Karen Ocamb

Ronald Reagan's Real Legacy: Death, Heartache, and Silence Over AIDS

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 07, 2011 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: AIDS Memorial Quilt, HIV/AIDS, legacy, LGBT history, memorial, randy shilts, ronald reagan

America is gushing Sunday over former President Ronald Reagan in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. Reagan-AIDSGate.jpgProduced by Reagan groupies, the long-weekend celebrations at the newly primped Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley are glitzy and reverent evocations of an imagined man.

In this white-washed version of history, Reagan, not Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev (remember "glasnost," "perestroika," and the impact of Levis, Coke and "Dynasty"?) is credited with "tearing down" the Berlin Wall; the trillion dollars in debt Reagan wracked up during his "conservative" presidency is ignored; "supply-side" or "trickle-down economics" still works, even though theory-originator David Stockman says it doesn't; the Reagan-approved secret Iran-Contra scandal was patriotic, not subversive; and he is still the "Great Communicator" - who conned working-class "Reagan Democrats" while catering to the rich, creating a huge surge in homelessness, reveling in unchecked deregulation and extolling union-busting with the mass firing of the over-worked, striking PATCO flight controllers - even before there were trained replacements.

After the depraved Vietnam War, the perennial dark and disgraced Richard Nixon, the short-term Gerry Ford and the confusing Jimmy Carter (who orchestrated the Middle East Peace talks but couldn't free the Iran hostages or prevent long gas lines) - Reagan, the "ah-shucks" bad B-movie actor (Bedtime for Bonzo), huckstered his scripted "vision" of "Morning in America" viewed from some exceptional shiny city on the hill. Reagan was the imaged Mount Rushmore president, the right wing conservatives' longed-for King Arthur who would crush the Democratic Dream of FDR and the Kennedys and anyone who believed in social and economic justice promised by the "counter-culture"1960s. He'd already proven his anti-Communist bona fides appearing in 1947 as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

For LGBT people, Ronald Reagan's presidency was the far different "mourning in America." And unlike Nixon who was forced to resign for covering up the political Watergate scandal, Reagan didn't even bother covering up his cold disdain, his deliberate neglect, his abject refusal to help gay men stricken in 1981 by a strange new communicable disease that turned out to be AIDS. But there was no "AIDSgate" for Reagan; the White House agreed with the Religious Right that gays deserved what they got - they deserved to die.

Rev. Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority, said, "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Patrick Buchanan, Reagan's Press Secretary, said AIDS was "nature's revenge on gay men." Antigay Gary Bauer, Reagan's domestic policy advisor, kept Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (selected because he was an anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist) away from Reagan:

[In 1986] President Reagan asked the surgeon general to prepare a report on AIDS as the United States confirmed its ten-thousandth case. Leaders of the evangelical movement did not want Koop to write the report, nor did senior White House staffers who shared Koop's evangelical convictions. As Dr. Koop related to me, "Gary Bauer [Reagan's chief advisor on domestic policy] ... was my nemesis in Washington because he kept me from the president. He kept me from the cabinet and he set up a wall of enmity between me and most of the people that surrounded Reagan because he believed that anybody who had AIDS ought to die with it. That was God's punishment for them.

In his extraordinary book And The Band Played On about the early history of the AIDS epidemic, gay journalist Randy Shilts, who later died of AIDS, wrote that two events dramatically changed the course of AIDS in America. The first was the announcement that closeted gay movie star Rock Hudson had AIDS and the second was the report by Koop.

rockhudson.jpgIn an interview with me for the 25 anniversary of the June 5, 1981 CDC report of six gay men with what turned out to be AIDS, Hudson's publicist Dale Olson said Reagan called his longtime friend in July 1985 when Hudson was in a Paris hospital desperately looking for a cure for AIDS. Nonetheless, the "Great Communicator" remained silent. It's not as if Reagan was unaware of AIDS by then: on April 23, 1984, the CDC had reported 4,177 case and 1,807 deaths - something that came to the attention of the National Democratic Convention when a candlelight vigil of more than 100,000 people marched from the Castro to Moscone Center.

