Barney Frank: 'The NRA Is the Model' for Gay Marriage

Gay donors are a powerful force in the Democratic Party. Have the financial incentives to support gay rights made a difference, or would minds have changed anyway?

People tend to exaggerate the importance of money versus votes. Yes, gay money is helpful, but the voting population did more—votes for candidates. After I came out, I started getting asked to go campaign for others. At first it was just New York and California, but by the 1990s, it was Iowa, Colorado, and all over the country.

Gay-rights advocates have made so much progress so quickly. Do you worry at all about a backlash like we saw in the last decade?

What backlash?

All those state constitutional amendments came after Goodridge, the 2003 Massa­chusetts Supreme Court ruling that recognized gay marriage.

That's right, there were some retardants to progress. But in no case was any existing right taken back. After the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, there are now no existing antigay laws for the first time in American history. We have only one major hurdle left—the employment-discrimination bill, which I believe will pass next time there's a Democratic president, House, and Senate.

What's the better way to advance the cause: for public acculturation to produce more gay and gay-friendly elected officeholders, or for lawsuits that force judges to enumerate rights?

[Pauses.] Yes.

Yes? Both? All of the above?

Both. They reinforce each other. In virtually every state, if you win a lawsuit and don't have public opin­ion behind you, they'll take your victory away [in the legislature].

Were you nervous when you heard about David Boies and Theodore Olson's Supreme Court case against Prop 8?

Yes, I thought it was a big mistake to push that. I was a great supporter of the equal-protection attack on DOMA. I thought the Boies/Olson lawsuit wasn't going to win, but I feel vindicated by [the line of argument they used]. With Oklahoma and now Utah, things are moving very quickly, and in a few years I'll be less worried about lawsuits.

Which do you think we'll see first: the first gay speaker, the first gay president, or the first gay Supreme Court justice?

I think a gay president is pretty far down the line. We're about to get our first openly gay governor, with Mike Michaud in Maine. Speaker is going to be hard because, while the members themselves are totally unprejudiced, there are still parts of the country where a Democratic member of the House would become politically vulnerable for voting for a gay speaker. Of the three choices you gave me, probably the first you'll see is a gay Supreme Court justice, particularly now with the 50-plus confirmation [in the Senate].

That House dynamic applies in the Senate, too.

Oh, yes.

Did you keep your home on Capitol Hill?

No. When I come back to Washington, as a constituent service, Chellie Pingree, who is a congresswoman from an area where Jim and I live in Maine, lets us stay at her town house.

Now that's retail politics! What do you think young people don't understand about the fight you came through? What would you want to tell them?

That politics works. Marches and demonstrations were useful to a point in the 1970s when people didn't know we were here, but they aren't effective as a political tool. The NRA is the model—disciplined political activity. Making sure that anybody you vote for knows what you think, and voting against them if they don't do it. In October 2010, someone organized a march to put pressure on Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." I told them the only thing they were putting pressure on was the grass on the Mall.

But presumably there were points in movement history when the outside track was more successful than the inside track.

No, never.

What about AIDS drug trials?

Yes, okay. Good point. But it wasn't political. Drug companies could be pressured; politicians can't. If you're a politician and you have 62 percent approval rating, you're ecstatic. If you're a company with a 38 percent disapproval rating, you're frantic. Going after the Burroughs Wellcome Fund [a research foundation] was helpful; going after Jesse Helms just let him get more money. In that way, demonstrations diverted attention. When people go to a demonstration, they think they've done something. But they've only vented. It's much better to write letters and go see their members. When's the last time you read about an NRA march? Pound for pound, that's the most effective political organization in the country.

What do you think of a "Gay Washington" issue of National Journal?

It's a matter of fact. In 1988, Herb Moses and I were living together. We went to the White House Christmas party. Everybody was dancing, and we wanted to dance, so we kind of secretly danced.

You secretly danced? What is that?

Well, we waited until the floor was pretty crowded.

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Adam B. Kushner is deputy editor of National Journal magazine.

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