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Reflecting on Nancy Pelosi's Longtime Fight Against HIV

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Though the outspoken representative has handed in her speaker’s gavel, her momentous HIV work will continue.

“One of my motivations in running for Congress was to address the AIDS issue,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi stated in a 2014 interview where she described the start of her political career. Now, 35 years after she won a special election in the House of Representatives and more than 15 years after she became the first female Speaker of the House, Pelosi is preparing to hand her gavel to another Democratic congressperson (she will remain in the House, just not in a leadership role).

Representing much of San Francisco, Pelosi was personally devastated by HIV and, in her first speech in the House, proclaimed the disease was the reason she ran for office. After being sworn in to Congress, Pelosi was prompted by then-Speaker Jim Wright to address her peers. Surprised at the request, the 47-year-old mother of five gave a short and honest statement.

“I am here to fight HIV and AIDS,” Pelosi said. “We must take leadership of course in the crisis of AIDS.”

Pelosi’s fellow congressmembers were scandalized by her statement, especially since President Ronald Reagan hadn’t uttered the word “AIDS” at that time — even though tens of thousands of Americans had died from it.

“Imagine, in ’87, we had a president in the White House that wasn’t mentioning the words,” Pelosi said in that 2014 interview with SiriusXM. “Coming from San Francisco, all of us shared the experience of holding people in our arms until they died who were healthy just a few years earlier. [Fighting HIV] really was my mission.”

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Pelosi delivers the minority report to the Democratic National Nominating Convention in 1992 (left), Pelosi in February 1987 (right)

It wasn’t lip service: “I got myself on the committees of jurisdiction that would increase the funding for care, for prevention, and for hopefully finding a cure and maybe a vaccine.”

Her work for HIV causes never ceased; she increased funding for research, expanded access to Medicaid for people living with HIV, boosted the Ryan White CARE program, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and the Minority HIV/AIDS initiative, and participated in some of the earliest meetings for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, sewing her own patch for the flower girl in her wedding who died from HIV-related complications.

Though she will not longer be Speaker or House minority leader, Pelosi will continue to fight HIV because, as she said almost a decade ago, “I never thought 25, 26 years ago that we would project to now and still not have a cure.”

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