Rep. Barney Frank is not a gay activist. But he has done more for gays and lesbians in government than arguably anyone else in Congress.
Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, has indeed been a consistent supporter of gay rights. But that was just one sphere of Frank's commitment to human rights and dignity for all sorts of groups facing any kind of discrimination. The fact that he himself is gay may have sensitized him to unfair treatment of homosexuals. But it is bigotry in any form that offends Frank.
Still Barney Frank, who announced Monday he would not seek re-election next year, has made an enormous contribution to equal treatment of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals. And it has been more about the sheer example Frank has set than any legislation he introduced.
For years—decades, even—Frank was known as the "gay congressman." Frank was understandably irritated by that, feeling that he should not be defined by his sexuality any more than a straight member of Congress. He is perhaps the smartest person in the House of Representatives, and surely one of the wittiest. He has had a leading role in legislation ranging from fair housing to financial services regulation and fisheries. But no matter what his accomplishments, Frank was insulted by the descriptions of him as gay—even if it had little or nothing to do with the issue at hand.
All that changed when Frank became chairman of the House Financial Services Committee in 2007. The post was so powerful, his role so sweeping, that his sexuality became, finally, a non-issue. And that watershed moment has made things easier for other gay and lesbian members of Congress, who can be defined not by whom they love, but by what they accomplish. Frank was one of the authors of sweeping legislation meant to prevent another financial industry meltdown such as the one that occurred in 2008. Many people on Wall Street hate him for it, and that is an enormous advance for gay and lesbian Americans. At one time, people hated him for being gay. Now, some Wall Street executives hate him for regulating them.
Frank has endured a great deal of homophobia in his life, some of it in the form of laws and reports sanctioned by the very chamber in which he serves. His success as a legislator has done much to ameliorate that.