In the Arena

Barney

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I knew Barney Frank before he was gay–at least, before he said he was gay. He was Boston Mayor Kevin White’s chief of staff. I was a reporter for the Cambridge Phoenix, an underground newspaper. I hadn’t even grown my beard yet. I mean, we still used typewriters. It was a long time ago, neo-pleistocene or thereabouts, the turn of the 1970s.

I was covering the famous Boston busing riots. Barney and I were talking about the alliance between the two, vehemently anti-busing city council members from South Boston, Louise Day Hicks and Albert “Dapper” O’Neill. “It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a symbiotic relationship between two parasites,” he said and I was hooked. This was a source from heaven. 

A few years later, Barney called Paul Solman–now of the Lehrer News Hour, but my boss back then–and me to meet him at a deli in Brookline. He told us he was gay. Our reaction was…so what? He was such a brilliant, hilarious, enormously ramshackle character than his sexual preferences seemed a very small part of the Barney Frank portfolio. There was an awkward silence. We didn’t know what to say. We knew this was a big deal to him–a real act of courage–and perhaps fatal to his hoped-for political career, but it wasn’t a big deal to us. (He was, I think, a state rep from Beacon Hill at the time–his campaign posters showed him in shambles, with chaotic greasy hair and his then-prodigious belly hanging out, next to a desk piled with all sorts of reports and assorted crap and the words, “Neatness isn’t Everything.”)

Today, Barney has said he’s ending his Congressional career, which seems impossible to believe. I’ve not always agreed with Barney on the issues–and now, in retrospect, it seems that he made at least one significant mistake: his support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was overzealous, and probably contributed to the great housing collapse. But he has been a great public servant, a man of intelligence and irony and persistence in the service of his principles.

I don’t know what he’ll do next. But I do suspect that when he reads this, he’ll find something wrong with it and yell at me. I love politicians who are willing to do that, to show you who they really are. Of course, Barney couldn’t have hidden his true self if he tried–and that was a valuable lesson for me to learn, early on. In the end, his attempts to closet himself were irrelevant–as with all my gay friends, he was, and is, so much more than the sum of his sexual preferences.

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