California Rep. Henry Waxman, who held the first congressional hearing on the disease at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles in 1983, wrote Washington Post in late 1985:

It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic's existence. Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.

Reagan finally mentioned the word "AIDS" in October 1986 and was virtually forced to deliver his first major speech on AIDS on May 31, 1987 on the eve of the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington. He was the invited by Elizabeth Taylor to speak at a fundraiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which Hudson helped start with a $250,000 grant given to Taylor. (Here's a link to Reagan's entire speech.) Outside the tented-event were protesters and yet another candlelight vigil.

Shilts wrote about Reagan's 20-minute speech:

Reagan's program, of course, would do very little to actually stop the spread of AIDS. Though testing heterosexuals at marriage license bureaus created the illusion of action, very few of thse people were infected with the virus and very few lives would be saved. But then saving lives had never been a priority of the Reagan administration. Reagan's speech was not meant to serve the public health; it was a political solution to a political problem. The words created a stance that was politically comfortable for the president and his adherents; it was also a stance that killed people. Already, some said that Ronald Reagan would be remembered in history books for one thing beyond all else: He was the man who had let AIDS rage through America, the leader of the government that when challenged to action had placed politics above the health of the American people.

And not once did Ronald Reagan utter the word "gay."


By the time President Reagan had delivered his first speech on the epidemic, of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; 20, 849 had died.

On the USAID website, the statistics read:silenceequalsdeath.jpg

In 2009, 33.3 million people around the world were living with HIV/AIDS. More than 60 million people have been infected with HIV since the pandemic began. AIDS is the leading cause of death in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the fourth leading cause of death globally.....Almost 5,000 people die every day due to AIDS. AIDS caused 1.8 million deaths in 2009. An estimated 25 million people have died from HIV-related causes since the beginning of the pandemic....There were 2.6 million new HIV infections in 2009, or almost 7,200 people per day.

The terrible irony for LGBT people is that in the very beginning of the epidemic there was hope that Ronald Reagan would DO something. There was precedent for the government acting quickly to stem a public health crisis. In 1976, just five years earlier, the government rushed to stop an outbreak of Legionnaires disease at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia.

(Corrected) And perhaps even more importantly, in 1978, as former governor of California, Reagan publicly opposed the Briggs Initiative - the antigay measure proposed by associates of Rev. Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant. Opposition by the hugely popular governor helped significantly in the measure's defeat. As a result, Reagan received gay support in his presidential bid against Jimmy Carter in 1980, as well as the more effective Religious Right.

But once in office, Reagan turned his back on the gay friends and staff he and his wife Nancy had known for years.

Most historians and political pundits will look at the ripple effect Reagan's two terms in office - from 1981-1989 - continues to have on American politics. But for many LGBTs, myself included, I cannot hear the man's name without thinking of so many other names now effectively wiped from the collective memory - names like Michael Callen and Paul Monette and Connie Norman and Wayne Karr. So many names - and with each name, memories of joy and rage and a kind of spirituality in confronting death with dignity - in spite of the government's disgusting deliberate neglect.

Former President Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004 - 23 years to the day when the CDC's first report on AIDS appeared. Reagan had apparently been living in seclusion with Alzheimer's Disease -- the progressive disease that causes loss of memory and mental abilities. People gushed for a week remembering the "Great Communicator" who was entombed at his grand presidential library and museum like a political Elvis: Simi Valley as the political Graceland. There his groupies gather again, while those of us who remember his legacy of horror, neglect and death still struggle with an un-ending heartbreak of what might have been had our government cared and our friends not died.

