I first met Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi in 1987, her first year in Congress. Most weekday evenings on the Hill, during that time, included receptions by hosts of lobbying groups, organizations, associations, and the ever-present fundraisers. Living on a congressional salary at that time, I was able to get many free meals — and drinks.
One night, Pelosi walked into one of those receptions in the Rayburn House Office Building, and you immediately could sense the aura around her. My boss, a bit of a lovable cad in those days, noticed her instantly, and we walked over to say hello.
I think meeting her stands out in my mind after all these years — outside of the fact that I have an amazing memory — because of that aura about her. You just knew there was something special about Pelosi. And, as she progressed in her congressional career, that aura only grew more illuminating.
So much has been written and said about her and all the history that she instigated and encapsulated during her historic career. Often repeated, but never tiresome to reiterate, she was the first woman to lead a major party in either chamber of Congress when she was elected minority leader of the Democrats in 2004. She had 20 years as the party’s leader and two stints as the first woman to lead the House.
I was given the wonderful opportunity to meet with her last week while she was in New York City, and as she approached, with all the buzz surrounding her, I couldn’t help but smile. That aura is still intact. She's 83 years young, and 36 years after I first met her, I told her that she hadn’t changed a bit. And I meant it!
We sat down on a small couch together. I’ve been hard of hearing most of my life, and despite wearing hearing aids, it’s always best to be close to the person I’m speaking with, particularly with Pelosi, since I wanted to catch every word. She asked how long The Advocate has been around, because she remembered the importance of this media outlet’s history to LGBTQ+ rights over the last 50 years.
Often, when you look into the eyes of someone who has been around a long time, who has given thousands of interviews, and who has created global news all on their own, you can sense a detachment or disinterest in speaking to yet another journalist. That was not the case with Speaker Pelosi. Looking into her eyes, it was immediately obvious that our community was something that she personally cared a great deal about, and wanted to talk about.
What’s also exceptional is that after all these years, the sparkle in her eyes has not diminished. You can sense, behind those eyes, a still unbridled passion and curiosity for life.
Moreover, somebody at her astronomical level usually has a very strict time limit, so as a journalist, you can feel rushed to make sure you get in as many questions as you can. That was not the case with Pelosi. She wanted to talk, genuinely, about what she’s experienced with us during our long fight for equality.
At the start of our conversation, she reached down and softly touched my arm. She would do this almost a dozen times as we spoke. At times, it was a gentle reassuring touch, then a firmer grip to stress a point or a quick touch to make sure I was paying attention. I hung on every word.
What I noticed about those touches,and the gesticulations of her hands as we spoke were those very hands. Pelosi is very demonstrative with her hands when she speaks, underscoring her affirmations and her exuberance about the subject that she’s addressing. Those hands also exude an indomitable strength.
When she talked about the legislators sponsoring bills targeting the trans and drag queen communities, she called them losers, with an outward air swipe of her hands, underscoring that they did not matter, and they had no business being near her. Recalling her hospitable childhood home in Baltimore, her hands swept inward, emphasizing a welcoming warmth.
While we conversed, I couldn’t stop thinking about the métier of those famous hands. Those hands enunciated so much when, after Trump’s horrid 2020 State of the Union, an event that included Trump giving a Presidential Medal of Freedom to racist bigot Rush Limbaugh — in Pelosi’s House no less — she ripped up his speech. I remember using my own hands at that moment, jumping up from my couch, clapping heartedly for the tearing heard round the world.
We, as a community, also clapped victoriously for her as she used those hands to gavel passage of some of the most consequential LGBTQ+ legislation in history, including the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And all her work on marriage equality.
When she extended a hand at the end of our conversation, I felt like I was shaking the hand of history; however, I said that a handshake wasn’t good enough, and so I gave her a big hug, and she reciprocated. The hug was not for me, but for all of us and for all the times she kept our community in her embrace.
What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
I don’t have to tell you that so many members of our community are scared right now given all the hateful legislation in state Houses all over the country, and all the dangerous rhetoric by Republicans.
:Here's what I think. I think they're losers. They're losers. They're losing on guns. You know, we still don't have the legislation we want, but the public is not really with them with all these mass shootings going on. People have had enough. Young people are taking that issue on more and more each day. They’re growing more tired about all the inaction. They're losing on women's right to choose, which is a losing issue for them and was during the last midterm election. So, what do they have? So now they turn to the trans and drag communities because they think that that has some salience. I don't know, does anybody really think that the drag issue is a threat? Of course not, so they’re going to lose on that too.
Agreed, but nevertheless it’s frightening.
It is frightening. Because it’s about hate. When we did the hate-crimes legislation, now this was a number of years ago, and we had the majority, we couldn't get the bills to come to the floor, and to be able to vote on it on the floor. And so, people came to me and said, "If you take out trans, you can pass the bill in one minute." I said, "If we take our trans, we're not passing the bill, because I'm not taking out trans. That's just the way it is." Now this was probably like 2008 and 2009, so it's a while ago, but here we are again today. We just must be really forceful in speaking out.
