In “Compared To What: The Improbable Journey Of Barney Frank,” there is much about the cost of being a closeted gay man in the world.
“People wanted to be near him,” a friend says of his days in the Massachusetts house. “They would gather at his table and want to argue with him, and he would knock them down with grace and wit, in a way that made them laugh and come back.
“What I didn’t know,” he continues, “was that no matter how popular Barney was, how profoundly lonely he was.”
Mr. Frank, who knew he was gay at 13, talks about the human need for connection, for care, for companionship, for understanding, for touch, for love and how not being able to have that emotional part of his life left him bereft and vulnerable in the years before he came out.
For years, he couldn’t imagine how to come out, there being no models for successful gay men that looked like he wanted to fit into them. He wasn’t ever going to swish, didn’t want to be separate and a freak.
Later than he wanted to, he did come out, doing the work of expanding the visible possibilities of what a gay man could look like, gaining respect and making the fact that one is openly gay less important in relationships.
Mr. Frank always knew how to fight, fight with wit that engaged people. He did that, though, in a way that kept him profoundly lonely. He needed mature, open respectful relationships to support him, not the weak, twisted relationships of the closet.
When I was a kid, I thought about a political life. I was very active in Massachusetts politics as a kid, in the same Democratic circles as Mr. Frank, though he is older than I am.
I could do the arguments, knew how to be a hack, but I also knew that I had a challenge more profound than even Mr. Frank. After all, there were spaces in the world for gay men, for them to come together.
I’ve been fighting my whole life. One of the things that surprised the professionals who came in and saw me take care of my parents is how much I would fight with them. It was always in a loving and witty way, but I knew that what they needed was not sweet pap but sharp engagement, My mother would prefer a lemon bar, surprising caretakers who really thought it was always all about the brownie.
Today, the belligerence that seems to be required to be trans in the world, offering a kind of toughness that leaves you always ready to stand up for rights, even rights that may seem intrusive to others, well, that kind of edginess feels like a too heavy lift.
I have also been lonely my whole life. It has been a kind of loneliness that has driven me inward, towards the life of a hermit. While my achievements have not been at all public, I believe that they have been powerful, creating an understanding that can help put trans into context. I shone at the big panel on trans, even if most people didn’t care and many were resistant.
In Mr. Frank’s life, I see echoes of a person I might have been. I am very happy that he has found a partner, someone who engages him and creates a personal family, lovers who come together to mirror and reflect each other.
For me, though, I didn’t find the human bit I needed so much in the world. Instead of finding connection, my heart has gone off, shrivelling out of sadness and desperation. Nobody has infinite reserves, there isn’t always one more chance. happy endings are far from guaranteed.
Having a small potential partner pool (PPP) means one has to be big, visible and out there to find the few people in the world who might be able to meet you where you are. Instead, I was with my family, finding it impossible to be big and shining in the world before I was used up. I was never butch, never with big ego, preferring smaller service to bullhorns.
Nancy Pelosi attended Mr. Frank’s wedding. Sure, it was appropriate for her to do as a leader, but as a woman, I suspect she likes a bit of a fairytale ending, even when two princes save each other.
We all like the romantic, the dramatic and triumphant. Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it’s true.
I’d love to be a romantic, too, believing that somehow, my fight can continue with the kind of support everyone needs.
But how many people have to agree that the sour smell means that the milk has gone off?
People come up to Mr. Frank and tell him their problems. When he was first in politics, he would be happy to listen, thinking that there was something he could do to make things better. It was when they would come up and he would get cantankerous, wondering why they were bothering him, that he knew it was time to leave.
He had gone off.