In Last Watch of the Night, my friend Paul Monette wrote in an essay about the 25th anniversary of Stonewall:

PaulMonette.jpg[A] Victor, my last best friend, is wont to observe: 'They don't understand. I don't just want a cure. I want a cure and all my friends back.'....As for my own losses, the pile of bodies is harly countable anymore except in the heart - because the dead outnumber the living now. Personally, that is.....

Meanwhile, let the Stonewall celebrants save me a piece of cake from the party, a rainbow flag and a rousing chorus of 'We shall overcome.' Understand that I am far too busy tracking the enemy within. But I'm with you. Brother and sister, and will be always, even after I'm carried from the battle and planted on the final hill. You must never forget: There's no turning us back now. No more closets and nor more loveless years in solitary. From now on, we have each other. Freedom is on our side.

And there is no America without us.

Crossposted at LGBT POV

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Dan O'Neill Dan O'Neill | February 7, 2011 6:56 PM

Beautifully and thoughtfully written, Karen. I haven't yet seen such a thorough historical account of the Reagan Administration's inaction on HIV/AIDS and the tragic results left in his wake. Thanks for this piece.

Rick Sutton | February 7, 2011 9:04 PM

Well, there's this legacy, which is disgusting. Then there's another lasting ritual:

Revisionist history.

As in: tax cuts for the rich work. Trickle down, provide jobs...

That one hung around for 20 years and resurfaced. It drove this economy to the edge of the cliff in the 80s, and a full Thelma/Louise canyon dive the last five years.

In the 80s, it was coupled with a really insane pandering cohort argument: build up the Pentagon, because those nasty libs want to destroy our defenses.

By hook and crook, that arguments' theses expanded, drawing in more converts than the logic deserved. It was, in the immortal words of GHW Bush, "voodoo economics."

'Twas true then, 'tis true now, carried out by GWWB's dimwit son, also pandering to the far-right. Only this time, it caused even more harm, and led us into a testosterone-driven war (2, actually), which drained us dry. Of money and soldiers' blood. Needlessly.

All sacrificed at the altar of All Things Holy/Reagan. It's maddeningly sad, because unchecked, over a couple of terms, this kind of logic assumes its own natural place at the Table of Political Discussion, and take son a life of its own, morphed by young members of Congress who want to please Daddy. All fed on this intoxicating mix of half-truths and impossible-to-fulfill promise. No one keeps accurate score, so lie away. It matters now.

History will record that RR was pleasant, but not smart, or good. Allowing the manipulators of his cabinet and staff to push more money into the Pentagon, while pulling income out of the economy, was folly.

The AIDS fiasco was icing on a deadly cake. Evil, evil, evil man.

When will we ever learn?

While nearly 30,000 died from AIDS in the US alone under Reagan’s passive watch, and tens of thousands more became infected in the absence of broad prevention measures, gays in the military were the direct victims of government sanctioned homohatred and AIDS panic. In the eight years he was President, there were at least 13,236 kicked out of the military for being gay versus 13,389 kicked out during SIXTEEN years of DADT. It would be reasonable to assume that those extraordinarily high numbers were simply the result of a greater degree of homophobia among those who served him in the Department of Defense similar to those among his staff like Press Secretary Larry Speakes who literally, and more than once, made a "joke" of AIDS in press conferences.

But as Randy Shilts wrote in "Conduct Unbecoming," the military repeatedly reacted AIDS not as a medical problem but “a homosexual problem,” and, for years, those who wanted to give anyone diagnosed a graceful discharge including entitlement to free Veterans hospital medical treatment were opposed by those who wanted to discharge them for being homosexuals with a “General” classification preventing any benefits even though it was official Pentagon policy by that time to give gays without any evidence of negative extenuating circumstances such as sex on base an “Honorable” discharge.

According to Shilts, “Since many commanders saw the [HIV] test as an assay for homosexuality, they issued clearly prioritized lists of who should be tested first in their individual commands.” Office of Special Investigation agents tried to get lists from military doctors and nurses of names of infected patients to investigate them for homosexuality. Civilian blood banks were ordered to inform the military of any service member who tested positive. Despite Pentagon assurances that the data would never be used to investigate anyone for being gay, some blood banks refused, and California Senators Boxer and Cranston urged Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger to rescind the order.