Through my writing, I've heard from so many, and they are always so grateful about people standing up for them.
I have a niece, my nephew's daughter, in college, and she transitioned and now she's doing very well. But my niece says,any time any of you say something positive about us, it means so much to us.
And I hear that same thing from drag queens too.
A few years ago, it was during COVID because we had an event in lieu of a parade where you had to be six feet apart on the ground. And that was our celebration. And when I got up there to speak, and I don't know, it didn't even occur to me that it was different or anything, but I started talking about drag and drag queens, and all of them who were with us that day. And later, people were coming up to me, and they said, “We never thought we'd see the day when the speaker of the House would talk about drag queens.” And I thought, well, what's the big deal about that? But if talking about them publicly helps, then I’m happy to do whatever I can to support them.
Well, I sense humility, so thank you, but yes, someone like you speaking out is a huge deal. Okay, so you had mentioned the hate-crime bill, and what do you think is the most important LGBTQ+ legislation that you've ever worked on in your career? And then on the opposite side of that, what is the one thing that still needs to be done?
OK, but I would say, let me let me put it all together, because as you know since you were there, it all started with HIV/AIDS. When I went to Congress, I won in a special election, and when I was getting sworn in that day, the people that I knew in Congress, and they were good people, but they said, “You're a freshman. Nobody wants to hear the word from you. When you get sworn in, you just say yes. You uphold the constitutional law. Just say yes. So then Speaker Jim Wright said, “Does the gentlelady from California wish to address the House?” Well, I wasn't going to turn it down, right. So, then the people around me said, “Be short, be really short since nobody wants to hear from you.”
So I get up, and I thank my parents and family that were there and thank my constituents. And I said, something like, “I told my constituents, that when I came here, I would tell you that I've come here to fight against HIV and AIDS.” Now, that took me longer to tell you about that day than when I got up to speak. So I go back thinking I was OK, and then I get hit with these questions, “What’s the matter with you? And “Why did you speak?” And I said that I was short. And they said, “Well, why would you want AIDS to be the first thing that people know about you here? Why did you tell them you came here to fight against AIDS? And I said, “Because I did. That's why I came here to fight against HIV. “
So, taking that, and the groups and activists outside of government mobilizing, which helped enable us to get funding for AIDS, I credit the groups outside for marriage equality. A lot of people are mistakenly under the impression that marriage equality happened like that [snaps her fingers]. And I say, no it didn’t. It was all that mobilization, on HIV/AIDS, on hate crimes. And all these things along the way, have made America, more Americans, aware of expanding freedom in our country.
I’m sure you remember during that time how sick people were, it was awful, so, so many at risk. But nonetheless these groups mobilized, and they perceived in the face of such adversity, and it was because of them that we were able to get money for care, for research and prevention.
It took us to a place where people knew people who were HIV-positive, didn't know they were out and gay, and now they do. We still have a long way to go with correcting the way HIV Is stigmatized, but that sense of community that was built around the cause in the early days took us to a place where we have marriage equality.
On Sunday, I was speaking at an LGBTQ event with LGBTQ seniors in San Francisco. And I was telling them that when we did the “don't ask, don't tell” bill that we worked and worked and worked on it because we didn't even have all the Democrats on board to pass it, and we needed nine votes. Not that they didn't share our values, but they could get hurt in their districts if they voted for it. So, this is 2010. We get ready to go up to the floor to pass the bill, and I go to like progressives in our caucus, and I said that you're making history today. They said that yes, we’re going to pass the repeal of “don't ask, don’t tell.” We were, but there was a but!
Now, the tactic was to attach the repeal to the Defense Authorization Act, and progressives in the caucus usually vote against defense bills, and they were not going to vote for it this time even with the provision. They were proud of having a 100 percent voting record against defense. Now, on the other hand, Republicans always voted for Defense Authorization Acts, and I was told that Republicans won’t support this one with the repeal attached to it.
I didn’t want the progressives to have to change their vote, so I said that the reason I'm speaker is I can see in the Republicans' eyes that they’ll vote for this bill. And a few responded, “Well they ain't gonna vote for this bill.”
So I said, “Do me a favor, stand in the back of the room and watch what happens. You won’t have to vote for it. I don't want you to have to change your vote.” And what happened? Nine Republicans voted for the defense bill out of like, 189, and they joined almost all the liberals in the House in supporting a defense bill, many for the first time.
I want to ask you about representing one of the cities with the largest gay populations in the country, San Francisco, all of these years. What have you seen change? What's the same? What's different?
