The 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, died 10 years ago today. Even though he lived for 15 years after leaving office (largely in seclusion due to his long battle with Alzheimer’s disease), Americans remember him mainly as he was during his time in the White House: as a vigorous man of boundless optimism and faith in America, the place he liked to call the "shining city on a hill.”
Many LGBT citizens, however, remember him quite differently. That is particularly true of those who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In their view, Reagan was no better than a murderer, a man who allowed for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. This narrative was further reinforced recently in the HBO film The Normal Heart, in which Reagan is basically held personally accountable for the lack of progress in fighting the disease during his presidency.
The picture that people like to paint of Reagan in the LGBT community is that he was a ferociously antigay zealot who believed that AIDS was a punishment brought down by God upon the gay community. But what if the real story is a bit more complicated than that?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not by any means arguing that Reagan was perfect when it came to gay rights. To the contrary, he absolutely did not act fast enough to address AIDS, and he certainly was not as forthright and public in his support for the LGBT community as he should’ve been. But he also wasn’t the devil that many make him out to be. I know I’m going to be torn apart by many of the readers of this article, considering that I am a young gay progressive Democrat who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the defense of a conservative Republican, but ultimately the context matters.
On a personal level, those who knew him say Reagan was certainly not in any way antigay. My father, Morgan Mason, who served as a top aide during the 1980 campaign as well as in the White House, has attested to this. Ed Meese, Reagan’s attorney general, has said that depictions of Reagan as antigay are “totally unfair and totally unrepresentative of his views or anything he ever said.” Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson said that “the notion that he was somehow callous or had a cruel or cynical attitude towards homosexuals or AIDS victims is just ridiculous.”
Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis wrote in a Time magazine article in 2003 about how her father explained to her back in the early ’60s, while watching a Rock Hudson movie on TV, that certain men, like Rock, were more interested in kissing men than women. He said it, according to Patti, in a completely positive, nonjudgmental way. Patti and her brother Ron were even looked after as kids by a lesbian couple who were friends of Ronald and Nancy’s. The Reagans had close gay friends throughout their lives, including their years in Washington.
To some, however, this means nothing. You can be personally pro-gay, many argue, but that doesn’t mean anything if you’re still antigay when it comes to your policies. I am sympathetic to that argument, particularly in the context of, for example, George W. Bush, who in 2004, regardless of however he may have felt about gays privately, used his proposed marriage ban as a political tool in winning reelection. But in Reagan’s case, I don’t think the argument makes sense, considering his political record was at times pro-gay too.
Believe it or not, Reagan was one of the first major politicians in history to come out for gay rights. Just a year before he announced his candidacy for president, he came out forcefully against Proposition 6 in California, which would’ve barred gay people from teaching in public schools. Not only did he have no political incentive to do it, but it could’ve been a huge catastrophe. In speaking out against the initiative, Reagan used language that was way ahead of its time; he argued that “prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” Some dismiss his support as too last-minute to have made a difference. But as his biographer Lou Cannon once put it, Reagan knew the risks but “chose to state his convictions.”
It was an important moment for Reagan. Before that statement, The Advocate had called out Reagan for referring to gay people as “sick unfortunates” and for stalling repeal of antisodomy laws in the state in the early ’70s. Again, he was far from perfect, especially when it came to the AIDS crisis.
At the end of HBO's The Normal Heart, an epilogue corrected a frequent accusation that Reagan didn’t mention AIDS publicly until 1987, which is simply untrue. He didn't make a formal speech on AIDS until then, but had actually declared in a 1985 press conference that AIDS was “a top priority” and that there was “no question about the seriousness” of the disease and the “need to find an answer.” He said in 1986 in a press release that AIDS was a “major epidemic public health threat” that “remains the highest public health priority.” The Normal Heart condemned those statements for being followed by his administration's proposed cuts in funding. Still, during the Reagan presidency, more than $5 billion was appropriated for research on the disease. Was that enough? Obviously not, but failing to do enough is different from doing nothing.
Patti Davis said last year that she believed her father would’ve been in favor of same-sex marriage. I tend to agree. Whatever his mistakes were when it came to HIV and AIDS, she suggests that the former president kept a live-and-let-live attitude when it came to gay people, in line with the broader pro-freedom principles he espoused for America.
My father once said that Reagan was “the most authentic man” he’d ever met and that “he didn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body.” Was Reagan a perfect man? No. He wasn't an evil man either.
JAMES DUKE MASON is an actor, writer, and political activist in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JamesDukeMason.