Rebecca Juro

Rethinking Barney Frank

Filed By Rebecca Juro | May 25, 2009 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Barney Frank, Congress, ENDA, HRC, politics, transgender

As any LGBT who follows American politics knows, with the Democrats running things in Congress and Obama in the White House it's supposedly a new day in America for LGBT people and rights. At the same time, however, we also know that a lot of the Democrats in Washington are the very same people who've been there for years, even decades. When you're talking about politics, though, you know that in the end it's not as much about which individuals happen to be in which seats in Congress as it is about how they are likely to behave, and especially vote, in a given political situation. Such is the case, I believe, with Congressman Barney Frank.

I've never met or interviewed Barney Frank. In fact, the closest I've ever come is when we literally nearly ran into each other at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in Brooklyn a few years ago. For all of the public complaining and attacking Frank's politics I'd been doing at the time, when I suddenly and unexpectedly came around a corner rushing toward a seminar and found myself face-to-face with the man, I couldn't think of anything coherent to say to him until hours later. Looking back, perhaps it's just as well.

Over the years, Congressman Frank hasn't helped his own case much. His gruff manner and his willingness to take what many, including myself, saw as the easy way out, seeking to gain rights exclusively for wealthier and more politically potent gays and lesbians and his willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to achieve that goal by sacrificing those very same rights for transgender people to help entice the votes of skittish Democrats in Congress, not only left me with a bad taste in my mouth just in general, but also sent the message that when push comes to shove, Frank believed that some animals are indeed more equal than others.

And then came 2007. Frank wrote and introduced the very first-ever transgender-inclusive version of ENDA that summer, but by late September and into early October of that year, trying to follow where Frank, the Human Rights Campaign, and other left-wing political players actually were on the issue of protecting transgender Americans from discrimination could give you whiplash. One minute Frank introduces the furthest-reaching federal anti-discrimination bill protecting transgender people in the history of American federal politics, the next he's on the floor of the House asking members to vote against that very same bill, telling his colleagues that transgender people who believe they should be protected against discrimination in the workplace like other Americans are living in Oz and belittling the ideal of equality for transgender Americans by making jokes about his weight. While his oratory may have seemed entertaining to some of his Congressional colleagues, to the average transgender person, probably unemployed and almost certainly facing at least some sort of discrimination as part of their daily life, Frank's wit and sense of humor probably did not play well at all.

It's not at all surprising that over time transpeople have come to see Barney Frank as every bit as much a villain in the ENDA saga as the Human Rights Campaign which quickly and enthusiastically supported his every move, right up to and including his stripping of transgender protections from the bill. For over a year afterward, transgender people and our allies have worked doggedly to promote inclusion in ENDA, lobbying Congress, making our views known in the media, protesting the Human RIghts Campaign at their dinners and other events. Finally last summer, in the heat of the Presidential campaign, Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama was repeatedly expressing his support for the inclusion of protections for gender identity and expression in ENDA. The tide began to turn yet again, and Barney Frank was among the very first seeking to capitalize on it.

At the Congressional hearing on transgender rights and equality he was instrumental in organizing, Frank was just about everything we could have hoped for. He was sharp, he was funny, he was devastatingly on-point, every bit the committed advocate we've always needed him to be. The rest of the Democrats in attendance were equally supportive, particularly Committee Chairman Rob Andrews, who deftly eviscerated Alliance Defense Fund Senior Council Glen Lavy's religion-based arguments against ensuring equal rights and treatment for transgender people. Most of all, what that hearing showed everyone, laymen and polititican alike, was that the rights of transgender people have significant and increasing support in Congress.

As angry as many of us are or have been with Barney Frank in the past, it's in these last several months since the prospect of an Obama and Democratic Party landslide became the popular expectation rather than simply a hope, that Barney Frank apparently decided that the time was right to begin in earnest the process of formally introducing transpeople to Congress as a valid minority constituency as well as one in need of legal protection from discrimination. He arranged the hearing, he spoke at the hearing, he's made positive statements in the media, he co-founded the LGBT Congressional Caucus, he's put a transgender person in a high-profile position on his staff. He's done pretty much everything you'd hope someone in his position would do to make sure that when anti-discrimination legislation is debated on and (hopefully) passed in this Congress it will be transgender-inclusive.

Anyone who reviews the history with a objective, critical eye comes to understand something about Barney Frank. We may not always like what he does. We may see him as someone who tweaks his public positions on certain issues to suit the politics of the moment a little too often for our tastes. But Barney Frank has proven remarkably consistent in at least one thing: He goes for as much as he thinks he can get.

If Barney Frank honestly didn't think transgender inclusion was viable, I doubt he'd be lobbying for it now. With yet another set of Lobby Days approaching, Congress will hear from transpeople again at just the right time, just before it's time to start voting on our rights again. When you step out and take a look at the bigger picture, the way all of these events have unfolded so neatly in concert with Democratic political successes, you wonder if perhaps this wasn't Frank's ultimate plan all along.

