LGBTs express disappointment with Pelosi's speakership
by Matthew S. Bajko
She has been hailed as one of the most powerful speakers in the history of the House of Representatives. Her achievements since becoming the first woman to brandish the House gavel run the gamut from pushing through reforms of the nation's financial and health care systems to increasing pay for women and tuition assistance to college students.
Yet over her four-year run as the country's most powerful woman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-San Francisco) much lauded leadership skills resulted in little achievement in terms of LGBT rights. The list of pro-gay bills that went nowhere under Pelosi's watch include the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act; the Uniting American Families Act; repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Since Democrats retook control of both chambers in Congress and the White House in 2009, only one LGBT bill became law, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was passed that year. And only one other LGBT bill made it out of the House under Pelosi's watch, legislation to repeal the military's anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
The lack of a more robust track record on advancing equality for LGBT Americans has many within the gay community expressing disappointment with Pelosi's speakership. In interviews with the Bay Area Reporter over the last week, LGBT leaders said they expected more out of the longtime congresswoman.
"Disappointed would probably be the closest to it," San Jose lesbian activist Gloria Nieto said when asked how she felt about Pelosi's time as speaker.
Outgoing gay San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a former congressional staffer, added, "While I would have hoped to see more progress on our issues, both at the executive level and congressional level, I never questioned where she stood on our issues or commitment to the cause."
AIDS advocate and local blogger Michael Petrelis went even further and gave Pelosi a failing grade as speaker.
"I would give her the lowest grade possible," said Petrelis.
After watching Pelosi three years ago allow the House to pass a version of ENDA that excluded transgender issues and then promise LGBT leaders this spring to bring the fully inclusive ENDA up for a vote this year, then fail to make good on that promise, many in the transgender community, in particular, view Pelosi's reign as speaker as a lost opportunity.
"In general, most members of the transgender community are incredibly disappointed that the employment discrimination issue was not addressed," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. "For many transgender people employment and access to support services remains their number one issue. It is very disappointing that issues of basic fairness in the workplace were not addressed."
In response to the B.A.R.'s request for an interview with the speaker, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill issued a statement outlining her achievements.
"Speaker Pelosi has been a staunch advocate for the LGBT community in her over 20 years in the Congress; helping lead the fight against HIV/AIDS, opposing efforts to enshrine discrimination in the United States Constitution and served as a leading voice against Proposition 8 in California. Under her leadership as speaker, fully-inclusive hate crimes legislation is now the land of the land and the House passed the historic repeal of the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," wrote Hammill. "Nancy Pelosi will continue to be a friend, advocate, and staunch ally to the community and the leading voice in the Congress for LGBT equality."
Despite LGBT leaders' desire to have seen Pelosi achieve far more in terms of LGBT rights, they nonetheless agree that she remains one of the most vocal backers of the gay community on the national political stage.
Human Rights Campaign spokesman Fred Sainz, in response to the B.A.R.'s request for an interview with the national LGBT group's president, Joe Solmonese, who was unavailable, issued a statement in which he called Pelosi "a consistent ally and advocate not just for LGBT people but for all fair-minded Americans throughout her congressional career."
"She has vigorously supported full and equal rights for LGBT people long before it was politically acceptable to do so. She came to Congress to be a leader on HIV treatment and funding and has distinguished herself mightily on that important issue," stated Sainz. "More recently, she fought for DADT repeal and it passed with over 35 votes to spare. She has championed an inclusive ENDA, domestic partnership benefits for federal employees and voted against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. It's certainly helpful to have an ally like her as the leader."
In a phone interview, Sainz said that many of the speaker's legislative achievements that are not LGBT-centric will benefit the gay community, in particular opening up access to health care and financial reform.
"LGBT people, we are not an island. We benefit from the whole host of progressive agenda Nancy Pelosi stewarded from that House. Speaker Pelosi did very good things on behalf of all Americans," he said. "Would we have preferred to see more progress on LGBT centric issues? Absolutely, no doubt about it this Congress should have done more. But when history is written on her LGBT bona fides, I think history will remember her as a great champion on behalf of our community."
Rick Jacobs, the openly gay founder and chairman of the progressive Courage Campaign, told the B.A.R. that LGBT people can be proud of Pelosi's time as speaker because she took risks on behalf of the community.
"As a progressive, as a gay man, as a Californian, I feel very indebted to Nancy Pelosi," said Jacobs.
He pointed to her pushing to see the House repeal DADT only to see the Democratic congressman who led the effort, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, be defeated in his bid for re-election last week.