Countless horror stories survive, similar to ones in the civilian world but with one crucial difference that made them worse: the military had total control of every aspect of service members' lives, 24-7. SPEC4 Jeff Herwatt was “locked in a [hospital] padded cell with a large red ISOLATION sign on the door and BIOHAZARD warning posters around his bed. His food was served on paper plates with plastic utensils by nurse who dressed in what amounted to medical space suits and who would not talk to him.” After testing positive for HIV, Navy corpsman Wayne Bell was handcuffed and taken by Marine Military Police to the brig “for [his] own protection” to await discharge processing. On the way, the MPs beat him up. One Walter Reed Army hospital doctor quoted antigay Scripture to his HIV/AIDS patients. One of them, Army PFC1 Michael Foster, hung himself with his bootlaces.

A Rear Admiral at Naval Personnel Command overrode the medical board that had qualified Byron Kinney, suffering from several AIDS symptoms, for medical retirement. He was gay and would be discharged as such, without any benefits. Severely weak, during much of his June 1985 separation hearing he had to lie on a bench while military attorneys fought hard and dirty to repress the fact that his Navy doctors were outraged that his confidences to them were being used to railroad him. The board recommended he be given a benefit-less “General” discharge, and his attorneys went to court. In October of the following year, the Navy finally gave in, saying they would grant Kinney medical retirement. Five days later he died.

Forget more statues, or putting his face on a coin or mountain. THE most appropriate recognition of his legacy would be a REnaming—"THE RONALD REAGAN AIDS MEMORIAL QUILT."

I'm sorry, but this is blaming a self-inflicted crisis on someone else. It's not God punishing the victims, but nature. This is basic biology, not homophobia. If you sow a culture of unrestrained promiscuosity, you reap a sky-high rate of STDs.

Throwing more money at research may have moved the date at which treatment drugs became available forward a little, but it would still not have come in time for the victims of the 1980s.

Only sexual responsibility would have saved them, and anyone who's actually read "And the Band Played On" knows that the gay community not only rejected calls for sexual responsibility, but certainly would not have been persuaded by a conservative president calling for it.

And anyone who's actually read "And the Band Played On" would also know that Shilts praises Orrin Hatch's responses to the AIDS crisis and criticizes gay activists.

Rick Sutton | February 8, 2011 9:54 AM

Well, the Empire State weighs in.

And completely ignores the spell RR cast over America. We were "persuaded by a conservative president" to enact stupid tax cuts and triple the defense procurement process--all of which lined the pockets of his top donors.

But thanks for the drive-by, Ally. An odd twist to the tale.

Yes, the administration that knew the price of everything and the value of nothing except faux family values. My memories of those years are bitter ones that still linger.

The Atlantic Monthly article on Stockman is revealing. Patco is now Natca, Iran is still Iran and Ortega is now the socially conservative president of Nicaragua, while the religious right tries its hardest to turn the U S into a theocracy run by fanatics not much different than the ones Reagan sold arms to, the ones he said he would never negotiate with.

Rick, when I said "persuaded by a conservative president", I meant that the gay community of that time would never be persuaded by a conservative president to fundamentally change its culture-and that only a fundamental change of sexual behavior would have prevented the bulk of AIDS deaths.

I did not mention any of Reagan's other policies, so stop strawmanning me about those.

I agree with NY Ally.
If Reagan would have come out strongly about AIDS in the early 80's it would have been called scare mongering, so instead he is blamed for inaction.

There is a tendency by partisans to affix blame or credit to presidents for far reaching events and circumstances. It does not hold up well in history for presidents from either party. It also diminishes credibility when one does attempt to make a case against a president when they truly are to blame.