Rep. Jerrold Nadler: The Optimistic Fighter

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com December 01 2011 12:28 AM ET

Representing iconic gay-heavy neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan, Congressman Jerrold Nadler was an early proponent of gay rights and fighting HIV. As bullish as the political veteran can be, he also has an encouraging optimism about the prospect of national marriage equality. He discusses that, his early showdown with Newt Gingrich, and what needs to happen to get antiretroviral drugs to people with HIV.

 The Advocate: You represent several areas with a heavy concentration of gay and lesbian constituents. I'm wondering how proactive the gay community in your district is. Have they influenced the bills that you've involved yourself in?
Rep. Jerrold Nadler: I have a very interesting district. It probably the largest district with the most openly gay and lesbian people in the country. On the other hand, I also represent Borough Park, which carries all the Hasidim [members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect]. I don't know if you know who the Hasidim are, but they have the same social attitudes as Jerry Falwell.

But my district has been historically active. Stonewall is this district. When I was starting out, on the Upper West Side, I was a district leader for my Democratic club. We had two gay male and two lesbian female leaders. We were the only Democratic club around with gay leaders. The local gay community is still quite active. They were especially mobilized  this year on the gay marriage bill in Albany. But they were also big supporters behind [the Uniting American Families Act] and the repeal of the [Defense of Marriage Act], the Respect for Marriage Act. Some thought it was going too far, and they thought it might be more appropriate to ask for more obtainable goals, but I feel strongly that we should start the fight for [UAFA]. It's a very straightforward bill that gives basic rights to people.

How did you become such a champion on an essential but no-frills bill like the UAFA?
I didn't see it as a major bill in the sense of affecting a lot of people but I thought [present immigration law] was terribly unfair, and current laws treat people with gratuitous cruelty. I figured, what percentage of the population is gay, and what percentage of that population also falls in love with a foreigner? Obviously, it's rather low, so I figured a small percentage of people would be outwardly supportive of this law. I didn't expect to have a major campaign, but I was surprised by the amount of support that's come in. Forty thousand couples in the U.S. are affected by this. The bill is very important because it's about keeping families together.

But if you have gay marriage legal in the whole country, you wouldn't need the bill. Of course I favor gay marriage, but I figured UAFA would be a good stepping stone for that.

Several pieces of pro-gay legislation have been reintroduced in Congress in the last term that lost momentum in previous terms. Have there been any particular items that have garnered unprecedented amounts of support upon reintroduction?
Yes, the Respect for Marriage Act has gone from five to 124 cosponsors in a year and a half. You can see where the issue of gay marriage is going — it's another inevitability. When "don't ask, don't tell" was first enacted in 1993, I was one of the few Congress members who were against it from the beginning. Now we've been able to do away with it. My view is that the progress of the country on all these kinds of issues recognizing minority groups is getting better. We've come a long way, and we'll go further.

 Was it difficult for you to oppose "don't ask, don't tell," which was such a contentious bill, so early in your congressional career?
Well, I don't think it was. What makes it difficult, I suppose, was because [President Bill Clinton] supported it, so I was a minority in my party. I don't think it was about being a freshman. It's asking whether you believe whether this is right for your district and whether you believe the leaders of your party.

JerroldNadlerx390 (House) | Advocate.com What do you think is the biggest social advance to have an impact on the way people view HIV?
I think for a long time, there was panic and fear. People didn't understand how it was transmitted, so that made them basically afraid. I wasn't there yet, but Congress passed a law that people with AIDS couldn't immigrate into this country. There was just hysteria. But we now understand how it's transmitted, so that hysteria is gone. AIDS is no longer a death sentence. It's a chronic disease, it's very time-consuming, it's bothersome, and it can be expensive to deal with, but you can live with it.  In one sense, that has produced a complacency among many, but the fact that there's no hysteria about transmission is very important.

How was HIV addressed by New York lawmakers when it was first identified?
When I was in the state Assembly, I got the first round of AIDS funding in 1982. Back in the mid '80s, I was part of the consumer affairs committee, so I took on the pharmaceutical companies that were making it difficult to access drugs. AZT was the only drug that had an effect on AIDS at that time, but it was too expensive for most people to get. So we got the price reduced by 20%-25%. Early on, funeral parlors discriminated against AIDS victims, so we passed a law and stopped that.

New York City has a lot of great local support for people with HIV — are there any particular local efforts that you think would also translate on a national level?
We've had several suggestions over the years, but the three things that have really effectively developed have been protecting housing for people with HIV, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and the Ryan White CARE Act. The basic problem is lack of funding. I've been among the leaders on these issues, and we've succeeded somewhat. And I must say [President Barack] Obama was very good on that. The problem is that we have a Republican House that is trying to cut back on everything, including this.

Speaking of cuts, ADAP is being cut across the country right now. Is there any possibility that those who are on waiting lists might see some congressional action to help reduce the numbers on the list?
I don't know, with a Republican House. I'm somewhat pessimistic, but we have to fight it, and we have to expand its funding. Although, in another year, we could have a completely different outlook on things.

It's the basic way these things go. In 1994, Newt Gingrich was the new speaker of the House. After that Contract With America, one of the things they wanted to do was kill funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. There was a big fight, and we ended up passing a bill saying we're going to have a one-third cut this year, the following year, and then the last third the year after that. I said, "This is a great victory." Everyone thought I was crazy, but a couple of years later, the Republicans were out, and we ended up saving the program. It's still being funded. So after the next election, we'll live to fight another day. We survived.