Why Nancy Pelosi was hanging out at a D.C. gay bar watching ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks at the “RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars” watch party at Nellie's Sports Bar in Washington. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks at the “RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars” watch party at Nellie's Sports Bar in Washington. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post) By Jessica Contrera Jessica Contrera Enterprise reporter focusing on stories about people whose lives are affected by what's happening in the news Email Bio Follow March 9

The watch party was about to begin at Nellie’s, the best-known (to straight people) gay bar in Washington. The TVs were set to VH1 for the drag-queen competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars.” A disco ball glittered overhead — and in walked the most powerful woman in Congress.

“Naaaancyyyy!” someone howled. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi waved to them with both hands. A suit-jacketed, earpieced agent shuffled behind her as the crowd closed in on all sides. The guests had paid $25 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to be here. They wanted hugs and selfies and a chance to show off their terry cloth armbands adorned with Pelosi’s name. The bar was so loud, she probably couldn’t hear most of what they were saying. She smiled and nodded anyway.

U Street is not a regular pit stop for the 77-year-old congresswoman, though we imagine that most nights she is in need of a strong drink. She was here to celebrate her guest appearance on “Drag Race,” a show lauded for pushing drag culture into the mainstream. Her moment on the program, filmed last August and airing for the first time on this night, was expected to last all of 90 seconds. But to those gathered around her, it was unquestionably significant.

“Back when I came out, gay bars I went to didn’t even have windows,” said Nellie’s owner Doug Schantz. “Who would have ever thought we should have someone like Nancy come here, and be on this show?”

Pelosi’s answer would probably be that she would have thought. Her appearance on “Drag Race” was a marketing opportunity, a chance to tout her record as a steadfast advocate for LGBTQ rights. When she came to Congress in 1987, she said in an interview earlier in the day, she was criticized for even mentioning the AIDS epidemic as a priority.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not in San Francisco anymore,’ ” she said.

When she became majority leader in 2003, “every time I went on a show, the first question was ‘Do you believe in gay marriage?’ ” she recalled. “And I would say, ‘Yes, because I don’t believe in discrimination of any kind.’ And that would be their ‘Ho, ho, ho, look how liberal she is.’ ”

Pelosi has recently been the target of a slew of Republican attack ads, taking the place of Hillary Clinton as the GOP’s go-to boogeyman. But those ads have focused on taxes and immigration; LGBTQ issues, as a rallying cry for the right, have faded.

“I’ve said to people all along, ‘Say what you will, but you’ll soon be saying what I’m saying, because this is the future,’ ” she said.

Is that future threatened, now that the president has called for a ban on transgender people in the military and eliminated protections for transgender students in public schools?

“We are very saddened about some of the things that have happened in this administration in rolling back protections and opportunities and the rest,” she told the crowd at Nellie’s when she was handed a microphone. “We are very sad that we don’t have a Congress that will reverse that.”

Someone shouted: “Yet!”

“Not just yet,” she concurred. That was another reason to go on “Drag Race.” She used the segment as an opportunity to remind viewers, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”

Pelosi’s guest appearance on the RuPaul show, which aired Thursday night, was taped in August. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post) Guests at the watch party, a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wore armbands inscribed with Pelosi’s name. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Off-camera, she spent a few hours on the set, listening to the queens’ stories, eating RuPaul-branded chocolates and having her hair and makeup done by the show staff. Her communications director admitted to being slightly concerned about what they would cake onto Pelosi’s face, given the show’s knack for grandeur.

But when she appeared on the television, dressed in a white suit and heels, she looked the same as the woman standing beneath the Nellie’s disco ball. The crowd around her hooted and applauded, drowning out RuPaul’s introduction.

Her husband, Paul Pelosi, stood beside her, sipping a pink beverage concocted by a bartender in a “Mean Girls” tank top. Paul said he had never seen “Drag Race” until he did some research on the show. His first impression? “It’s a little wild, but I’m from San Francisco,” he shrugged.

On the screen, a queen was saying, “I’m dying. I just want to say thank you to her, I want to hug her, I want to be like, ‘Kick their ass.’ ”

Someone turned up the volume. RuPaul’s voice blared from the bar’s speakers. “Congresswoman Pelosi is a strong woman,” he said, “who knows how to get things done.”

The crowd cheered again. Pelosi’s husband turned, looking at her affectionately. She gave a little wave, then placed her hand on her chin and looked back at the screen, studying her own performance.