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George H.W. Bush's AIDS Neglect Reflected America's Gay Hate

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So, George H.W. Bush died. I don’t have a visceral hatred of the man, nor do I have the desire to praise him like I’m burying Caesar.

Bush’s presidency ended in 1993, which means he left office shortly before I could drive. Most everything he did in his life is so far in my past I only remember bits and pieces, so it doesn’t produce strong feelings. I could easily manufacture a huge diatribe about how he was the worst person in the history of humanity, write his petition for sainthood, or I could even write an amazingly balanced reflection of his life, his accomplishments and failures, and how his actions changed the world. But I’m not.

Fine, okay, I’ve been told I have to have a take. George Bush was a completely mediocre president who really was better than some other Republicans at the time like Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, or Newt Gingrich. The big negative reaction to him from the LGBTQ community was his inaction on the AIDS crisis. Let’s be perfectly real here, almost nobody straight or cis gave a shit about AIDS victims in the 1980s and early '90s. Most of America was so frightened of us, some seriously proposed putting HIV-people into camps. The only people getting any sympathy were the straight people getting sick from blood transfusions. I vividly remember watching some cock-rock musician getting mildly chewed out for wearing a “AIDS Kills Faggots Dead.” 

I recall all the cruel jokes about AIDS and gay people, I remember all the myths, the lies, and the fear, but I don’t recall Bush being any worse than anyone else. Yes, he was the president and should have been more compassionate and expand education programs and research, but the reality is, he wasn’t that different than everything I heard and saw in the media. Yes, there were more progressive people speaking out and fighting for AIDS awareness and treatment (e.g., Elizabeth Taylor), but the reality is, most Americans didn’t care about HIV until Ryan White and Magic Johnson.

Now, I was a kid at the peak of the AIDS crisis, so I only knew people who knew people who lost partners, family members, and friends, so I don’t have that emotional investment in it like those who lived through it as adults. Are they wrong to hate Bush? No. Not at all. Bush, like Reagan, makes a perfect symbol for the LGBTQ community to rage against for the tragedy and horror of that era and the way most of America treated AIDS victims and the LGBTQ community. I’ve often heard it said that AIDS/HIV set LGBTQ rights back a decade because it furthered the image of us as degenerate and diseased. The fact that we’re angry in 2018 that the Freddie Mercury biopic played down his sexuality and HIV contrasts that he kept it quiet to protect the people around him because of the stigma and sensationalism. Rock Hudson, the first major celebrity to die of HIV barely got a peep out of his friend Reagan, and most of the public conversation was about how wrong Hudson was to do a kissing scene on Dynasty when he knew he was positive.

One of the big things people have criticized Bush for during this era was his comment that to prevent AIDS one would need to change their behavior. Well, that was kind of the main narrative of the time. “Don’t engage in risky behavior,” is what everyone said. According to a lot of these same people, tears and spit could give you AIDS. Also AIDS came from someone having sex with a monkey. Yeah, that was a thing for YEARS. I heard that one myself back in those days. Some people even said it was made in a government lab to punish minorities; in fact, some still do. There was even a theory that HIV wasn’t real and was just from getting sick because you used poppers and other drugs; yeah, that one lasted into the mid-90s. There was a lot of stigma that HIV infections came from a person’s irresponsibility or lifestyle choices (i.e. choosing to be gay), and quite frankly anything else that scared suburban moms who read tabloids and put money in the pockets of moral crusaders and religious charlatans.

So was Bush a horrible person for his inaction, misconceptions, and on HIV? I guess so. I’m not downplaying his prejudiced beliefs about homosexuality, his inaction to protect HIV patients and LGBTQ people until Congress passed bills he was pressured to sign, or the lackluster funding for AIDS research. In 2018, most Americans rightly see all those things as abject moral failures -- but for the time? It was actually mainstream. The anger that the LGBTQ community directs at Bush, as well as Reagan is deserved, but I don't think they should be the ones left holding the bag on the AIDS crisis. Their inaction, apathy, and fear reflected America’s apathy, inaction, and fear. Their prejudices were more the norm than the exception. In truth, Bush and Reagan were far more silent on the issue than a lot of Americans were who used it to further whip up the hateful conservativism we still see attacking the LGBTQ community.

Bush is the avatar of the anger and despair we feel as a community about how America treated us in those days; a face we can point at and say, “You did this to us.” We do this because turning to point that finger at many of the people who love and defend us today -- people who weren’t any different than Bush was in that era -- is too harsh and unfair in our minds.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City, and a regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.

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