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Opinion Nancy Pelosi explains: San Francisco values are American values

Revelers celebrate Pride in 2022 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
5 min

Republicans have spent nearly three decades running against San Francisco and its cultural openness. When Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick assailed “San Francisco Democrats” at the 1984 Republican National Convention, she was in principle referring to the city where Democrats had held their own convention. But everybody knew she was also sending a message to traditionalist Americans: Democrats just aren’t like you.

Nowadays, Republicans insult the city as the pinnacle of wokeism; in reality, it represents something essential about being American. No one understands this better than its elected member of Congress, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi.

True, San Francisco is a singular place, as I was reminded on a recent visit. After attending an early-morning Easter Mass, I stopped by that afternoon at Dolores Park, home of the annual “Hunky Jesus” and “Foxy Mary” celebration, a drag show organized by a 44-year-old queer and trans group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. You could view the gathering as a “Blasphemous San Francisco Easter tradition,” as SFGate put it, or as a celebration of freedom and peaceful coexistence — or both.

I mentioned my excursion to Pelosi during an interview in her office in the Capitol last week because in the years since she first arrived in Congress in 1987, she has spoken for the diversity of experience in her city not only from the perspective of a liberal politician but also as someone who takes her Catholic faith very seriously.

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Her complexity is useful to ponder at a moment when rote commentary on political polarization suggests that our country is divided into camps that have nothing in common, that people are incapable of changing their minds on anything, that our lines of hatred and mistrust are impermeable, and that politicians are doomed to be cartoonlike representatives of prefabricated ideologies.

Some do behave like cartoons — a certain event on CNN last week comes to mind — but Pelosi isn’t one of them. The 83-year-old mother of five who will celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary this year became one of the most consequential political figures in our nation’s history in part because she defied the stereotypes imposed on her and her city. She crossed boundaries all the time. A Democrat of the pro-labor, kitchen table (“the power table in our country,” she says) variety, she has also championed women’s and LGBTQ rights and sees both as reinforced — not contradicted — by her rather old-fashioned Catholicism.

“We’re all God’s children,” she insisted. “People say to me, ‘Oh, it’s easy for you to be where you are because San Francisco is so tolerant.’ And I say to them, tolerant is a condescending word to me in certain respects. It’s not about tolerance; it’s about respect, and it’s about taking pride.”

In her first speech in Congress, she spoke of the urgency of the HIV/AIDS crisis that was ravaging the country — and her city especially. “I was going to funerals sometimes more than one a day, certainly more than one a week,” she said.

Pelosi’s perspective and experience lead her to believe that time is on the side of openness. She noted that during the AIDS crisis, many discovered for the first time that someone in their family was gay. “The more people knew people,” the more “attitudes changed.” The shift in public opinion around same-sex marriage seemed sudden, she said, but it wasn’t. It was the product of a long period of more and more Americans realizing that LGBTQ people were part of their lives. “I think that that same thing will happen on the trans front.”

Republicans, she added, have little to contribute on her revered kitchen table issues — she highlights the “unfinished business” of the child tax credit, family and medical leave, and home health care — so they turn to social divisions. As she summarized, “They have nothing, so they had to pick on trans” people.

This is nothing new in politics: “It used to be guns, gays and God,” along with abortion. But on guns and abortion, conservatives are rapidly losing ground. On LGBTQ rights, opinion is closer than ever to the views of, well, San Francisco Democrats.

As for God, Pelosi has never given any ground. She noted that her city’s name refers to Saint Francis of Assisi, its patron saint famous for his prayer expressing hope that he could sow love where there is hatred. “So when they talk about the San Francisco Democrats,” she said, “we’re proud of that.”

Right before Donald Trump went on CNN for his town hall, Pelosi joined Hillary Clinton on a Zoom call with Democratic women. She told the group that “love” could be seen as an acronym for “Let Other Versions Exist.” Pelosi’s career has been a wager on the openness of her fellow citizens to many versions of being human and being American. It’s been a solid bet.