"From an activist, organizer perspective, and as somebody who lives in California, here is what I see. I see that the House, time and time again, including and especially with DADT, stuck its neck out and, in general, got it chopped off at the Senate," said Jacobs. "Asking the speaker to keep pushing stuff that was going to get killed in the Senate doesn't make a lot of sense. Anybody who is complaining about what she did ought to think three times about it."
He added that, "It is myopic to say, 'You didn't do that and that and that, therefore you didn't do anything for me.'"
Pelosi is likely just as disappointed as the LGBT community that more pro-gay bills didn't get enacted, said Ernest Hopkins, legislative director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
"She would be the first to say she wished there had been more movement on other LGBT bills," said Hopkins.
One of the main problems Pelosi faced, said Hopkins, was a Democratic caucus that included many conservative so-called Blue Dogs who were not in support of such things as ENDA.
"We certainly had a lot of promise and expectation that many of the more progressive policy issues that had been hanging around for a while were going to finally be addressed. What none of us took into sufficient account was the challenge that exists in managing a caucus of the size of her caucus with the diversity of policy perspectives of the caucus," said Hopkins. "It was challenging for her to be responsive to progressive members and at the same time listen to the Blue Dogs and even more conservative Democrats than the Blue Dogs."
Pelosi built on AIDS achievements
If there was one area of concern to the gay community where Pelosi did make great strides while speaker, it would be on AIDS related issues.
Over the last four years she was able to secure $17 million in federal funding for AIDS services around the Bay Area that would have been cut due to a complicated formula that benefits jurisdictions outside urban areas. Another $4.9 million is pending for the 2011 fiscal year.
Her legislative achievements included lifting the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange, a key HIV prevention strategy; lifting the travel ban for people with HIV or AIDS; increasing federal funding for AIDS research; and reauthorization of the landmark Ryan White CARE Act, now known as the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act.
While she and her Democratic majority have been attacked for the health care reform they pushed through this year, they have won praise from AIDS leaders for numerous aspects of the legislation. The bill increased access to Medicaid for people with HIV; ended health insurers' ability to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions such as HIV; and ended annual and lifetime caps on health benefits.
"I think it will be hard for most people to see the impact she has had until we get further along the road to full implementation of the health care legislation. We are still figuring out the details of what will be covered and what won't," said Davis. "If LGBT people across the board are able to access nondiscriminatory care or competent care, and if transgender people can get care for all the services they need, then I believe the speaker will have quite a legacy."
Randy Allgaier, director of the San Francisco HIV Health Services Planning Council, praised Pelosi and her staff for giving AIDS advocates "better access to the leader of the House of Representatives than we ever had. That can't be overstated."
"I don't think her impact on people living with HIV AIDS can be understated. I think it has been huge," added Allgaier, who is on the board of the Communities Advocating Emergency AIDS Relief, or CAEAR, Coalition.
While the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation ran ads this fall in her district critical of Pelosi for the under-funding of the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, Allgaier said the blame was misplaced.
"I know that folks recently have attacked her for not finding the money for ADAP that is needed by the states. The issue is bigger than Congress or the president, it is an issue states must address," he said. "I think that was poorly targeting her."
Hopkins said one of the biggest changes Pelosi helped to bring about was ensuring that the Ryan White CARE Act was written in a way to help urban cities with large populations of people living with HIV and AIDS.
"I think she gets credit for all the provisions related to making the formula more responsive to places like California. For many years it was responsive more to states and jurisdictions that did not do a good job of keeping people alive," said Hopkins.
Support for seeing her continue
Despite the hand wringing over the paucity of LGBT achievements while she was speaker, Pelosi has wide support among the gay community for her decision to run for minority leader and not retire from Congress.
"She has been a longstanding and ardent supporter of the LGBT community and I will do anything to help continue her leadership," stated openly gay Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colorado). "The speaker has led the Democrats out of the wilderness before and I am confident she can do it again."
The Transgender Law Center's Davis agreed that Pelosi has been an "incredibly strong" leader on Capitol Hill.
"She has been pragmatic and strategic in what she has pursued," said Davis. "In the long run, I think she will be remembered for being the first female speaker in the House that endeavored to bring San Francisco values to Washington. It seems that was a harder task than she anticipated, especially in the current political environment."
Nieto said she is looking forward to watching Pelosi spar with Republican Speaker in waiting John Boehner, whom she referred to as "the orange man from Ohio."
"I think Pelosi is a great politician and I wouldn't want to go into a knife fight with her," said Nieto. "I am glad she is going to stay in leadership. We need that progressive thinking there."
At the same time, Nieto echoed comments Petrelis has long made about the need for Pelosi to hold town hall meetings in San Francisco with her constituents like other Bay Area congressional members.
"It is the same criticism Obama is getting. They are not hearing from regular folks like us," she said.