Nancy Pelosi's announcement that she won't seek a leadership position in the next session of the U.S. House of Representatives means one of the greatest LGBTQ+ allies ever is stepping down.
Pelosi has been the House Democratic leader, either as speaker or minority leader, depending on whether the Dems held a majority, for 20 years. The first and only woman to be speaker of the House, Pelosi has taken many pro-LGBTQ+ stances and actions that are now mainstream among Democrats, so her successor as leader of the House Dems will likely be a major ally, but it shouldn't be forgotten that she was a pioneer.
She has been a member of the House since 1987, when she won a special election to represent a San Francisco district. In her first year in office, she joined in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
In a video from the march, a reporter observed that Pelosi was one of the few members of Congress participating. She replied that she was there not only to show solidarity with the many San Franciscans who had traveled to D.C. for the event, but to demonstrate support for a gay civil rights bill and increased funding to address the AIDS crisis (her first speech to the House dealt with AIDS). She also noted that she had taken part in AIDS Walks and Pride parades in San Francisco.
Pelosi was fighting for LGBTQ+ rights even when many Democrats were at best lukewarm on the issue. For instance, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal government recognition of same-sex marriages, had support from numerous Dems, including then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. No state offered same-sex marriages at the time, but it looked as if a court case in Hawaii would make it the first state with marriage equality (it didn't), and politicians were scrambling to appease panicked conservative constituents.
Pelosi not only voted against DOMA but spoke out against it, saying, "I rise in strong opposition to this ill-named 'Defense of Marriage Act' and I do so on the basis of conscience, Constitution, and constituency."
One could argue that with Pelosi's constituency, it was easy for her to champion LGBTQ+ rights, and she certainly could do so without fear of repercussions. Still, it's indisputable that she has been a champion.
She has received a perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign's Congressional Scorecard as long as it's existed -- since the 108th Congress, 2003-2005. In 2007, she voted for a controversial version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that included sexual orientation but not gender identity, but she said she would have preferred a more inclusive version (one had died in committee).
"While I personally favor legislation that would include gender identity, the new ENDA legislation proposed by Congressman [Barney] Frank has the best prospects for success on the House floor," she said. "I will continue to push for legislation, including language on gender identity, to expand and make our laws more reflective of the diverse society in which we live."
The House did approve the bill, but it never came to a vote in the Senate. The opposite happened a few years later -- in 2013, the Senate approved a version of ENDA that included gender identity, but it failed to receive a vote in the House.
Pelosi has continued to back such legislation. ENDA has now been superseded by the Equality Act, which would ban anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in credit, housing, and other areas in addition to employment. As speaker, she has now twice overseen House passage of the act, while it has languished in the Senate. She has also led the fight for the Respect for Marriage Act, which passed the House this year, and now there is a glimmer of hope that it will pass the Senate as well.
She backed several pieces of successful pro-LGBTQ+ legislation during her first stint as speaker, which included the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency. The major successes were the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, to address hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." She was also key in the effort to pass the Affordable Care Act, which made health insurance available to many marginalized groups of people and featured inclusive antidiscrimination language.
Some activists, however, have occasionally become frustrated with her.
In 2010, some attendees at Netroots Nation, a gathering of liberal bloggers and other progressive types, pressed her on why ENDA hadn't come to a vote yet. Pelosi said she had wanted to take it up after the passage of the hate-crimes bill, but there was more support for DADT repeal, so that had to come first. "We have to finish 'don't ask, don't tell' and hopefully we can do both this year,'" she said. DADT repeal did happen, but ENDA didn't.
Even while cognizant of political realities over the years, Pelosi has not aimed low. In 2011, as cases against DOMA and California's anti-marriage equality Proposition 8 were making their way through the courts, she spoke optimistically to a group of LGBTQ+ activists about winning the freedom to marry for all. "To those who mock me on this subject, I say to them, 'The inconceivable to you is the inevitable to us,'" she said.
This was a year before Obama and Biden came out for marriage equality, two years before DOMA and Prop. 8 were struck down for good, and four years before marriage equality became the law of the land.
Beyond marriage, she has been ahead of the curve on other LGBTQ+ issues, endorsing military service by transgender Americans as far back as 2014, two years before the Obama administration ended the ban, and backing legislation to classify conversion therapy as consumer fraud, something that still hasn't passed.
As Donald Trump's administration chipped away at LGBTQ+ rights, Pelosi continued to speak out. When he tweeted his intention to reinstate the trans military ban, she said, "It is a cruel and arbitrary decision designed to humiliate transgender Americans who have stepped forward to serve and defend our country." She noted that a study had shown the cost of providing transition-related medical care to service members was minuscule: "In fact, every year, the Pentagon spends five times more on Viagra than it does for transition-related care."
When Democrats won a majority of House seats in 2018 and Pelosi was under consideration for speaker again, 102 LGBTQ activists signed a letter in support of her. "There is no better ally to the LGBTQ community on Capitol Hill than Leader Pelosi, period," the letter read.
In response to Pelosi's announcement, the Human Rights Campaign's incoming president Kelley Robinson thanked the Speaker for her LGBTQ+ rights advocacy.
"Speaker Pelosi has always been the definition of an ally. From her groundbreaking floor speech in 1987 on the AIDS crisis to her forceful advocacy for marriage equality long before its mainstream popularity, Speaker Pelosi has been the tip of the spear on watershed advancements for the LGBTQ+ community," Robinson said. Each and every moment when our community needed her, Speaker Pelosi has been there for us asking how to help. Without her commitment to progress and dedication to equality, our movement would be years if not decades behind where we proudly stand today."