Openly gay Democratic U.S. Rep. Barney Frank is optimistic for the future of the LGBT community, particularly because of the past.
And he was a longtime pessimist.
"When we first started this [ fight for equality ] , we didn't know how hated we were. But the progress has been good, and it's mainly by coming out. Part of it is, you can't hide and win the fight at the same time," said Frank, who has represented Massachusetts' 4th Congressional District since 1981.
"The fact that the American people now know who we are, and that we are relatives and friends, customers and teammates, students and teachers, barbers, lawyers and policemen, etc. Coming out has helped us, so [ non-LGBT ] people realize we are them, too."
And, of course, Frank is one, too.
Frank, who turns 70 on March 31, became the second openly gay member of the House of Representatives, and has been one of the most prominent LGBT politicians ever.
"I did not think we would be as far along as we are; I didn't think I'd be in a position where I would be taking my partner to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland," admitted Frank.
But the battle has been aided by supportive public opinion across most of the United States, along with a Democratic chief executive and legislative body.
"The last time we had a Democratic President and Congress was 1993-1994, and things got better then, but we still were not in a situation where the majority opposed discrimination," Frank said. "I do believe we have public opinion with us on almost everything else, including [ allowing ] gays in the military.
"If you go back to 1976, [ former presidents ] Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were sort of equally moving forward on gay rights. [ They were ] not yet there, but moving forward. Since then, the Democrats have gotten a lot better; the Republicans have gotten a lot worse. Take a look at John McCain, [ for instance. ] He used to be better [ in support of LGBT rights ] , but now because he's gotten national Republican politics and a primary in Arizona has become one of our leading opponents in Congress."
Still, Frank added, the LGBT battles are in their best positions "ever."
"The difference is, [ today ] we have a somewhat better Democratic Senate majority in this House and Senate, and also, public opinion is much better by every measure," he said. "We've been making progress pretty steadily."
Frank, in an exclusive interview, spoke about a variety of LGBT issues, including "Don't Ask, Don't Tell ( DADT ) ," the same-sex marriage battle and more.
"The next major issue will be some recognition of same-sex marriage rights," he said. "The federal government is never going to mandate that. The best you can get is that part of the defensive marriage act that denies recognition of same-sex marriages at the federal level, where the states allow them, is a denial of people's protection under [ the ] laws."
But that's "years away," he said.
"Marriage is still a tough issue. I can't predict when we'd have a majority for that," said Frank, whose partner is Jim Ready.
"I think we have a very good chance of passing [ the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly known as ENDA ] and repealing gays in the military. Public opinion is clearly moving in our direction, especially [ among the younger generation ] . The younger people, [ they are ] the key to [ repelling "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ] . Younger people today are much less prejudice."
Passing ENDA and repealing DADT could both happen this year, Frank said.
Frank was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972, where he served for eight years. He has been in the national political spotlight since assuming office in Washington D.C., Jan. 3, 1981. In 2007, Frank was named the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
He is now one of three openly gay members of Congress, along with Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jared Polis of Colorado.
Last year, Frank landed the top spot in Out Magazine's Annual Power 50 List.
"In 38 years, [ the LGBT battles ] will be over," Frank said in reference to his near-four-decade political career. "I see a parallel, to some extent, with anti-Semitism. When I was graduating from high school in 1958, anti-Semitism also loomed as an obstacle for my career plans. But that's gone now [ for the most part; ] it's not an obstacle.
"In less than 20 years, I think [ LGBT issues ] will be substantially over; that is, we will have full legal equality. It may even be less if we make the same rate of progress," that we have in recent years.
About this measure, Frank said, "It's the first pro-LGBT legislation ever passed, explicitly including people who are transgender."
Frank predicted an openly gay male in one of the big four sports ( baseball, football, basketball and hockey ) "within 10 years."
"Sure, there is this problem of intimacy in the locker room, so that's why it's going to be one of the last places [ to welcome the LGBT community ] ," he said. "I think you'll probably see more ex-athletes coming out and, as that happens, then it will be possible for current athletes to come out.
"I also think it will happen more on college teams because younger people, in that atmosphere, may be more supportive."
Frank lives in Massachusetts; his partner lives in Maine.
"In Washington, we're not bothered much because … there are a lot of us walking around [ in ] Washington," Frank said. "People will come over and say, 'Hello,' and they are usually not obtrusive, [ though ] occasionally they are."
Frank, Baldwin, Polis and other politicians, including Illinois' Mike Quigley, joined more than 50 members of the LGBT Equality Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus ( CAPAC ) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to send a letter to President Obama and House and Senate leaders expressing their strong support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would end discrimination against LGBT binational families.
The announcement was made Feb. 9.
"That's a tough one, [ incorporating ] two very tough issues: immigration and marriage, and then you multiple them. That's going to be very hard [ to pass ] . I think it's even an uphill battle to get any immigration bill this year," Frank said. "And this is a dilemma for our community.
"Getting any immigration bill through that responds to the Hispanic community is going to be tough. Getting it through with the recognition of same-sex marriages makes it a lot tougher. At this point, frankly, I think there is a problem with getting either version through."