How to Achieve Equality? Talk to Your Members of Congress!

Congressman Barney Frank represented Massachusetts’ 4th district in the U.S. House of Representatives for thirty-six consecutive years (1981-2013) and chaired the House Financial Services Committee from 2007-2011. Known as a fierce defender of civil rights and an advocate for financial reform, Frank was often picked as the “brainiest,” “funniest,” and “most eloquent” member of the House in polls of Capitol Hill staffers. In 1987 Frank became the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay, and in 2012 he married his longtime partner James Ready. Not long after retiring from Congress in 2013, he made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, during which the host observed that while Frank surely felt more liberated since leaving office, Frank wasn’t “one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you.” The ever-quick Frank pointed between himself and Maher and asked, “Which pot-smoking atheist are you talking about?”

Introducing Barney Frank as the 2014 Humanist of the Year, longtime friend and humanist supporter Woody Kaplan showed a video of that appearance, along with a clip of an impassioned speech Frank gave on the House floor, in which he beseeched his fellow lawmakers to pass legislation to help end discrimination based on sexual orientation. The following is adapted from Congressman Frank’s speech in accepting the Humanist of the Year award at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 6, 2014.

ONE OF THE THINGS I always mention before audiences concerning discrimination is how pleased I am, that in the face of all of the efforts to turn one group against the other, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have compiled the best record in support of LGBT rights of any demographic group in Congress. The CBC has an even better record on these issues than the gay members. Not better than the openly gay members, I don’t want to overstate this. But, they have been very supportive.

The members of the CBC were running into some flak from ministers in their districts who wanted to continue to denounce homosexuality from the pulpit and had been misled into believing that a hate crimes amendment would expose them to criminal liability. We pointed out that hate crimes have nothing to do with speech. They only add a penalty to an act of physical violence or property destruction that is already criminal. And I said, “I guess the best way to put it is—if this bill becomes law tomorrow it will still be legal to call me a fag. I just wouldn’t recommend it if you’re in the banking business.” And that was the kind of energy we tried to bring.

When I retired there was a natural assumption by some that I was driven away by the anger and the bitterness and the level of debate in politics. And I thought this was kind of odd. I’d been doing this for forty years and I was seventy-two years old—why was it surprising that I wanted to retire?

But people said, “You were driven out by all that rancor weren’t you?” The truth is I’m very good at rancor. It’s also fun, by the way. Indeed, it’s much easier to tell some right-wingers how stupid they are than to negotiate with a whole bunch of people to put together a constructive and complicated package in which compromise is inevitable. Rancor is what you do when you have decided that there is no ability to change the situation. That’s what you do when you’re debating the invincibly ignorant.

2014 Humanist of the Year Barney Frank (left) with longtime humanist supporter and friend Woody Kaplan (right).

2014 Humanist of the Year Barney Frank (left) with longtime humanist supporter and friend Woody Kaplan (right).

But that’s not what we have to do to complete the job, which is already well underway, of making America totally equal for people who do not profess any religion, who are not theists, and who don’t believe that there is some power beyond human beings that we have to make nice to. And part of how we’ll do it is by not dwelling on the negative.

I was semi-joking when I told Bill Maher that I’m a pot-smoking atheist. I wouldn’t really describe myself as an atheist. Atheism expresses more certainty than I have. My actual attitude is that if it’s absolutely unknowable, don’t bother me with it. So the question is, how do nonbelievers achieve equality? Well, it depends on how you frame it.

I just wrote a memoir. One of the things I recounted in it was a very important situation in the United States that we should talk more about and let people draw the implications of. It’s the Terri Schiavo

case. I was sitting in my apartment in Newton, Massachusetts, in 2005 (I think it was Easter, which I suppose was appropriate for people who thought Congress could bring her back from the dead), when we got a summons to Washington. We were to vote on a bill by which Congress would override the decisions of every level of court in Florida and basically compel the hospital to ignore the wishes of Schiavo’s husband to allow her to die, which, he said, without contradiction, had been her wish. Not to euthanize, but just to remove the feeding tube. I should add that Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), a very eminent heart surgeon who was then trying to get the Republican nomination for president, said that he had been watching Terri Shiavo on television and he could tell that she was making eye contact, a rather bizarre diagnosis. It turned out that she had long since lost any brain function. Her eyes were not connected to anything; there was nothing going on there.