Considering that no one really expected any significant progress on LGBT rights to be made as long as Bush and his veto pen remained in office, it makes sense to believe that the strategy to get hate crimes and ENDA passed centered around getting them actually passed into law this year, in this Congress, with this President.

Barney Frank is a consummate politician. It's important to remember that this is not a bad thing. It means he knows how to get things done in Congress. It doesn't mean he was right to dump transpeople out of ENDA in '07, but it may mean that doing so was part of a strategy on his part which may well lead to our inclusion when these bills finally do become law.

I know, I know, after everything we've seen it's hard to consider giving Barney Frank the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it involves tacit approval of the '07 ENDA strategy. Yet, maybe it's the right thing to do. And before anyone gets on their high horse, let's also remember this: It was the anger of the trans community and the response to the stripping of the bill which got the trans community out and active at a level we've never seen before. Think about it: If you wanted to inspire more transpeople to be out, proud and politically active, how would you go about it? How about if you were a member of Congress who wanted to ask your colleagues to support transgender rights but didn't want to have to ask them to risk anything else in order to do so?

And then of course there's that other question: If this truly was Frank's plan, was HRC and their support for the non-inclusive bill part of that plan?

Yeah I know. It's enough to make your head explode. I have no way of knowing if I'm completely right, but I do believe I can't be completely wrong either. By the time the 2009 Christmas recess rolls around, I expect we'll all know the answer.


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After spending 3 days on the Hill a couple weeks ago, I am loath to make predictions. Several offices told me or others that "we don't want to let what happened last time, happen again." Frank holds a whip on this issue in the House, to be certain. However, Frank has changed direction before, will do so again if he sees the need to do so, and several of the same offices who forced the change of direction in 2007 are still shaky. I would strongly recommend that people still make a point of speaking, writing, and communicating with their Senators and Congressmen on the dire need for an inclusive ENDA.

Criticism of Frank was justified in 2007, but Frank did say one thing correctly at the time: he asked why the T community didn't make itself heard before being cut out. Yes, IFGE, NCTE and NTAC send lobbyists to the Hill regularly, but that's not good enough - we have to have everyone writing and speaking. it is not necessary to go to DC to speak up! Do it now, if you want an inclusive ENDA. Your Congressman or Senators may be the votes that pass it. You cannot depend on HRC or other GLBT organizations to do all the work for you.

I think you're right. He's an ally, but he's sharp enough to know what he can get and when he can get it.

Kathy Padilla | May 25, 2009 5:39 PM

I think we can feel some optimism about Rep. Frank's actions and statements lately as regards an inclusive bill and his acknowledment of the scope and effectiveness trans civil rights leaders efforts on the Hill. Though it should be noted that the response to folks being dropped from enda aside; the efforts of trans people aren't much different than they were in other years. Their being considered sufficient today may have more to do with the change in Dem leadership and some generational change than anything else.

But:
"Think about it: If you wanted to inspire more transpeople to be out, proud and politically active, how would you go about it?"

defies not only Occam's razor, but his electric toothbrush and the three joke rule.

I doubt very much we'll hear Rep. Frank voicing this assertion. He doesn't tend to steal Joe S's losing tactics.

I don't expect Barney Frank would ever admit to it if it were true. Doing so would defeat the entire purpose. And yet, here we are. Would we have gotten here if we hadn't been spurred to lobby and demonstrate by the actions of Congress and HRC? Personally I doubt it.

I remember how relatively few showed up for Lobby Days 2004. I also know know that several times that number showed up for this year's event. And I also know that the need hasn't changed, it's the level of transpeople's anger and motivation that's increased substantially.

And as far as Occam's razor goes, I'm not sure it applies here. This is politics after all, and federal politics to boot. What makes sense for most of us in the rest of the world doesn't necessarily apply to or factor in for those who work inside the Beltway.

Kathy Padilla | May 25, 2009 11:36 PM

"I don't expect Barney Frank would ever admit to it if it were true. Doing so would defeat the entire purpose. And yet, here we are."

It's an excellent argument for John Aravosis, Peter Labarbera & Pope Bebedict having planned their oppositions to the inclusive bill as part of an intricate scheme to empower trans people and move towards passing a an inclusive bill. Though with PL & PB, they took it a step further and oppossed both the inclusive and noninclusive bills to empower trans & gay folks to pass the inclusive bill.

You might balk at those suggestions. But yet, here we are. In a world of post hoc ergo propter hoc & correlation ! causation...... are wrong.

Frank needs something to take the heat off from his participation in the Freddie Mac/Fannie May debacle.

I do think I do not want the same kind of focus on safety and soundness that we have in OCC [Office of the Comptroller of the Currency] and OTS [Office of Thrift Supervision]. I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation towards subsidized housing.
And they came up snake-eyes.

You must remember than GLBT issues are small potatoes to him - he's been more involved in Finances and Banking. It's all misdirection and bafflegab to redirect public attention away from that. That's not to say it's useful.

