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Despite an initial period of fear and confusion. the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) crisis has not led to the expected political backlash against gays and lesbians, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank '62 (D-Mass.) said at a Science Center speech Saturday night.
In a wide-ranging address before 125 people on the political status of the gay rights movement, Frank, one of the nation's two openly gay members of Congress, said that recent federal legislation has prevented AIDS from being used as the basis for discrimination against gays.
"The political response of American society...has been a lot more sensitive and mature than people thought it was going to be," Frank said during a weekend-long conference entitled "Sexual Orientation and the Law: Implications for Legal Education."
Frank said that two bills passed last year, the Fair Housing Act and the Grove City Bill, protect people with AIDS, and carriers of the virus, from discrimination.
"I am surprised by how easily it was for us to get [that provision] into the Fair Housing Act," Frank said. "I don't think people fully understand what's there."
The Fair Housing Act, Frank said, makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent to an AIDS carrier unless it can be proven the person would be a direct threat to the health of others. The Grove City Bill makes it unlawful for the recipient of federal funds to discriminate against an AIDS carrier in matters of unemployment, housing, and human services.
"There is now on the books two major pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, and I think we can build on them," the five-term legislator said.
The most important peice of pending federal gay rights legislation, Frank said, is the repeal of the McCarren-Walter Act. The act, which bars anarchists, communists and people carrying communicable diseases from entering the United States, also includes a provision excluding gays and lesbians, Frank said.
Noting growing support for his efforts to overturn the act, Frank predicted that "by the end of this Congress, we will have repealed the anti-gay and lesbian exclusion of the McCarren-Walter Act."
Frank also said Saturday that he took exception to what he characterized as the negative tenor of gay rights political organizing, and said he wished organizations would stress the accomplishments of the gay rights movement.
"Today we still have anti-gay and lesbian policies, but they are in retreat," Frank said. "I believe that prejudice is eroding, although it's not eroding nearly fast enough."
Frank said the erosion of prejudice is "suggested by the old phrase, 'some of my best friends are Blacks, or Jews, or whatever.' A true bigot doesn't make exceptions. It is a stage in the erosion of prejudice when people say, 'I don't like them in general, but I have some friends like that.'"
Frank said one of the reasons that a federal gay civil rights bill has been stalled in Congress is that most people perceive support for gay rights to be more politically damaging to politicians than it actually is.
As evidence, Frank mentioned a poll of voters in his congressional district taken shortly after his public declaration of his homosexuality in a 1987 Boston Globe interview.
Frank said that 42 percent of those polled felt that his announcement of his sexual orientation would hurt his chances for reelection, while only 21 percent said they would be less likely to vote for him because he is gay.
"Because of the prejudiced society in which we grew up, a lot of people think they are among a minority of straight people who support gay rights. That is wrong. It is just that we have a cultural lag."
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