House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems to inspire dislike from everyone: conservatives dislike her for being a liberal feminist. Moderate Democrats see her as too left-wing. The far left wing of the Democratic Party sees her as too moderate. Libertarians dislike her partly because she joins most members of both parties’ establishments in voting to continue the Surveillance State. She’s seen as too Coastal, too patrician, too friendly to corporations. Democratic candidates sometimes disavow her. Many Democrats believe that she is a liability to the party and should no longer be House Minority Leader or, if the GOP loses control of the House in 2018, Speaker. I have many political disagreements with Pelosi myself. Economically, her views are a bad combination of heavy government spending and regulation mixed with corporatism. She has, indeed, voted the wrong way many times when it comes to reigning in out-of-control government surveillance. She is very supportive of what I consider to be misguided gun control policies. And while she is supportive of pot legalization, a case could be made that she has not done enough to promote it. Nevertheless, I believe that she should retain her position of power in Congress until she is ready to retire.
Why, you may ask, do I feel this way? The answer lies in her record on LGBT rights. A little-known fact is that Nancy Pelosi almost certainly has the strongest record of any national politician with her degree of political power, who has been serving as long as she has. Other politicians have LGBT rights that are as strong as Pelosi’s, but they are state or local politicians, Representatives and Senators less political powerful than her, or people who have been in office a shorter time. While her LGBT rights advocacy in the 2010s has been impressive, I think that it is worth looking back at her earlier record, since it showcases the degree to which she has been a trailblazer on these issues. When Pelosi joined Congress in 1987, her first speech on the House floor was about fighting AIDS. That same year, she cosponsored an anti-discrimination bill for gay people. Keep in mind that 31 years later, there is still no federal ban on businesses discriminating based on sexual orientation. In 1993, Pelosi attended a gay rights march in Washington and bucked the Clinton Administration by voting against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise. She voted against it due to her belief that gay soldiers should be allowed to serve openly. In 1996, she was one of just 67 Representatives who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act–once again, defying the Clintons. In fact, for every year that have been able to find data for, the Human Rights Campaign gave her a rating of 100%. “I rise in strong opposition to this ill-named ‘Defense of Marriage Act’,” the Congresswoman proclaimed, “and I do so on the basis of conscience, Constitution and constituency.” House Democrats voted in favor of this bigoted piece of legislation by nearly two-to-one. In the Senate, Democrats voted in favor of it by over two-to-one.
It was in 2004 that Pelosi would take perhaps her most courageous stand in favor of gay rights. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage the previous year. George W. Bush reneged on a campaign promise and called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage, which Republicans in the House and Senate overwhelmingly supported. San Fransisco’s courageous Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in direct defiance of California law. But nationally, most Democrats practically fell over themselves to assure voters that they did not support gay marriage. As far as I can tell from my research, only one sitting Senator, Ron Wyden, openly supported gay marriage at that point. A few other brave Senators–Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer–would come out in support within the next couple of years. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle combined opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment with boasts about his vote in favor of DOMA. “In South Dakota, we’ve never had a single same sex marriage,” promised Daschle, “And we won’t have any. It’s prohibited by South Dakota law as it is now in 38 other states.” John Kerry, who had been one of the Senate’s prominent gay rights champions for over fifteen years, panicked when he feared that marriage equality in his home state would sink his campaign. He repudiated the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision and announced that he had been mistaken to vote against DOMA and now supported the bill. “I was incorrect in that statement,” Kerry said with regard to his original opposition to DOMA. “I think, in fact, that no state has to recognize something that is against their public policy. While Boxer would come out in support of gay marriage two years later, she declared in 2004 that marriage was between a man and a woman. Even Barney Frank, a trailblazer for LGBT rights and one of my personal heroes, publicly criticized Newsom’s issuing of marriage licenses as politically foolish.
In a March 25, 2004 interview, Pelosi initially tried to dodge questions about gay marriage, claiming that her focus was on defeating the Federal Marriage Amendment. But when pressed by Neil Cavuto and asked, “Can same-sex couples marry?” she responded, “Yes.” When Cavuto asked whether she would approve of Newsom’s actions, she again replied, “Yes.” This support may seem perfunctory and tepid now, but it was very courageous in 2004 and went far beyond what even most other liberal Democrats and certainly Democrats in similar places to Pelosi on the pecking order were comfortable with. All of the stances that Pelosi has taken on gay and transgender rights would be considered standard for a prominent Democrat now, and nobody could be nominated by the party for president these days without endorsing them. But a decade and a half ago, they were nothing short of radical. That has to count for something. Pelosi has spent over thirty years being on the correct side of one of the most important human rights issues of our time with remarkable consistency. She does not deserve to be deposed from her leadership position for not being correct on every single other issue. Nobody can measure up to those kinds of purity tests. Oh, and what about Tim Ryan, the Democratic Representative from Ohio who challenged Pelosi in 2016 and 2017 for the position of House Minority Leader and has harshly criticized her? Well, early in his political career, he was scoring as low as 55% from the Human Rights Campaign, in contrast to Pelosi’s perfect scores. It’s great that he and many other politicians have come around on LGBT rights, but converts shouldn’t lead. Trailblazers like Nancy Pelosi should.