Nancy Pelosi: 30 Years an AIDS Advocate

The Democratic House Minority Leader is scheduled to appear on RuPaul’s Drag Race, yet younger generations may be unaware of her decades-long advocacy for persons living with HIV/AIDS.

Congresswoman Pelosi (left) and actress Elizabeth Taylor testify before the House Budget Committee on HIV/AIDS funding on March 6th, 1990. Photo via Nancy Pelosi Flickr.

On May 31st of 1987, President Ronald Reagan formally addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis for the first time during his remarks at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C. (SF Gate). In 1981, the first cases of what would come to be known as HIV/AIDS had been identified both within the medical community and the popular press. Reagan, in 1985, first spoke the acronym offhandedly during a press conference after the American Hospital in Paris announced that Hollywood actor Rock Hudson, a personal friend of both the President and the First Lady, had died of the disease on July 25th. Due to the publicity generated by Hudson’s death, this strange new acronym — AIDS — became known in households throughout America. 1987 saw the approval of AZT, the first anti-HIV drug, by the FDA. That same year, the U.S. closed its borders to HIV-positive immigrants and travelers, and gay journalist Randy Shilts published And the Band Plays On, a landmark account of the early years of the epidemic.

Yet Reagan and his administration did not break their silence. By the time he acknowledged the epidemic 50,280 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 47,993 had died (CDC). When he finally spoke, Reagan’s remarks did not engender confidence that his administration would take the epidemic seriously, diverting necessary funding to testing, safe sex education, drug trials, and treatment. Reagan, in fact, believed it was not the federal government’s responsibility to provide safe sex education to the American public. “How that information is used,” he said, “must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let’s be honest with ourselves, AIDS information can not be what some call ‘value neutral.’ After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons” (ACT UP).

Though Reagan’s presidency is much mythologized, there is no doubt that the response of his administration, which ranged from indifference to outright hostility, increased the body count. Reagan’s communications director, Pat Buchanan, for example, stated that AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.” In reality, Reagan chose personal power over a humane and compassionate response to a new and deadly illness that cost thousands of Americans their lives. Propelled to the Oval Office by the likes of conservative political-action groups such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the new religious right, who used virulent anti-gay rhetoric to amass political support, Reagan feared losing the endorsement of his core supporters were he to respond to a national crisis that was associated primarily with gay men. His own words directly implied that any honest discussion of AIDS was tantamount to an endorsement of homosexuality and therefore immoral. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, founded in New York City in March of 1987, just two months before Reagan delivered his remarks, labeled the deadly indifference coming from the White House and the hall of Congress as “AIDSGATE”: a scandal of similar proportions to Nixon’s Watergate.

Image Credit: ACT UP via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

If Reagan had put partisan politics and homophobia aside and argued that one’s sexual orientation does not justify suffering and death, who knows how the course of the epidemic, gay rights, and American History may have been altered. The slogan “Silence = Death,” coined by Gran Fury, an art/activist collective within the broader New York City chapter of ACT UP, was not merely a catchy and provocative saying. For Ronald Reagan’s silence literally resulted in thousands of American deaths at the hands of indifferent and unmoved politicians and government institutions.

Image Credit: Gran Fury via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

There was, however, a politician who was ready to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic head on: Nancy Pelosi, a newly-minted member of the House of Representatives from California’s 5th district. A 47-year-old Catholic mother of five known for her stylish suits and signature Tahitian pearl necklaces, Pelosi, on the surface, seemed an unlikely champion for those impacted by AIDS. Yet in her first House floor speech, delivered on June 9th of 1987, Pelosi addressed the epidemic, going so far as to state that she had come to Congress to fight AIDS. “Now we must take leadership, of course, in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that,” she said, in a rebuke of Reagan’s tepid acknowledgment of the disease.

In a reversal of moral arguments against homosexuality, Pelosi cited her Catholic faith as the reason she was pro-gay rights. “We are all God’s children,” she explained, “and that includes gay people.” Her linkage of Catholicism to gay rights was not insignificant at a time when the Catholic Church and gay activists clashed over the Church’s opposition to condom use, one of the primary ways to prevent HIV infection at the height of the epidemic. On December 10th of 1989, ACT UP staged a controversial protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located in Midtown Manhattan, over comments made by Cardinal John J. O’Connor in opposition to safe sex practices. ACT UPers interrupted O’Connor’s 10:15 A.M. mass, staging a die-in and chaining themselves to pews, while a crowd of thousands protested outside. When activists inside the cathedral laid in the aisles to symbolize the growing death toll and refused to stand to face arrest, police, ironically, carried them out on stretchers.

Informed by San Francisco’s community-centered response to the epidemic, Pelosi helped to secure HIV/AIDS funding for her home district and other care, research, and prevention initiatives such as expanding access to Medicaid for people with HIV/AIDS and increasing funding for the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act. White, a teenager from Indiana who contracted HIV in 1984 from a blood transfusion for hemophilia, was an advocate for AIDS research until his death in 1990. The largest federally funded program for persons with HIV/AIDS, the act sought to improve the availability of care for those living with the disease who were low income or uninsured and their families.