But here’s what happened after we were summoned to Washington. The Senate had voted on the bill earlier, and it passed unanimously. We took the bill up in the House and some of us fought it. Under the procedure that requires a two-thirds vote, it got 300-something yesses to sixty noes. A lot of members ducked the vote. By the way, it was one of the best debates in recent times for one very simple reason: it happened on a Sunday. Members were summoned to Washington and nobody had time to get their staffers to write a speech. So the members actually had to get up and talk to each other.

Of course, the argument was essentially a religious one: How dare human beings interpose between this woman and God? God will decide when she is taken. I later debated that on television with one advocate who said that even if it was clear that Schiavo wanted to be allowed to die, that was wrong. The man who made that argument so vigorously was Pat Boone. (Somebody said, “That was kinda weird, you were debating Pat Boone,” and someone else said, “Yeah, well it was better than listening to the two of them sing.”) We had the perception in Congress that the theistic side was overwhelmingly popular. Three Republicans voted no out of a couple hundred, and half the Democrats voted for the bill. A number of them came up to me on the floor (I was the floor manager) and said, “You’re right but I’m afraid of this.” I figured I was on the wrong side politically, but I wasn’t worried about it in my district.

We went home that night thinking the American public was going to be very critical of those of us who voted to allow Schiavo’s husband to order the hospital to remove the feeding tube from this brain-dead, inert life form. To the contrary, the country exploded in rage at those who had voted for the bill. There have been two times in my life when I was thanked walking on the streets by strangers for something I had done in Congress. (The only previous time was when I helped forestall the impeachment of Bill Clinton.) I had people stop me and say, “Let me understand this. Those jerks are going to tell me what I should do if my mother gets sick? They’re going to tell my kids how to respond to me?” There was an explosion of anger on the part of the American people. It ended Bill Frist’s presidential campaign.

Now, I cite that case because it suggests our job is easier than you might think: it’s to connect the dots. It’s not to change attitudes, it’s to connect them. That notion, that there was a religious obligation to intervene in human affairs, angered most of the American people. You’ve got to show people what the implications are of the view that religion should govern our public affairs, as opposed to being merely a personal guide. The public is on our side on this, increasingly.

Now the question is: how best to do this? In the first place, as I said, rancor can be fun, but forgo it. I understand you get nasty emails. But you know what? I never heard of an email that read itself to you. Just ignore them! Delete them! Pay them no attention. The only thing that made me regret retiring was that the biggest jerks would be happy. Remember Franklin Roosevelt on the economic royalists? “They hate me, and I welcome their hate.” That may not sound nice, but that’s an appropriate response to that fringe.

But with the others, let me put it this way: you have a scale, one-two-three-four-five. The one is with you. The five is against you. The two is leaning your way, the four is leaning the other way, and the three is in the middle. When we get together, priority goes to the threes and twos. If you have any time left over you go for the fours. You ignore the fives. If you are campaigning and you’re going door to door and someone says you’re terrible, you say goodnight. Focus on the people who are open to persuasion and don’t insult them. Don’t insult their religion. It’s just counterproductive.

I have a rule for people that I developed out of the LGBT political movement, but it applies to other movements as well. If you have a political cause that is very important to you, and you are asked to join in an activity that is great fun and makes you feel wholly engaged and warm, and you are in solidarity with those who agree with you, you are almost certainly not helping. You are engaged in a kind of massive reinforcement. I’m not criticizing preaching to the converted, by the way. I’m preaching, I hope, to the converted who believe in promoting the argument that whether or not someone is a theist is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant to whether they are someone who can be trusted, whether they should be hired or voted for. I think we are arguing for the irrelevance of people’s own personal religious views and doing that in a way that is respectful of religious views. I think if we do it that way we win. Implicitly, the American people rejected the theistic approach and embraced the humanist approach in the Terri Schiavo case, and in every other case. You know, everybody tells people “Sign a healthcare proxy! Sign what you want to do!” You don’t hear them say, “Do what God would want you to do in this case.” Right?

Let’s remember that part of humanism is respecting and being nice to people. So as you meet individuals, given the atmosphere in which they’ve grown up, given what they’ve been subjected to, don’t hold it against them; it’s not their fault they’re religious. I’m serious. Find the common ground that I think exists, build on that, and we’ll get somewhere.



