.” Aides had to explain to O’Neill that in fact Frank was coming out of the closet.

Frank’s retirement comes at a crossroads in the gay rights movement, just two years after the Pentagon repealed its ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in uniform and as federal courts are considering several legal challenges to the federal ban on same-sex marriage. Frank also is leaving just as a record seven GLBT people take seats in Congress. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) will be the first lesbian to serve in the U.S. Senate and will be succeed in the House by Mark Pocan (D), who also is gay. In Arizona, voters elected Kyrsten Sinema (D), who will be the first bisexual in Congress.

Frank said he’s never counseled another lawmaker about coming out, just a few state legislators. They should publicly disclose their homosexuality, if they are ready, he said, “because your ability to live as an integrated human person is more important than anything.”

“Do it if you feel that strongly, forgetting about the political consequences,” Frank said. “Once you do, then your job is once you’re out, if there are people who are deeply prejudiced against you because of who you are, forget them, you can’t waste your time on them.”

Gay politicians also need to avoid being pigeonholed as single-issue candidates only concerned with gay issues, Frank said — suggesting that gay candidates should go so far as to avoid meeting with or campaigning alongside gay rights groups.

“If I can’t take gay and lesbian people for granted, I can’t win,” he said.

Frank moved out of his office suite in the Rayburn Building last week and he’s been reduced to spending his final days working out of a closet-sized office in the rotunda of the Cannon Building. His only regrets are not voting for the 1991 Gulf War (“I thought George Bush Sr. handled that one well”) and for not sensing the beginnings of the nation’s housing crisis more quickly.

He said the reelection of President Obama affirms the financial regulatory reforms he helped enact in recent years and makes it easier for him to leave now, despite any other unfinished business.

“I’m worn out. I’m 72, I’ll be 73 in a couple of months,” he said. “I had never thought I’d stay after 75.”

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