I'd wait till we see what kind of schlemozzle we get with the Matthew Sheperd Act first. See what compromises will be made in the Senate.

I don't trust Braney Frank as far as I can throw him with one hand uphill against a strong wind. But then, that applies to most politicians on both sides of politics. The rest are probably just better at fooling me, is all.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 25, 2009 11:49 PM

Zoe, I know it was a typo, but it made me laugh. If only all congress members and senators were "braney" we might undo many problems in the full colon of American Political Hypocrisy. :)

Should we cease sending teabags and begin sending bran cereal? Along with the message: "Get it out of your system and vote for fully inclusive rights for all. Imagine how good you will feel!"

Should our GLBT lobbyists begin a bran muffin handout? I must stop or I shall begin to sound like an apologist for Larry Craig.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | May 25, 2009 11:35 PM

I believe that Frank, like many politicians of both parties, agree with fully inclusive rights privately, and have for years. Politicians wait until public opinion and organizational efforts make change inevitable, and above all safe for them.

A parallel example would be Congress recent cowardly and fumbled vote on Gitmo. Closing this prison was a galvanizing voter issue, and an election promise, but it still did not matter to Congress. They remain cowed by the fear of what "folks back home" might think even when those same folks voted for it.

No one wants to take responsibility.

Why do people confuse politicains with saints? It's beyond my comprehension. Politicains always go for as much as they can get. And unlike self involved critics, they have a pretty good idea of which way the winds are blowing at any moment. Those freindly to our movement do the best they can for us. Often it's not much because we are so few, and because our strategy is nonexistent. For instance, who decided that our number one concern in the Universe is marraige, also known as bouquet tossing?
But let's not look at our own weaknesses. Blaming the politician is always easier.

beachcomberT | May 26, 2009 7:40 AM

I worked as a reporter in the Massachusetts Statehouse for several years, long before Barney got to Congress. On Beacon Hill, he was known as a progressive who actually got things done, rather than just pushing for bills that everyone knew were doomed. He was pushing for gay equality before he was publicly out. Sure, one can get angry over his incrementalist approach and his willingness to cut deals with venal politicians. But I don't think there's much room for purity in American politics. Right now, he's more likely to challenge banks and Wall Street than any of the Obama insiders. His hands may not be clean on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but I don't think he knowingly ever championed predatory lending. Love him or hate him, he's the most influential gay official we have right now.

Isa Kocher | May 26, 2009 8:28 AM

we aren't tied to the past. unless we don't learn from it. go forward. doesn't matter how the shit got into the room. what matters is getting the shit cleaned up.

I disagree Kat. I haven't blinked, I've just opened my eyes to the possibility that there may be more going on here than has yet to meet the public eye. If, after all, Barney was truly as anti-trans as some make him out to be (and as the evidence has tended to indicate in the past), why would he be doing all he's been doing to promote trans rights these last several months? Why wouldn't he just continue to promote the non-inclusive version?

That, more than anything else, leads me to believe that there's an overall strategy at work here. Politically speaking, it would likely be far easier for Frank to stick with and assure support for the non-inclusive bill. He's not doing that though, he's going for the whole enchilada.

I just think that in the case of Barney Frank, as in the case of many politicians, as in the case of human beings in general, what we see publicly is just the surface, what we're allowed to see, but there's a lot more going in the background that we are not privy to.

Sharon Van Nest | May 31, 2009 5:16 PM

Barney is a politician. The art of politics is based upon how well one can lie and how fast too. Barney is consumate on this aspect. Why would he be doing this now? Simple answer really. Look at all that has happened since Oct 07. He has never taken so much shrapnel from within the LGBT community as he has since his tranphobia surfaced then. Yes, he does have on transman on his staff. A token transman! That is the idea there. Try to use him to make Barney look saintly while we all know he will drop us quickly if he can get away with it. I do not trust him or the HRCowards. Neither of them deserve much praise for their track record. Should we then allow ourselves to be like Charlie Brown and have Lucy pull a football away from us at the last second? He will do it again.

And before anyone gets on their high horse, let's also remember this: It was the anger of the trans community and the response to the stripping of the bill which got the trans community out and active at a level we've never seen before. Think about it: If you wanted to inspire more transpeople to be out, proud and politically active, how would you go about it? How about if you were a member of Congress who wanted to ask your colleagues to support transgender rights but didn't want to have to ask them to risk anything else in order to do so?

Hey now - that was my argument back then! :)

Seriously though - I think this was part of "the plan," but not all of it. Political expediency and incrementalism also played a large part.

I dont trust Barney or Tammy after what they pulled on us last time.So we shall see what happens and if Barney can get a Gay rights bill passed minus us you better believe he will push for one!

Perhaps. I think that we need more L, G, B, and T representation just so that Frank and Baldwin and now Polis don't have to carry those issues themselves. Because we know how that ends up....