Q: I’m a lesbian woman and I’m also transgender. In this country, I have no civil rights. I have a one in eight chance of being killed. If I defend myself against assault, I’ll probably be the one who goes to jail. I have a one in two chance of being raped and the courts most likely will tell me that I dressed too provocatively. My child was taken away from me for the crime of being trans in the United States of America. Trans was left out of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and I’d like to know why.

Barney Frank: First, with regard to violence—from the very beginning of the consideration of a hate crimes bill in Congress, we were explicitly trans-inclusive. I believe I’m the first person to have talked on the House floor about the need to protect people who are transgender and noted that they especially were victims of violence. By the early part of 2000 when we got serious about passing ENDA, we did include trans people in the legislation. The problem was, from 1995 until 2007 the Republicans controlled the House; they wouldn’t bring it up and the majority has total control.

So in 2007 we brought our version that included trans people. As we lobbied for the bill we found that we did not have the votes to pass the inclusive bill. I thought at that time we should do what a lot of other states had done and pass the bill with as much as we could get and then come back and do the rest. That’s what happened in New York. In 2000, New York passed a bill to ban discrimination in employment for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. They didn’t have the votes for the transgender piece. A few years later they were able to go back and add transgender. Similarly, Massachusetts passed a bill in 1989 and only a couple of years ago was able to add transgender.

I filed the first gay rights bill in Massachusetts in 1972. I was still closeted, but I decided I had to file the bill as a moral obligation. I encountered people who would say, “Ew! That makes me feel icky.” Thirty years of people being out altered that. The trans community did not become as public and as out with the support of others until more recently. By 2007 we had not yet sufficiently dispelled that prejudice. So we had a choice: no bill at all or a bill that excludes trans people at first but that we could build on. At that point there was protection for LGB people in Massachusetts, in Maryland, and in New York but none of them included trans people. Frankly, in America today if you can’t get something done in Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York, then it doesn’t become easier when you throw in Florida, Nebraska, and Texas.

Now the transgender community, with a lot of allies, has largely achieved the status that lesbian and gay people were able to achieve starting post-Stonewall. I am convinced that the next time you have a Democratic House, Senate, and president (I wish it weren’t partisan), ENDA will pass and it will be fully trans-inclusive.

I have been a consistent advocate of the hate crimes bill, and in 2009, when we had for the first and unfortunately the only time in recent years, a Democratic House, Senate, and president, we passed a trans-inclusive hate crimes bill dealing with violence. We then had a choice: were we going to do ENDA or LGBT in the military. We did the military. That was seen as more doable. I will also say that I am very proud to have hired in 2009 the first transgender employee in the history of the Congress. I wish it hadn’t taken that long, but his name was Diego Sanchez and he’s now the political director for PFLAG [Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays].

Q: I just became a community organizer. What advice can you offer to really make change at a grassroots level?

Barney Frank: Join community organizations. Get to know people and approach them on a non-confrontational basis. Seek out points of agreement and work from there to connect the dots. Find out where you agree with them—very likely they might not see how that would lead to this or that political position. Encourage them to do that. Then set up your own group and advertise. Invite people to a meeting. Form a group of people who already agree and then say, “Everybody bring someone who is open to talking to us but not with us to the next meeting.” Build from there, and do it by showing people the consequences.

Q: I’m from the great state of Florida that refuses to pass an ERA bill and refuses to pass a gun law. In fact, I’m allowed to carry a gun if I want to but I don’t. I guess my question is, because I’m a humanist, I believe in humans and I don’t like to see them shot and killed. Can you tell me what Congress is doing to pass a decent gun law and what we as humanists can do to help pass a decent gun law?

Barney Frank: Have you written to or called your U.S. representative and senators to say, “Vote for a gun law”? I guarantee you that all three of them have heard from many of the people who live in their constituencies who don’t want gun laws. What you can do and what all of us can do is mobilize and tell people. What is unfortunately the case is that the people who are opposed to any gun laws, although they are in the minority overall, have outworked others and spoken to their members of Congress and lobbied.

I spoke at Yale the other day at the business school and I’m sad to say half of them had no idea who their representative was. That’s the problem. They hear overwhelmingly from people who are for no gun restrictions whatsoever and they don’t hear from people who are in favor.

Q: I’m with the Secular Student Alliance. We advocate on behalf of millions of students who don’t believe in a higher power and are often told that they’re evil people who have no moral compass. I believe but cannot prove that there are many members of Congress who also don’t believe in a higher power and I feel like those young people could really benefit from knowing this. So, I was wondering if you had any suggestions for how to help them come out.

