Ex-Rep. Barney Frank, gay trailblazer, praises House passage of same-sex marriage bill

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Former Rep. Barney Frank, the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay, attended Thursday’s historic House vote to protect same-sex and interracial marriage and praised legislators for their work.

Frank, who represented Massachusetts in the House for more than three decades after first being elected in 1980, came out as gay in 1987. Speaking after the vote, the 82-year-old Frank said, “I was here for the birth of [the Defense of Marriage Act] so I am very grateful to be here for the funeral. It’s kind of a New Orleans moment: We are tooting our horns for the funeral, a much happier occasion than the birth.”

Former Congressman Barney Frank speaks at a podium.
Former Rep. Barney Frank at a bipartisan bill enrollment ceremony for the Respect for Marriage Act on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

DOMA, which banned the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Frank was one of just 67 House votes against the law, which was struck down by a series of Supreme Court decisions, culminating in 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry.

During his remarks, Frank touted the work of Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who in 2012 became the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. The former congressman defended her decision to not push for a vote before last month’s elections to gain a potential political advantage, instead waiting until they had enough support for passage following the midterms.

Former Congressman Barney Frank is kissed on the cheek by Senator Tammy Baldwin at the bill enrollment ceremony.
Frank is kissed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin at the bill enrollment ceremony. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

“Tammy, through her own life experience, understood what troubles this [the possibility of Obergefell being overturned] caused for same-sex married couples all over the country, and she understood that resolving those fears was much more important than any political issues,” Frank said. “She stood up and she was proven right, and I hope people will now take this as an example of responsible legislating, not being panicked by people who have more emotion than intelligence on an issue. I just wanted to pay tribute to one of the great legislative achievements I’ve ever seen, Tammy shepherding this bill through.”

Every Democratic legislator in both chambers voted in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, with 12 Republican senators and 39 GOP House members also voting yes. When the bill passed the Senate last month, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called it “vindication” for their strategy, saying “the wait was worth it.” President Biden is expected to promptly sign the legislation into law.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, surrounded by other members of Congress, holds up a copy of the Respect for Marriage Act.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and other members of Congress at the bill ceremony. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Enthusiasm for codifying protections for same-sex marriages increased this summer after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade and stripped millions of Americans of access to abortion. In his concurring opinion eliminating Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the court reconsider its positions on gay marriage and contraceptives. His comments came as Republicans across the country have increased their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislative proposals while law enforcement has warned of potential threats to the community.

The legislation does not force a state to allow same-sex marriages but does require it to recognize a union that occurred in another state. The repeal of Roe had allowed states to set their own abortion policies, but under the new law every state will have to recognize legal marriages regardless of “sex, race, ethnicity or national origin.” The new law will repeal a DOMA provision that allowed states to discriminate against same-sex couples, adding that “an individual shall be considered married if that individual’s marriage is between 2 individuals and is valid in the State where the marriage was entered into.”