Why Barney Frank Took a Cautious Approach to Same-Sex Marriage

In an exit interview that aired on PBS NewsHour Dec. 26, economic correspondent Paul Solman spoke with Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who plans to retire from Congress at the end of his term in January 2013.

Watch this excerpt where Rep. Frank explains his initial position on same-sex marriage in 1996 saying he thought the enthusiasm of some gay rights advocates led them to be tactically and politically unwise, and prompted Republicans to pass the Defense of Marriage Act.

Full Transcript:

Paul Solman: I think I remember you saying it was too soon with regard to same-sex marriage, didn’t you, early on? Am I misremembering?

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.: Yes, you are. Here’s what I said with regard to same-sex marriage in 1996: the enthusiasm of some advocates leads them to be tactically and strategically unwise. I wish everybody would go see “Lincoln.” Great movie. And one of my heroes, Thaddeus Stevens, he’s baited on the floor by a Democrat who’s against the anti-slavery amendment, and wants him to say he’s for full equality for black people.

Paul Solman: Right, right. That’s a big scene in the movie.

Barney Frank: Of course he was. He’s then shown going home to the woman who would have been his wife if he could have married her. He had a great equal relationship with this woman, an African-American woman. Insisted they be buried together. And he wouldn’t say that he believed in full equality because he knew that if he said that, he would lose votes for the amendment.

He didn’t lie, but he didn’t tell the full truth. And after this, one of the other radical Republicans berates him for not saying it. He said, “look, I was trying to get this through. I’ve been working on this.” And that’s what some advocates don’t understand.

Here’s my position. In 1996, it looks as if the Hawaii Supreme Court might declare in favor of same-sex marriage under the Hawaii Constitution. Ultimately, they didn’t do it. It was a tentative decision. It was overturned. But before that, many of the gay rights advocates made a serious strategic error. They announced that if Hawaii found for same-sex marriage, under the Constitution, every state would have to honor it. In the first place, that’s not good constitutional law. That’s never been what the full-faith-and- credit clause has meant. And secondly, it just created this firestorm.

That was the excuse the Republicans used to pass the Defense of Marriage Act, which was to say in part, we’re going to make sure that if Hawaii does it, every other state doesn’t have to do it. I was critical of them for instantly announcing that this would be nationalized. I was supportive of doing it locally.

In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court did the same thing. The next year the mayor of San Francisco at the time, Gavin Newsom, irresponsibly and without any legal basis, announced that he was going to allow same-sex marriage in San Francisco. He had no authority to do that. He went ahead with it. Of course, what happened was a lot of people thought they were being married. They were bitterly disappointed when they weren’t.

But once again, we were trying to defend same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. He then gives people the impression, oh, once again it’s spreading like wildfire. So though I’ve been for same-sex marriage, but I’m for doing it at a pace or with some political wisdom that allowed it to survive.