I wish Ronald Reagan could have lived forever. The Great Communicator’s very breath prolonged the arrival of the day we now face: for with his death, the nightmare of those gay men who lived through the 1980s is replaying. But today, it is our history, our experiences, our losses, our very lifetimes that are being willfully erased. Thanks to our nation’s media machine, the man who made Americans feel good again can do it one more time—if only by dying. All you have to do is forget. Forget how his ugly politics combined with the complicity of mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, and allowed a virus to nearly erase the existence of gay men in America.
So far, the project is a huge success. The Times’ four-page obituary never used the word AIDS. This from the newspaper whose former executive editor, Max Frankel, has since admitted that its AIDS reporting during Reagan’s regime was woefully delinquent because the disease had primarily affected gay men. Or consider the Washington Post’s June 9 article headlined “Sharp Divisions Marked Reagan Tenure.” It goes on to explain, “Years afterward, many remain bitter about his legacy.” Gay men and AIDS are mentioned nowhere in the piece. The piece is typical of the week’s news coverage.
Then there’s our own community’s official voice. The Log Cabin Republicans, walking, talking proof that no one chooses his sexuality, are an easy target. Patrick Guerreiro, the group’s leader, was still quite young when Reagan held court, so perhaps he can be forgiven for saying that Reagan “succeeded by bringing America together—not trying to divide it for political gain.” Patrick, honey: the clue phone is ringing.
And let’s take this statement from Cheryl Jacques, the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest, richest, and arguably most influential lesbian and gay organization in the country. “Like all Americans, the Human Rights Campaign is saddened by the passing of President Ronald Reagan. [He] will be remembered in part for his leadership in defeating the discriminatory Briggs Amendment in 1978, which would have banned gay and lesbian Californians from teaching in public schools.”
See, now everyone wants to jump on the Reagan Train to Feeling Good About America. Now that he’s dead, his canonization in process, the hagiography slathered across every newspaper’s front page and blaring from nightly television specials, even some of our community leaders are willing to luxuriate in the collective amnesia, if it means the ability to claim Dutch for their own political cause. America loves Reagan, thinks HRC. Reagan “loved” gays, they claim. Ergo, America must love gays, too!
Even Americans aren’t that stupid.
So here’s some advice, Cheryl: When Nancy goes, or Bush 41 croaks, just keep quiet. Reagan’s “leadership” in 1978 was comprised, in its entirety, of a rather ambivalent press release issued in his name by Citizens for Reagan, the future presidential candidate’s political committee. The Briggs Amendment itself was sponsored by one of Reagan’s close allies. And it would have been defeated without his help.
I’m an American, and I’m not saddened by Reagan’s passing. Because I’m not an amnesiac. I can’t forget. I don’t feel good. And I won’t be ignored again. I will not have my history, my experience, my life story erased. Not by the government, not by the media. Certainly not by my own community’s leadership. How can I explain to gay men in their 20s and 30s what the violence of the 1980s did to our lives, how it continues to haunt us to this day, if the whole world is pretending it never happened?
Reagan thought AIDS unworthy of his attention because it affected gay men. When asked about it in 1982, his spokesperson laughed a reporter out of the briefing room for using the word “gay.” By then, my friends had begun the frightening round of doctors, hospitals, and funerals. No one knew what caused it. There were no tests at first. Once there were, Reagan wanted to force gay men to take them. But why be tested? There were no drugs for it anyway. It is hard for younger gay men to grasp the kind of social and political climate we lived in. Media apologists want us to forget.
Reagan’s conservative credentials would have allowed him to introduce sanity and scientific reason into the early days of the AIDS crisis. Instead, The Gipper played a moralistic game of political football. As a result, funding for treatment, research, and prevention was needlessly delayed or denied and tens of thousands of Americans died prematurely—nearly 30,000 by the end of his presidency.
Despite the best efforts of the Reagan administration and The New York Times, gay men survived. We built organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to provide the services that our government wouldn’t provide; the American Foundation for AIDS Research to do the science our government wouldn’t do; Outweek magazine to cover the news no one else would cover; and ACT UP, to demand that we be treated like human beings, like citizens—like Americans.
However his official legacy is written, those of us who lived through those days will never forget the role Reagan’s negligence played in the deaths of our loved ones, and continues to play in our lives today.
Today I choose to remember President Ronald Reagan. And because I remember the truth, I do not mourn his death.
Andrew Miller , a writer and teacher, is a native of New York City.