CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — After retiring from Congress at the end of 2012, Barney Frank sat down to write a political memoir. As one of the first openly gay members of Congress and a lifelong fighter for LGBT rights, the former Massachusetts Democratic representative had plenty of material to work with. The only problem was his inability to use a computer.
“I usually use dictation and have someone else transcribe,” Frank, 74, said in his studio apartment in Newton, Mass. “I had to learn how to use the computer. But I was so club-fingered that I kept accidentally shutting the machine down.”
To fix the problem, his husband, Jim Ready, bought him a yellow keyboard three times the size of a normal one. It sort of helped.
“Apprasebtly, none of my Dem,crstic occllesagues fesred tghat my p;rom ince wouild cause a problem for the pastry,” he wrote of rising up the ranks in the Democratic Party. “I very much boibut that this eould have been true for an openly gay leader of a very prominent committee tnwtey years esrleir.”
It’s going to take until next spring to get this book edited and out onto shelves. Frank said he will also record the audio version, so fans can hear him narrate in his authoritative mumble.
But in the meantime, a group of about 46 bright young minds get the opportunity to hear Frank’s stories once a week firsthand. This speakeasy, a fun-yet-garbled combination of personal history, legislative battles and slightly off-color jokes, can be found Wednesday nights at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
I sat in on Frank’s class — called “The History of the Effort to Achieve Legal Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People in the United States” — on a warm September evening. It was the second week of teaching, and Frank had yet to provide a syllabus or a reading list.
“I do have the exam question in mind,” he told the class, made up of students in the Kennedy School and the law school. “The readings will be useful, but there will be no problem if you don’t remember any particular readings.”
Students were excited about the chance to hear about the struggle for gay rights from one of the people who had been around for most of the fight. Frank filed the first gay rights bill in the history of Massachusetts as a state legislator in the early 1970s. He came out nationally in 1987 and, by his own account, has been at the center of every gay rights battle for the past 40 years. His spiel was less like a history lesson and more like — as one student called it — “Story Time with Barney Frank.” So it didn’t really seem to matter to the students whether Frank was a bit all over the map.
Frank lectured for an hour and 40 minutes before taking questions. He talked about the time he brought a bunch of “well-dressed” gay men and women to meet with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who suggested that they come out of the closet so they couldn’t be blackmailed. He talked about how he took a poll before coming out himself to see whether it would hurt him politically (and found that it would not).
“It was frustrating in every sense of the word,” he said about fighting for gay rights before he was public about his own sexuality. “It became increasingly so. At first it was kind of exhilarating. But it began to feel like I was fighting for everybody’s rights but mine.”
Students typed up notes as he spoke in class, many of them flipping between Wikipedia articles to keep themselves oriented with Professor Frank’s nonlinear timeline.
He reminisced about the time that a congressman from Orange County in Southern California read aloud graphic descriptions of gay sex, and how Frank responded when asked about it. (Frank said he was less concerned with what the congressman had read, and more concerned with how he wound up in Congress, though he used more colorful language.)
And he talked about how protests are not nearly as helpful as communicating with legislators.
“If you feel very deeply about something and you are engaged in a collective activity with your supporters and it’s a demonstrative, vigorous activity that makes you feel very good,” he said, “you are almost certainly not helping your cause.”
All and all, it’s a nice life for Barney Frank these days. He still gets to hold court, but he no longer has to deal with the tension that comes with being a member of Congress.
“The major thing is I don’t flinch when the phone rings anymore,” Frank said in the interview from the apartment that he has been renting for the past 15 years. There was a rumpled blue trash can in the kitchen with an old Barney Frank sticker, a toaster emblazoned with a New York Times logo and a pile of books about gay rights on the table. He spends most of his time away from this bachelor pad up in Maine with his husband. “My nerve endings were raw. When the phone rang, it was a problem I had to help resolve. I was just worn out by the end.”
That can happen when you are one of the more powerful and controversial members of the House of Representatives. In 2007, Frank became the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and in 2010 he was co-sponsor of a sweeping financial-reform bill that bears his name.
“I never call it that,” Frank says of the Dodd-Frank bill. “No way I think you can refer to yourself in the third person without coming across as a twit.”
Which is not to say that Frank minds being the center of attention. Since retiring he has been a regular on MSNBC, writes a column for a Maine newspaper and has been the star of a documentary titled “Compared to What? The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank.”
He even returned to Congress earlier this year to defend his eponymous legislation four years after it passed. Frank said he was ready to get back in there and spar with his old Republican counterparts, but none of them asked him a question, only the Democrats did.
“It was kind of like showing up for the World Series and getting intentionally walked every time you get up,” he said.
In general, he does not feel as if he left Congress in good hands.
“It’s not entirely run by wackos, but by people who are intimidated by wackos,” he says about the GOP-led House. Not enough representatives, in Frank’s view, know the first thing about the role of legislating in a democracy. To fix that, he’s teaching a course in the spring, also at the Kennedy School, called “Congress: The Role of Legislating in Democracy.”
“People may like what was accomplished or not, but up through 2010 you don’t hear about gridlock,” he said. Frank puts it this way: Back when he came out in 1987, people might have thought less of him as a politician for being gay. Now, it’s coming out as a politician that would be a liability for his reputation.
“I would say with the seven LGBT people in Congress, the gay staff and associations, it’s a really welcoming place now,” says Rep. Jared Polis, a gay Democrat from Colorado. “It really took the proud presence of trailblazers like Barney Frank for that to happen.” Polis said they miss him in Congress, but he expects Frank will get a good score on the Rate My Professors Web site. “I’m sure he’ll get chili-pepper hot.”
Frank may be remembered for any number of things: for being a witty, irascible debater (once he told a woman that trying to talk to her was like trying to have a debate with a dining-room table), for his work on the financial reform bill, or for his work on the gay rights movement. So what is it that he hopes he will be remembered for?
“Being smart enough to not answer a question like that,” he said.