I think it’s important that I answer two questions today. First, why does a middle-aged man with long service in his state’s Legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives decide to acknowledge publicly that he is gay? And what difference will this make to the kind of representation he provides his constituents?
The answer to the first question is that at a certain point, his desire for privacy is outweighed by the fact that speculation about his sexual orientation becomes itself an intrusion on that privacy. It also leads some people to infer that his reluctance to put his personal life on the front pages is an admission that he is ashamed of who he is.
As to the second, the answer is nothing. Publicly acknowledging that he is gay will have no effect on his colleagues, the way he votes, the degree of attention he gives to various issues or his ability to be an effective advocate for the needs of those he represents.
But enough about me.
My main purpose today is to thank my former House colleague Mike Michaud for the confidence he showed last week in the good sense of the people of Maine. We are at a time when there is great doubt about our ability as a people to conduct democracy — a very difficult practice, and one that has been the minority form of government both historically and contemporaneously — with the civility that it requires.
We are very much in need of demonstrations that we can respect each other — that we can debate economic issues, environmental problems, questions of war and peace without accusing our opponents of being evil, immoral or corrupt. Michaud has given Mainers the chance to prove this.
He will face some wholly inaccurate claims that he will now be pushing some “radical” agenda; that he has become an active agent of a group trying to transform American society in ways that will undermine our values.
None of this will be true. The agenda of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens is the exact opposite of “radical.” At the federal level, it means continuing to push for the right of gay and lesbian men and women to do three things: join the military, get a job and get married. No self-proclaimed radical in history would have anything but contempt for this list of very bourgeois desires.
What he will be doing by his example is helping people understand that those who share his sexual orientation, far from seeking to transform American society, simply want to be part of it — to have the same rights, responsibilities and economic opportunities that other Americans seek.
He has been a very effective representative, demonstrating that it is possible to have strong convictions about the importance of a government that meets people’s needs without demonizing those who disagree. He is widely respected in the House for his approach, which couples a commitment to principle with a willingness to work with others. None of this will change one iota because he decided to respond to rumors by stating a fact that is of great importance in his life but has no conceivable negative impact on anybody else.
To revert to me — after 40 years in elected office I acknowledge that I have difficulty staying off that particular subject for very long — I do want to draw on my experience to respond to a statement with which I had to deal when I did what Michaud did.
“Of course we don’t mind that you’re gay,” some people said. “But why did you have to make a public statement?”
The answer is that we have in our society for a long time suffered from a double standard. Gay people do not discuss our personal sexual orientation any more — probably less — than the heterosexual majority. The difference is that when we do it, it’s called coming out; when straight people do it, it’s called talking.
Michaud will continue to talk about the importance of fairness to our veterans, an issue on which he has been a leader. He will continue to talk about the importance of sensible environmental protection that reconciles the need to protect ourselves with a respect for the needs of the private economy; he will continue to talk about the importance of Social Security and Medicare to make sure that middle-class people can live with some degree of dignity in retirement. He will probably also talk about the fact that he is gay, when the media asks him, but I will make another prediction based on my own life: Ninety-eight percent of the time or more in his capacity as a public official, he will be talking about exactly the same subjects as every other public official, straight or gay.
Given that in the state of Maine today LGBT people are allowed to marry, are protected against job discrimination and, like all other Americans, entitled to serve their country in the military if they wish, the subjects on which he will be spending attention if he’s elected governor will not differ at all from those he has previously addressed in his electoral career, nor from any other person elected to the governor’s job in the future.
There is one way in which he’ll differ: By being who he is — with his background, his political views and his demeanor — that is, by continuing to be Mike Michaud, he’ll serve as a powerful refutation of the negative stereotypes about gay people that are diminishing but have not disappeared.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
— Special to the Telegram