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Nancy Pelosi emotionally reflects on LGBTQ+ community at Library of Congress AIDS Quilt exhibit (exclusive)

AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out washington monument 1992 Nancy Pelosi visits Library of Congress viewing historical records
RENAUD GIROUX/AFP via Getty Images; Christopher Wiggins for The Advocate

The speaker emerita got choked up as she reviewed letters from families of people lost to AIDS.

Cwnewser

On a swelteringly hot Friday morning in Washington, D.C., House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, found herself in the Library of Congress, embarking on a deeply personal and emotional journey through the institution's new “Collecting Memories” exhibit, which includes artifacts that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and were in his pockets at the time of his assassination, a look back at the COVID-19 pandemic, and letters and photos that accompanied submissions to the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Her Pride Month visit was cut short due to pending votes in the House but included a poignant reminder of her long-standing commitment to the AIDS Memorial Quilt and her advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community.

During the private tour, which included a special curation of archival materials in the Members Room, Pelosi was visibly moved. “This is so beautiful,” she remarked, reflecting on the vast array of artifacts, letters, photographs, and personal stories from the quilt collection. The tour, on which she was accompanied only by her press secretary, security detail, a reporter from The Advocate, and Library of Congress staff, was marked by somber moments as Pelosi recalled the friends she lost during the height of the AIDS crisis. “To see our friends holding them in our arms. Formerly robust people. Just so frail. So frail. Again and again, again and again,” she said.

The exhibit opened the evening before the visit when Pelosi attended Equality PAC’s annual gala. At the gala, an award named in her honor was presented to actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, both longtime LGBTQ+ allies.

The "Collecting Memories" exhibit, which runs until December 2025, is housed in the David M. Rubenstein Treasures Gallery.

Although the collection contains supporting materials but no panels from it, Pelosi’s connection to the AIDS Memorial Quilt is personal. In the early days of the Names Project, she not only participated in initial meetings but also created a patch in memory of the flower girl from her wedding who succumbed to AIDS.

The Names Project Foundation, established in 1987, is the organization responsible for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It was created to provide a lasting tribute to those who died of AIDS and to increase awareness of the disease's impact.

AIDS Memorial Quilt Nancy Pelosi visits Library of Congress viewing historical recordsChristopher Wiggins for The Advocate

Pelosi’s efforts were pivotal in securing the permits for the quilt’s iconic display on the National Mall. Also, in 2019, her influence was instrumental in returning the quilt to San Francisco and ensuring its archives found a home at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. Since it began in 1987, it has grown to over 60,000 individual 3-by-6-foot memorial panels commemorating more than 105,000 names. Each panel was made by friends, lovers, or family members to honor the lives lost to AIDS.

During the visit, Pelosi teared up several times as she took in the heartfelt letters from family members that accompanied their Quilt submissions.

In a candid conversation with The Advocate, she called out Republicans for using LGBTQ+ lives as political tools. “The Republicans have decided that LGBTQ has been defanged as an issue because young people, even evangelical young people, are like, ‘get out of here,’” Pelosi said.

She noted that this is especially true of Republican attacks on transgender people. “They have now decided that this is something that people may not understand. So it’s a blatantly political move on their part.”

Pelosi recounted the story of a former member of Congress who had a transgender child. She described how a Republican whose office was next to hers put up posters that read, “God made boys, God made girls,” and condemned the member’s child. “It’s cruelty. And I guess it sells in certain markets, I don’t know,” Pelosi said. “But I think it will have to go away.”

She added, “Now one thing [Republicans] use is women in sports. And that has a complication. It doesn’t for [Democrats], but it has a complication for some people.”

AIDS Memorial Quilt Nancy Pelosi visits Library of Congress viewing historical recordsChristopher Wiggins for The Advocate

Pelosi expressed her disappointment in Martina Navratilova’s anti-trans point of view. The tennis star has been vocal about her opposition to transgender people’s participation in sports. “I even had a conversation with Martina Navratilova about this, and she has very definite views because I was not sharing her view. And I wanted to confirm what she was advocating,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi added that we can't let writ-large discrimination stand. "Because it all comes down to the same thing: discrimination. It's so sad," she said.

Pelosi, 84, also spoke about her transgender grand-niece, Skylar, sharing how she has seen firsthand the positive impact of acceptance and support on transgender youth. Pelosi mentioned that Skylar is much happier and has performed better in school since transitioning. Pelosi said it’s important for public figures like herself to be visible in supporting transgender people to help normalize and humanize their experiences.