Well, you know, it's a funny thing, because living in San Francisco, the gay community is very valued there. But they were just like anyone else at that time, in real estate and health care, in retail, and the arts, they were just part of the community. So it wasn't a big deal. And so, people said to me at that time, well, it's easy for you to be tolerant of them because San Francisco is so tolerant. And I said, don't use the word "tolerant" with me, it's a condescending word. We're not tolerant. We respect and take pride in our gay community. We’re not tolerating them. We love and accept them like anyone else.
And that's what San Francisco is about. And happily, it is a joy to represent our city and to take the lead on so many of the issues that are important to the LGBTQ+ community. Over time and without being mean, I tried to be respectful of other members who weren’t eager to join on those issues because their district is not like ours. But I also wanted them to rise to the occasion.
People don't remember, but I was the host committee chair of the 1984 Democratic convention. I was interviewed by Larry King there, and it was a radio interview since he wasn't on TV then, and he said to me, “How can you as a Catholic girl, raised in Baltimore, adjust to all of this?” He meant the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco. And I said, “I don't even know what you're talking about? Being Catholic means that we're all God's children. We had a very, shall we say, thriving LGBTQ+ community in my district, and we didn't even think of it. Somebody was gay, OK, well, what does that have to do with anything? It wasn't even a thing that you thought about, or would say, 'Well, I'm not going to have this person do this or that because of their sexuality.'" So I said to Larry, "No, you have the wrong impression about the way I was raised in my faith. And in my community, and that prepared me for San Francisco.”
You have worked with so many legislators from all walks of life over the years, so I was wondering, who might be the most impactful LGBTQ+ legislator you ever worked with?
Oh, on Sunday at the elder event I told you about, we were discussing Phyllis [Lyon] and Del [Martin]. They were a longtime couple and truly wonderful advocates, and they were the first LGBTQ+ couple to marry in San Francisco. They were among my favorites. And Jim Hormel [an ambassador in the Clinton administration], who was also from San Francisco and did so much during a time when being an out businessman was very brave. But I would probably have to say it was Barney Frank. When we did any of the bills, when we did the hate-crimes bill for example, he was always involved, and he shared his story of how it was for him as a teenager. And it meant everything to the other members to know how important this bill was to him. When we did “don't ask, don't tell,” he was very instrumental, particularly in working with Sen. Harry Reid on the Senate side.
But Barney was, shall we say, well ,you don't make a promise to Barney and not follow through, you know, and he wasn't going to make a promise to me without following through. Barney was a man of his word. He was really important in all of these issues. But he was important in so many ways. He commanded a great deal of respect beyond LGBTQ+ issues, as chair of the banking committee, for example. When Barney spoke, you listened.
Let’s look ahead a little bit. What do you think is the most important thing the next generation needs to do to help fix this country? We talked about voting, but is there's something that they're missing?
If we really want people to have confidence in democracy, we've got to reduce the role of big money in politics, we just have to, we just have to do that, especially the big dark money. If it's disclosed, then people are accountable, and right now, it's not disclosed. We would have a gun violence protection bill, if we had full transparency on who was getting big dark gun money. And I'm not talking about somebody getting $5,000 from the NRA, I'm talking about big industrial money, from manufacturing, for example.
And we have to fight for reducing mining, oil and gas, and dependency on the fossil fuel industry, which is preventing so much from happening in terms of climate change and the environment. And of course, control pharmaceutical companies and prescription prices. All of these among other things.
People have to know that their vote counts and that their voices are being heard, and that is more important than all the big money in politics. So I do think that in order to protect the democracy, which our founders gave a blessing to us to continue to create and update, with amendments to continue broadening the expanse of freedom they established from the start. They made it amenable to get rid of slavery, establish more voting rights, marriage equality, and a woman’s right to choose, and then the Supreme Court reversed that right. And that was a huge mistake!
So we have to make sure that the public knows what's at stake in elections. The court had no business doing that by usurping the privacy provision in the Constitution. People have to know what happens in elections. And they have to feel confident that their voice makes, and their votes, make a difference. And I think reducing the role of money, increasing the level of civility, getting more women, more people of color, and more LGBTQ people running for office.
Here’s a question that might test your memory. Do you recall the first LGBTQ+ person you ever met?
When I was a little girl, it wasn't a thing if so-and-so was gay or queer. We would never think of someone as being different, because we were taught that every person is special and should be respected. But thinking back, I did have friends who I met at the beach. But you didn’t say that they were gay, since everyone was a valued member of our community.
My parents had a friend who was an important businessman, and they just welcomed him into our home. I remember that. And It wasn't any different than anyone else who was welcomed in our home. Everyone was. Maybe you had people at that time who said, “Oh, aren’t you great for being so welcoming to someone who was gay,” but that was irrelevant. We made no judgments about anyone, and because of that, we were blessed to have so many wonderful people in our lives.