Barney Frank: Let them know that they will be politically supported. I obviously did not speak publicly about my lack of belief but I wasn’t pretending anything. I’m Jewish, and Judaism is obviously a religion as well as an ethnicity. I was the only Jewish member of Congress from Massachusetts since 1884, and he left after he married a non-Jew. I did not want to do anything that would give anybody a reason to argue that I was somehow diminishing my affiliation with Judaism. Even today, though I am a nonbeliever, I will not be seen in public on the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because I don’t want in any way to put pressure on my fellow Jews who won’t do things on those days.

I think if you educate members of Congress to the unfair treatment nonbelievers receive, that would help. I spent a lot of my energy voting to protect secularism from the imperialism of religion in a variety of ways. The single most important one frankly involved the Clinton and Obama administrations. It’s the notion that you give public money to faith-based organizations that are doing social services and allow them to discriminate in hiring. There was a coalition of us: Congressman Bobby Scott from Virginia, myself,  and a great secularist who paid the price for it because he represented Texas. His name was Chet Edwards, and we worked hard against it. So that may be a way to begin: go and start lobbying them.

Again, there is a common theme here: members of Congress are available to be talked to, to be written to. One of the great mistakes a lot of my friends on the left make is this self-fulfilling prophecy, “Oh they don’t listen to us, they only care about big money.” Well, that’s not as true yet as it will be if people keep saying this. Go to members of Congress and say, “You realize that they want to say I can’t be hired. It hurts gay people, it hurts others.” You begin by educating them that there is indeed an amount of harm being inflicted on people and some of them will respond.

Washington insiders often called Rep. Barney Frank (pictured here on the House floor, March 7, 2012) the “star of C-SPAN.” (Screen Shot from C-Span Clip In the Public Domain)

Washington insiders often called Rep. Barney Frank (pictured here on the House floor, March 7, 2012) the “star of C-SPAN.” (Screen Shot from C-Span Clip in the Public Domain)

Q: I was wondering what your thoughts are on the influence that religious organizations have on U.S. healthcare policy, in particular women’s family planning and stem cell research.

Barney Frank: Well it’s obviously very negative. It’s actually particularly bad at the state level where you have so many states passing outrageous laws restricting the rights of women that are more tolerated than they should be by the right-wing Supreme Court majority. At the national level it has to do with whether or not people will be offered birth control in their place of employment. Once again, members of Congress need to hear when people don’t like that. And on this one I think we are clearly in the majority and we need to just be very aggressive and say, “No, you need to vote against it.” By the way, we say religion but let’s be explicit—people think of the Catholic Church, but in many places where the worst anti-abortion restrictions are being put in place the pressure is from evangelical Protestant churches. Catholics don’t run many of the Southern states.

Q: My Congressman, Mike McIntyre from the 7th Congressional District in North Carolina, writes newsletters that are saturated in his Christian ideology instead of talking about the business of the people, and many of us are sick to death of our legislators inserting their religious beliefs into legislation and laws. I’m wondering what we can do to tell them that’s not what we want.

Barney Frank: Let me give you the calculus when you’re trying to influence members of Congress, to the extent that you are trying to persuade a member of Congress based on the electoral consequences. You know, you make the case on its merits, that’s one thing. But to the extent that you are trying to make the electoral point, you are trying to persuade her or him that the way he or she votes on this issue will affect the way you vote in the next election. That’s a function of how much energy you put into the communication because that shows how much you care.

Signing an online petition is like scratching your nose. Nobody in Congress is impressed because you pushed a button on an online petition. What matters is individual communication: a regular letter, an email, a phone call. And then at some point, gather up twenty or thirty of your friends and neighbors and say, “I want to meet you.” You don’t even have to go to Washington. Members of Congress spend a lot of time in their districts. First of all, tell them what you think. Secondly, if they don’t do what you think is appropriate then vote against them or run candidates against them. Even if you can’t beat them, everybody hates to have opposition. Politicians will say, “Oh, I love campaigning.” Anybody who loves campaigning is either a liar or a psychopath. It’s an awful, awful business. Nobody wants to have to do that.

So those are your two choices: Tell them what you think, and if they don’t agree with what you think then support their opposition. It’s very simple—democracy works better than people think if they try to make it work.