Former congressman talks LGBT issues, party politics


Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Former Congressman Barney Frank speaks about his political career at College Democrats’ fall speaker event in Cahn Auditorium on Tuesday evening. Frank was the first openly gay member of the U.S. Congress.

Jeanne Kuang, Assistant Campus Editor

More than 250 people from Northwestern and the surrounding community showed up to hear former U.S. Representative Barney Frank speak about his personal background, experiences in Congress and political viewpoints Tuesday night in Cahn Auditorium.

Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, came to campus as College Democrats’ fall speaker. Answering questions posed by political science and Medill Prof. Larry Stuelpnagel, the politician punctuated his talk with jokes about government figures and current events, which the audience welcomed with laughter and applause.

Frank discussed what he called the two barriers to his becoming a politician during his early life: being Jewish and being gay. Though he is known for being the first openly gay member of Congress, he said he initially wanted to hide his identity.

“I decided that I would simply never tell anybody (about being gay),” Frank said. “Anti-Semitism in America was still alive and well in the immediate post-war period. … The problem on the other hand was it was too late to hide being Jewish, because I had come out with a bar mitzvah.”

Frank said a shift in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues in Congress arrived when more of the population came out as gay and “reality won.” He added that homophobia is becoming a “dying prejudice” in the U.S.

When asked about the current state of American politics, Frank commented on the recent rise of the tea party movement, which he said doesn’t “accept the legitimacy of the public sector.”

“The most important question in American politics today is, ‘Do the mainstream conservatives … can they take back the Republican Party from the tea party extremists?’” he said. “One of my constituents when I was running said to me, ‘Why can’t you work out things with the Republicans?’ My answer was, ‘You try to make a deal with Michele Bachmann.’”

He cited deep divisions between political parties as reason for the government shutdown earlier this month.

Frank also spoke about the effects of the Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 financial reform law he co-authored, and advised students interested in pursuing politics to find fallbacks for the unpredictable career.

During a question-and-answer session following the talk, Frank defended the need for universal health care provided by the Affordable Care Act but criticized the Obama administration for how it has handled recent problems with the new health care marketplace. He also addressed an audience member’s question about LGBT rights legislation with skepticism.

“The absolute precondition for any legislative progress in LGBT rights for the foreseeable future will be having a Democratic president, House and Senate,” he said.

Audience members reacted positively to the talk.

“I thought he was fantastic, hilarious, super on-point with everything he was saying,” SESP senior Sharon Reshef said. “I think he has a lot of practical ideas that seem idealistic but would ultimately help the country.”

College Democrats president Lauren Izaak said she was happy with Frank’s engagement with the audience and the diverse range of topics covered.

“The event itself was a great combination of levity and information,” the Weinberg senior said. “It was more than just a stale lecture. … I feel like there was a good array of questions.”

Izaak also noted the high turnout of both students and local residents.

“We tried really hard this year to incorporate the community as well into our programming,” she said, adding that College Democrats increased its fall speaker advertising this year to encourage higher attendance from people outside NU.

Frank served in the House from 1981 to 2013. He was the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from January 2007 to January 2011.

The event was co-hosted by NU Hillel, Northwestern Law School Democrats, Rainbow Alliance and NU Political Union.

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