Naturally, as a gay man running an LGBT magazine I’m always finding things in our coverage that make me pause and reflect, to remember what it was like to be gay then and consider how lucky I am to be here now.
But this week is certainly a twofer, looking back on the evolution of the epidemic as we mark World AIDS Day, while at the same time taking in the news that one our longest-serving advocates in Congress won’t seek re-election.
I was a college student when Rep. Barney Frank came out of the closet, news that coincided with my own increasing struggles with the closet, and my own fears of the AIDS epidemic that was driving so much fear and loathing of gay men in America. We often talk about the importance of coming out — back in the late 1980s, when coming out was rare enough that Elton John had only just gotten around to stop pretending to be bisexual, seeing a politician not only come out but be re-elected was a buttress for someone like me who had a Washington career in his sights.
So it was depressing when, shortly after I arrived in D.C., the scandal involving Frank and his escort-agency-proprietor ex-boyfriend began splashing across the front pages of newspapers. Where some had taken heart in a changing future for gays and lesbians, suddenly our most prominent example was being torn apart politically on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The lesson there for young LGBT people could have been brutal — and it actually was, in its way — but Frank not only survived it, he thrived after once again winning re-election. Pretty much the entirety of my political experience has involved the knowledge that at least we had Barney Frank on the Hill. Obviously, that was never enough in and of itself to move pro-LGBT legislation through Congress, but he was a beachhead of sorts, clearing the way for people like Rep. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Jared Polis, who each proved that these days one can actually come out before being elected.
I’ve enjoyed having Frank in Congress because he is in many ways the opposite of the gay stereotype, with the notable exception of his quick and acid tongue. As he told Metro Weekly in a 2003 interview with Randy Shulman, ”[Humor] can be a weapon politically — ridicule can be very effective. And I would say this in defense of the use of ridicule. Ridicule doesn’t work unless the subject is ridiculous.”
Frank’s caustic remarks and combative style are generally as entertaining and ridiculing as he intends them to be — his riffs on Newt Gingrich are textbook examples of eviscerating a political opponent with a twinkle in the eye and a scalpel in the hand — even if they sometimes veered into a high-handed meanness. As Andrew Sullivan put it this week in his own appreciation for the congressman, ”Just so long as we don’t get carried away and forget that he is often a total asshole sometimes for no reason at all … and sometimes to great and important effect.”
Frank may sometimes have been ”a total asshole,” but he was one of ours and he’ll be missed. Though one has to doubt that he would ever fade away.
Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @seanbugg.