By David Phelps
Okay, I'm a wimp. I may look like a hero but, at heart, I'm actually a coward. This piece of enlightening - and frightening - self-discovery came to me the other Sunday afternoon as I was purchasing a copy of "Bartlett's Quotations" at Kramer Books.
Readers who follow the tantalizing minutia of President William Jefferson Clinton vs. Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr will immediately recognize this as the same bookstore where one Monica Lewinsky purchased a novel about telephone sex as a gift for the aforementioned President of the United States. Last year, leaving no stone unturned, the Independent Counsel gave Kramer Books fifteen minutes of fame by slapping it with a subpoena and demanding a complete list of all purchases made by Ms. Lewinsky.
Kramer Books is located in the heart of Dupont Circle, the gay Mecca of the Nation's capital. A proudly independent bookstore, here one can socialize with friends in its café, listen to smooth live jazz of an evening while browsing stacks of books, or simply gawk and rub shoulders with many of Washington's elite. Over there one can see George Stephanopoulos, looking as delectable as ever, his once shaggy hair now neatly trimmed as befits a respected political commentator. Over here, it's that Senator - you know the one, I think he's from Maine - or is it Vermont? One of those cold states, anyway. And look, coming in the door, it's Anne Richards, the former governor of Texas, with all that silver white hair piled up high. It's that kind of place; you get the picture.
So, I was standing at the check out counter, waiting as the cute boy swiped my credit card (note to reader: a single copy of Bartlett's Quotations is not cheap), when I had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness. This feeling of radiating charisma was coming from the direction of my left elbow. Without appearing rude - and after years of learning how to cruise beautiful men without being too blatantly obvious (particularly when accompanied by Significant Other) - I immediately craned my neck portside and found myself staring into the penetrating eyes of none other than Congressman Barney Frank.
Now I've always found Barney Frank alluring in a non-sexual way (note to reader: disclaimer is for Significant Other). I'm fascinated by his political skill, I appreciate his rapier wit that can sting both friend and foe alike and, as a gay man, I'm enormously appreciative of his leadership for our community. I remember the roar of welcome that greeted Barney Frank when he stepped forward to address the candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, a welcome like no other politician received on that night. Many has been the occasion on which I've said a silent prayer of thanks for the life and continuing work of Barney Frank.
So here was my big chance, a unique opportunity. For sixty seconds, as the good folks at VISA made up their minds whether I continued to remain an acceptable credit risk, I had Congressman Barney Frank, pressed up against my left elbow, captive. And, to put this in context, it was the very day after the House of Representatives had voted two Articles of Impeachment against President William Jefferson Clinton. For days preceding this historic event, it was Barney Frank leading the defensive charge on behalf of the President, Barney Frank skillfully crafting the counter-offensive and the devastating one-liners.
Well, gentle reader, I blew it. No grand words fell from my mouth; I uttered no erudite witticism for later use (with or without attribution) by the Honorable Gentleman from Massachusetts on the floor of the House. Instead, my charge was approved, Bartlett's Quotations was quickly placed in a bag and, before you could say "poofter," I was out on the sidewalk, heading home.
I've thought about this quite a bit over the past several weeks. I'm not certain why I didn't take the opportunity then and there to say a few words of encouragement or thanks. I think I figured that perhaps he would want to be left alone, able to enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon without having to be reminded - yet once more - of the trauma of the preceding week. Perhaps it was because I didn't want him to know that I saw the book he was purchasing (our little secret, Congressman, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more).
Now I regret not having taken just a few seconds to say what I really wanted to say. To tell Congressman Barney Frank how enormously proud I am of him - as a politician, as a man, and as a homosexual. To tell him that it is not only the people of Massachusetts who are fortunate to have him as one of their congressional representatives, but it is the people of the United States who are truly blessed.
I wanted to thank him for coming to the defense of the President of the United States, not because the President should be excused for his misdeeds, but because none of us can ever be perfect in this life. I wanted, in my own way, to encourage him to stay the course, to continue being a leader, speaking out on the issues that effect all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, gender, race or religion.
But more than anything, I wanted to thank Barney Frank for providing an outstanding example of why we need to keep on electing gays and lesbians to district councils and school boards and state legislatures and the House of Representatives and the Senate and yes, one day, the Presidency.
In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote, "If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women·." To those words, as appropriate today as they were 223 years ago, I would add "and lesbians and gays."
It is the example of Barney Frank that gives us the reason to support the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund's mission of electing qualified openly gay men, lesbians and bisexuals to public office. Why we must stand behind outstanding candidates like Tammy Baldwin, Christine Kehoe, Victoria Sigler, Jarrett Barrios, Neil Giuliano, Liz Malia, David Catania, Jim Graham, Sheila Kuehl, Evelyn Mantilla and all the other courageous gays and lesbians who ran - successfully and unsuccessfully - for elected office in 1998 - and who will run again in the years to come.
In my face time of 60 seconds with Congressman Barney Frank, I simply wanted to shake his hand and thank him for making true the words of Harvey Milk who once said,"There is a major difference between a friend in office and a gay person in office. It's not enough just to have friends represent us, no matter how good those friends may be. We must give people the chance to judge us by our leaders and our own legislators."
So, Congressman Frank, if I ever have the opportunity of standing alongside you in Kramer Books again, I'll make sure I turn, look you in the eye, and say "thank you."
Over - and out.
David Phelps serves on the National Advocacy Council of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.