More than 20 years ago, Frank Buttino came out as a gay man – not by choice. As an FBI agent in the ’70s and ’80s, he kept his personal life private.
In 1990, the FBI fired him after he was “outed” by an anonymous letter-writer.
Buttino fought back. He filed a class-action suit, co-authored a 1993 book about his experiences and a year later saw his landmark case result in an anti-discrimination policy within the Department of Justice.
I caught up with Buttino, now 68, on the phone a couple of weeks ago; it was the first time I had spoken to him in almost 20 years.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said from his office in San Diego. “It’s a different environment (in the FBI), a different America. It’s really astounding. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see these changes come about.”
Once he was “outed,” Buttino faced rejection from colleagues and intimidation by his superiors, which stung given his solid record as an agent.
He took his case to the courts, appeared on “60 Minutes” and other media outlets, and was very much in the spotlight.
“We all have points in our life where we have to take a stand and make a decision,” Buttino said. “You get put to the test. Who are you? And do you stand up for your convictions?”
Buttino’s parents, Anthony and Kathryn, stood up for theirs and reaffirmed their love for their son. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing both of them for a 1993 newspaper article, in which Anthony Buttino urged parents of gays and lesbians to “be on their side and help them as much as you possibly can.”
Anthony and Kathryn Buttino both died in 1994. Their son is grateful they knew the truth.
“Coming out to them, they got to know me for who I really am, not for who they thought I was,” Buttino said.
The decision to come out, he said, should be left to the individual.
“If you’re uncomfortable with it, people around you will be uncomfortable, too,” he said. “But once people come out, life is never better. They can be open and honest about who they are.”
As much as he wishes someone else had been at the center of the FBI storm, Buttino said the experience has helped him succeed in the latest chapter of his life.
For the past 12 years, he has worked for Job Corps in San Diego, first as a teacher and now as a business community liaison.
“If none of that had happened, I wouldn’t be able to relate to these kids,” he said. “A lot of them have had adversity in their young lives.”
Job Corps, he said, is a “wonderful program that offers a little bit of everything. I truly enjoy it. It’s the perfect job for me. I’m good for another 20 years.”
Note: October is National Coming Out Month, with Oct. 11 designated as National Coming Out Day.