Pelosi also played an important role in the conception of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Envisioned by San Francisco activist and Harvey Milk protegee Cleve Jones, the Quilt drew upon the medium of folk art to commemorate the lives of those who had died of AIDS. The idea for the quilt was born when, during a 1985 candlelight march to commemorate the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Jones asked marchers to write the names of loved ones lost to the epidemic on squares of cardboard that were then taped to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building.

Jones, who had grown up as a Quaker, was immediately reminded of the quilts made by women in his family, as well as the significance of quilts in American history.

“It made me think of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” he would later write. “It evoked images of pioneer women making camp by the Conestoga wagons. Or African slaves in the South, hoarding scraps of fabric from the master’s house. It spoke of cast-offs, discarded remnants, different colors and textures, sewn together to create something beautiful and useful and warm. Comforters” (OUT).

Jones and his friends began making 4-by-6-foot quilt panels in their backyards, determined to unveil their creation on the National Mall at the October 1987 Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

Congresswoman Pelosi being interviewed at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987. Photo via Nancy Pelosi Flickr.

Jones knew he needed assistance from San Francisco’s new Congressional representative, Nancy Pelosi, though he initially feared approaching her because he had campaigned for her Democratic primary challenger, Supervisor Harry Britt. Pelosi readily agreed, but was skeptical. “Cleve,” she said, “I actually know how to sew and enjoy it, but do you really think people will find the time to do this?” (OUT). But Jones had faith in the vision he glimpsed that night outside the candlelit Federal Building and pushed ahead.

The NAMES Project, however, immediately chafed against both the organizers of the march, who were not enthused by the idea of draping the National Mall in fabric, and the National Parks Service, who feared the Quilt would kill the Mall’s carefully manicured lawn. Pelosi said she would take care of the National Parks Service if Jones could convince the gay community to get on board. In a move that demonstrated her political savvy, she humorously told the Parks Service that volunteers would “fluff” the Quilt panels every hour so the underlying grass could breathe. The Second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights drew around 500,000 people and, thanks to Pelosi’s efforts, the NAMES Project was able to unfold 1,920 Quilt panels, representing more than 20,000 Americans who had lost their lives to AIDS or AIDS-related causes.

Photo Credit: AP via OUT.

Jones went on to tour the country with the Quilt, and Pelosi spearheaded numerous programs and pieces of legislation to benefit persons with AIDS. In 1996, she helped to pass legislation designating AIDS Memorial Grove, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, as a national memorial. During her years as Speaker of the House, she helped to increase HIV/AIDS funding over half a billion dollars as well as increase global funding for AIDS prevention and treatment.

Congresswoman Pelosi joins constituents at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. Photo via Nancy Pelosi Flickr.

Her most significant contribution to AIDS advocacy, however, may be her leadership in the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as “Obamacare.” The ACA had significant impact on the lives of persons with HIV/AIDS, increasing access to Medicare and ending discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and annual and lifetime caps on health benefits. Her continued defense of the ACA is an extension of her 30 years of leadership on HIV/AIDS. Chris Collins, a former Pelosi staffer and director of public policy for amFAR (the Foundation for AIDS Research), remarked that Pelosi is “the greatest AIDS advocate I’ve ever known in my life” (Advocate).

Yet, some have criticized Pelosi for failing to prioritize passage of the Equality Act, legislation which would give members of the LGBTQ community federal non-discrimination protections in the areas of employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service, when, following the election of President Barack Obama, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress from 2009 to 2011, or during her tenure as Speaker from 2007 to 2011.

Recently, it was announced that the veteran Congresswoman would appear as a guest judge on the third season of the VH1 reality television series RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars. A long-time fan of the show, Pelosi said she chose to appear, in part, to visibly show support for members of the LGBTQ community in the face of attacks from the Trump administration. Young people, however, may be unaware of Pelosi’s 30-year contributions to LGBTQ rights and AIDS advocacy outside her current role as House Minority Leader.

“No one has fought harder than Nancy Pelosi,” said Bono, lead vocalist of the band U2. “Millions of people all over the world owe their lives to Nancy and the bipartisan coalition that fought to contain the AIDS epidemic, not just here in America, but in the poorest parts of this planet.” But others, namely those on the political right, remain willfully blind to Pelosi’s contributions because their view of the world is clouded by a haze of misogyny, focusing on Pelosi’s age or physical appearance instead of her advocacy and legislative accomplishments. Much like Hillary Clinton, the woman they despise is a media-spawned caricature — not Nancy Pelosi, the real woman, herself.

On the 35th anniversary of the discovery of HIV/AIDS in America, Pelosi issued a statement in which she said the following:

“HIV has proven to be a tenacious and resourceful virus, ever mutating to escape our destruction of it. We must be equally tenacious and resourceful to at long last banish HIV to the dustbin of history. We cannot take our progress for granted — we must continue to act with urgency, vigilance, and compassion.”

Pelosi has acted in just such a way for three decades, and we would do well to follow her lead, lest the horrors of the past return to reinfect the present.

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