The lawmaker emphasized the importance of moving beyond mere tolerance to respect and pride. “People always say to me, ‘San Franciscans are so tolerant.’ I say, don’t use the word ‘tolerant.’ It’s a condescending word. It’s not about tolerance, which might have been a good thing a hundred years ago. It’s about respect. It’s about taking pride. It’s beyond tolerance; it’s about embracing and celebrating our differences.”

Pelosi noted that during the height of the AIDS crisis, as most people didn’t understand the disease when the idea for the quilt came about, the power of the art project was the eagerness of the community to contribute to it.

“It was a mobilization, and it was really what helped break down barriers of understanding. And then people would take pride in them just as we have at the Memorial Grove, take pride in planting the tree and coming back and all those things which were renewing and comforting.” The National AIDS Memorial Grove, located in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, is a dedicated space where people can gather to remember loved ones lost to AIDS.

Pelosi recounted her initial conversation with Cleve Jones, the creator of the quilt, about her skepticism that people would participate in sewing: “When they came to see me about everyone having to sew, I said nobody would sew. I was definite about that,” she said. Pelosi admitted that she was wrong in her initial reaction. She said that after she was elected to the House in June of 1987, by October she was advocating in Washington to have the quilt displayed on the National Mall. “Next thing you know, we’re here talking to the Interior Department [to display the quilt on the Mall], and they’re telling us we can have a corner with a few panels. I said, ‘Perhaps you mistook us for someone who thinks small. This is not going to happen.’”

As Pelosi reviewed the materials that had been set aside for her, staff explained that the library continues to accept submissions. Curators are dedicated to preserving and digitizing the records of the quilt to ensure they remain accessible for future generations. “We are preserving this history to ensure that it remains a living, breathing part of our national memory,” one curator noted.

This inaugural exhibition in the Rubenstein Treasures Gallery showcases the library’s rich Americana and international collections, which span over 450 languages and various forms created across time and continents. The exhibit features a diverse array of artifacts, including voice recordings, moving images, scrolls, diaries, manuscripts, prints, photographs, maps, and books, encouraging visitors to explore the connections and divergences among personal memory, collective memory, and recorded history. Dynamic moving images of treasured collections surround the gallery, highlighting the continuous expansion of the library’s holdings.

As Pelosi left the Library of Congress, she expressed her gratitude for the work to preserve this vital history. “This is a wonderful way to share expressions of love and family,” she said.

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Christopher Wiggins

Christopher Wiggins is a senior national reporter for The Advocate. He has a rich career in storytelling and highlighting underrepresented voices. Growing up in a bilingual household in Germany, his German mother and U.S. Army father exposed him to diverse cultures early on, influencing his appreciation for varied perspectives and communication. His work in Washington, D.C., primarily covers the nexus of public policy, politics, law, and LGBTQ+ issues. Wiggins' reporting focuses on revealing lesser-known stories within the LGBTQ+ community. Key moments in his career include traveling with Vice President Kamala Harris and interviewing her in the West Wing about LGBTQ+ support. In addition to his national and political reporting, Wiggins represents The Advocate in the White House Press Pool and is a member of several professional journalistic organizations, including the White House Correspondents’ Association, Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists. His involvement in these groups highlights his commitment to ethical journalism and excellence in the field. Follow him on X/Twitter @CWNewser (https://twitter.com/CWNewser) and Threads @CWNewserDC (https://www.threads.net/@cwnewserdc).
Christopher Wiggins is a senior national reporter for The Advocate. He has a rich career in storytelling and highlighting underrepresented voices. Growing up in a bilingual household in Germany, his German mother and U.S. Army father exposed him to diverse cultures early on, influencing his appreciation for varied perspectives and communication. His work in Washington, D.C., primarily covers the nexus of public policy, politics, law, and LGBTQ+ issues. Wiggins' reporting focuses on revealing lesser-known stories within the LGBTQ+ community. Key moments in his career include traveling with Vice President Kamala Harris and interviewing her in the West Wing about LGBTQ+ support. In addition to his national and political reporting, Wiggins represents The Advocate in the White House Press Pool and is a member of several professional journalistic organizations, including the White House Correspondents’ Association, Association of LGBTQ+ Journalists, and Society of Professional Journalists. His involvement in these groups highlights his commitment to ethical journalism and excellence in the field. Follow him on X/Twitter @CWNewser (https://twitter.com/CWNewser) and Threads @CWNewserDC (https://www.threads.net/@cwnewserdc).