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Barney Frank On His Big Screen Debut, Politicians Coming Out, and How Long Until We Get Marriage Equality

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | /Bent April 28, 2014 at 12:21PM

Barney Frank talks to /bent.
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"Compared To What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank"
"Compared To What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank"

Sheila Canavan and Michael Chandler's documentary "Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank" helped close down the Tribeca Film Festival last night.  An extensive and intimate look at the life and career of the recently retired Frank, the film focuses considerably on Frank being the first U.S. Congressman to (voluntarily) come out as gay (in 1987!), and the mission to further LGBT rights that followed his coming out. It's a worthy tribute to an iconic figure in American LGBT history, and one Frank himself wasn't apprehensive about showing to Tribeca audiences. 

"I'm not nervous," Frank said ahead of the screening (he'd yet to see the film at the time). "I mean, 40 years in elected office. You may try to control things, but you really can't. I don't think I say much in the film that I haven't said at one point or another."

The film was originally supposed to focus solely on Frank's last year in office and his transition into retirement. 

"[The filmmakers] called me when they heard I was retiring, and I think they thought we'd talk about what it was like to make this transition after all these years in public office and then getting ready to go out," Frank explained. "And then apparently they decided to make it a more of a career-long situation."

As a result, the film offers a detailed look at Frank's relationship with longtime partner Jim Ready, which was one thing the former Congressman wasn't quite used to.

"I'm not used to it, but on the other hand I think it's important," he said. "The first stage is people thinking 'oh you're gay, that's okay.' They accept you as a single gay figure. The notion that you are a single gay figure in physical intimacy with another gay figure is a step beyond that. It was important to show me not just as gay person but one involved in an intimate emotional and physical relationship. I'm particularly grateful to Jim. Jim's never been involved in politics. He wasn't used to this kind of limelight and I'm just proud of the way he's adjusted to it. He's always been out to his friends but there's never been any kind of public thing. Not everybody knew, so he was out into the world on '60 Minutes.' So that was a kind of a culture shock for him."

As for his own coming out, Frank made it clear that while it might have been challenging back i 1987, it is essential for gay politicians to do today, at least if they are Democrats. 

"I waited for a while, obviously," he said. "I was in office for years before I did it and I do think the argument that it will end your career has become less and less plausible. I mean, if you're a Democrat it can help your career. If you're a Republican, it can still be very damaging. There are still very big differences in the parties. What was important for me is not to let it slip out of sight. I mean, I would be the one who would remind people I was gay when I was being treated like a big shot or etc."

Those kind of reminders can work as a small contribution to a country that still clearly hasn't reached an optimal level of acceptance of LGBT people.

"In much of the country you can still get fired for being gay," Frank said. "And then there are the informal social pressures. Particularly for high school kids. Teenage human beings are I think the only creatures who are gratuitously mean to each other. So being a 'different' teenager can be a problem. And if you're a gay or lesbian one then it's worse. So I think that while the fact that I was a Congressman doesn't help a kid getting bullied immediately but it does reinforce the 'it gets better' theme."

So, in Frank's educated opinion, when will it get better? At least in terms of legal rights?

"The Supreme Court will at some point say marriage is a constitutional right," he said. "I don't think they want to answer that question yet, but I believe within 10 years there will be full legal equality for LGBT people across America. I think the next time there is a Democratic House Senate President in Congress they will pass a law adding us to the list of people you can't discriminate against in employment, and the Supreme Court will take care of marriage. And that will be full legal equality. There's clearly still the social issue. But to have full legal equality in 10 years would happen a lot more rapidly then I thought 40 years ago."