Is Reagan's legacy still hurting gays?
June 08 2004 12:00 AM ET
The legacy of President Ronald Reagan--who died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at age 93--continues to provoke a powerful rage among many gay men and lesbians across the country, while others choose to remember the Republican's positive accomplishments.
As the 40th U.S. president is lionized at memorial services from Simi Valley, Calif., to the U.S. Capitol this week, countless gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans--especially those with horrific memories of friends and family members lost to AIDS--still wonder: Did the Reagan administration do enough to stop the disease at the beginning? Do the former president's policies and allies continue to hold back gay equality?
"I shed no tears at the passing of Ronald Reagan," wrote Philip Hitchcock, an openly gay sculptor from Venice, Calif., in a letter published Monday in the Los Angeles Times. "My tears are and were for the hundreds of thousands of Americans with HIV on whom Mr. Reagan turned his back. I weep for the scores and scores of men whose names, one by one, I blacked out of my address book. At a time when he could have shown real leadership in the face of a crisis, Mr. Reagan could not even say the word 'AIDS' publicly his first four years in office."
Yet those delivering the eulogies, the media covering them, and even a public statement by the Human Rights Campaign--the largest gay civil rights group--seem loathe to dissect the negative aspects of Reagan's record. (HRC's initial statement on Reagan's death does not mention AIDS, for example.)
Other outlets are instead choosing to remember a folksy crusader who made it big in Hollywood and devoted his presidency to winning the Cold War, scaling back government, and making voters believe it was "morning again in America." After all, criticizing Reagan can bring a severe backlash. Last November his conservative supporters were successful in stopping CBS from airing a controversial miniseries about his presidency. The screenplay reportedly quoted Reagan in a private conversation about AIDS saying, "They that live in sin shall die in sin"--a quotation deemed a lie by a former White House aide. (The line did not appear in the final film, which was broadcast on the pay-cable channel Showtime, a corporate sister to CBS. That version is being released on DVD this month.)
"The coverage of his death reflects the way the Reagan administration dealt with the AIDS epidemic. They didn't," Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, tells Advocate.com. "He was silent on the epidemic, and that is reflected in the coverage of his life and his presidency. He was president at the time when the worse health crisis of our time took hold in this country."
But the gay men and lesbians who revere Reagan said Monday that a single world leader cannot be faulted for the advent of AIDS during the 1980s. At the time, activists had a difficult time convincing not just the Administration but also the media, other lawmakers, and the general public that the epidemic would spread so quickly. "It was a period of much less visibility in the gay and lesbian movement," said Chris Barron, political director for the gay political group Log Cabin Republicans. "I think that Reagan was beloved by so many Americans. The coverage I've seen so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Reagan returned an optimism to this country that we had lost. He made people feel good about themselves and good about being Americans."
Barron added that Reagan was instrumental in the formation of the Log Cabin Republicans. In 1977, Reagan offered support to a group of gay men and lesbians who were protesting California's so-called Briggs Initiative, a ballot measure that would have barred them from teaching at public schools. Reagan, the former governor of California, came out against the measure, and it failed. "It was in the tradition of Ronald Reagan for the Republican Party to be the party of 'leave me alone,'" said Barron. "That's the legacy that Ronald Reagan leaves behind."
In office from 1981 to 1989, Reagan came under intense fire from gay activists for not allocating major federal funding to combat AIDS. The disease was first reported in 1981, but the president did not even publicly address the plague until 1985. By 1987 there were 60,000 reported cases of AIDS and 30,000 deaths.
Meanwhile, he and his handlers swelled the Republican Party ranks with shrill, antigay Christian conservatives who fueled mass hysteria about the epidemic. The White House director of communications, Patrick Buchanan, once argued in print that AIDS was nature's revenge on gay men. Reagan's secretary of education, William Bennett, and his domestic policy adviser, Gary Bauer, made sure that science (and basic tenets of Christianity, for that matter) never got in the way of politics or what they saw as "God's work."
Reagan's conservatism can still be felt in the U.S. Supreme Court. He picked justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony M. Kennedy and elevated William H. Rehnquist to chief justice. O'Connor and Kennedy have disappointed some conservatives with their often moderate positions. Scalia, however, often sharply chides Kennedy and O'Connor when he feels they've veered offtrack. For example, when Kennedy wrote a decision last year striking down bans on gay sex, Scalia accused his colleagues of inviting same-sex marriage and said Kennedy's ruling "coos" over a feel-good, gay rights agenda.
"Undoubtedly, Ronald Reagan was a man of character and principle, but we will never know how many people would have been saved had his policies toward lesbians and gay men, and especially people with AIDS, been more supportive and more sensitive," said Jon Beaupre, a journalism professor at Cal State, Los Angeles, and a contributor to NPR and the BBC. "Make no mistake about it, his was a government of rich white people, and, his character notwithstanding, he may have held social progress back by decades."
It still may be affecting social progress. The Republican Party's most important and solid base continues to derive from Christian conservative voters who are now voicing support for the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions permanently and nationwide. The Bush administration has scrapped condom-based AIDS prevention programs targeted at HIV-negative Americans in favor of abstinence programs. "Without speaking ill of the dead, it is a fact that we are still haunted and punished by the legacy of President Reagan's stance on gay and HIV-related issues," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
That legacy was still up for debate in November 1991, when the $57 million Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was dedicated in Simi Valley, Calif. The day's pomp and circumstance was broken by about 500 demonstrators holding signs that read, for example, "Reagan Can't Remember, History Won't Forget." Some carried tombstones and foam skulls, representing people who had died of complications from AIDS. One protester told the Los Angeles Times that the former president had taken "5 1/2 years just to say the word 'AIDS.' He was more concerned about the 'evil empire' than with his own people."
That sentiment was further echoed by Foreman on Monday. He wrote an open letter to his friend Steven Powsner, a former president of the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, who died in 1995 at the age of 40 of complications from AIDS.
"Steven, I do feel for the family and friends of the former president. The death of a loved one is always a profoundly sad occasion, and Mr. Reagan was loved by many. I have tremendous empathy and respect for Mrs. Reagan, who lovingly cared for him through excruciating years of Alzheimer's.
"Sorry, Steven, but even on this day I'm not able to set aside the shaking anger I feel over Reagan's nonresponse to the AIDS epidemic or for the continuing antigay legacy of his administration.... I know for a fact that you would be alive today if the Reagan administration had mounted even a tepid response to the epidemic. If protease inhibitors had been available in July of 1995 instead of December, you'd still be here.
"I do not presume to judge Ronald Reagan's soul or heart. He may very well have been a nice guy. In fact, I don't think that Reagan hated gay people--I'm sure some of his and Nancy's best friends were gay. But I do know that the Reagan administration's policies on AIDS and anything gay related resulted--and continue to result--in despair and death."