On January 20, 1981, a bitterly cold Tuesday, the coldest day on record for a presidential inauguration, Ronald Reagan stood on the west steps of the nation’s capitol, swore to uphold the Constitution, and a few minutes later, in his first speech as President, told America that his administration would love each American equally and would “reach out a hand when they fall, [and] heal them when they are sick.”
A little more than two months later, in April 1981, pathologists at the University of California made the first diagnosis in San Francisco of Kaposi’s sarcoma a disease that had, until then, been known only as a relatively benign form of skin cancer. Later it was called “gay men’s cancer,” but soon the name was shortened to just “KS” from frequent use.
In the same inaugural, Reagan deplored mounting deficit spending, but in his eight years as president, it went from about $75 billion per year, to a high of about $210 billion in 1986. He tripled it. Ten months after Reagan left office, the Berlin wall fell, demolished, probably in large measure due to the steamroller of eight years of American deficit spending.
But Reagan’s most enduring legacy in America will never be properly chronicled, because the victors in wars get to write the history books, and AIDS won. The religious right won. There are far too few gay men who had already come of age by Reagan’s presidency left to remember or tell about what would become known as the American holocaust.
It could have been stopped many say, early, but wasn’t. Why?
“Because nobody did anything. The president. No one in the administration,” screamed ACT UP founder and author Larry Kramer during a telephone interview on Tuesday—with a rage still fresh after 20 years. “So it got out of hand. Nobody can get that through their heads. They hated us, and quite frankly, they still do.”
Between that ice-cold inauguration morning in 1981 and the day he last spoke to the American people from the Oval Office in January 1989, saying “the future will always be ours,” tens of thousands of Americans had died of AIDS. Reagan himself did not mention AIDS by name for much of his presidency.
Now, 40 million are living with the virus worldwide, and nearly 30 million have died.
Kramer recalled most of all a feeling, he said, “of utter powerlessness. It was like a brick wall we couldn’t get past.”
Kramer, with five others, founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 which has grown to become one of the country’s largest AIDS advocacy and support groups, but at the time, Kramer said, “about all we could do was go and visit people in hospitals.”
But as late as 1986, the Reagan administration urged the public not to panic since AIDS was confined to gay men and IV drug users. Kramer has penned an opinion piece, which will appear in The Advocate magazine late this month, titled “Adolf Reagan.”
Cleve Jones, the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, said that tens of millions of lives could have been saved across the planet if “the one nation on earth that was able to respond had responded. Our failure, Reagan’s failure, was complete and absolute. It should go down in history as one of the most despicable and abysmal failures of any politician in history.”
Jones said that in 1981 and 1982, when the epidemic was first recognized, there was an opportunity to move swiftly with research dollars and education, but that instead years of “absolute ignorance” and terror followed.
In 1983, Patrick Buchanan, who had served Reagan in his first few years in the White House as a speechwriter, wrote: “The poor homosexuals—they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.”
“If Boy Scouts or bankers had been dying at the rate we were dying—there would have been some action,” Jones said.
By 1982, AIDS had been identified in 1,200 people and killed nearly 500. In the Tylenol scare of the same year, seven people died from cyanide laced capsules. Within five weeks, the Food and Drug Administration had 1,100 employees testing millions of pills. They filled 11,000 pages, in 26 volumes, with reports of their findings.
Between the middle of 1981 and the middle of 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spent less than $1 million on what was then called GRID, or “gay-related immune deficiency,” but $9 million on Legionnaire’s Disease.
“It speaks of two Americas,” out gay California Assemblymember Mark Leno said this week.
How could the administration turn its collective back on a whole class of people?
“It’s easy,” Jones said. “They were openly hostile, and we were insignificant politically.”
Jones said that in the same way the Holocaust defined Judaism, AIDS and the neglect of the Reagan administration, defined the American gay community.
In California, for example, Leno was one of the first two gay men elected to California’s Assembly—in 2002. It took so long, he said, because “so many of our best and brightest died of AIDS.”
“My strongest memory of the Reagan administration was watching my friends die,” Jones said. “I have no other memory of the Reagan administration.”
One of America’s first elected gay officials, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, was elected in 1981, while still closeted, and served through the Reagan years.
About Reagan, Frank told Gay City News, “He did nothing and nothing... But homophobia was still the norm in 1980. It was still officially a homophobic country.” Frank said the first victories in Congress came when the right wing tried to cut what funding there was for AIDS research.
In an early campaign, Frank ran against Republican Margaret Heckler who ultimately became Reagan’s Health and Human Services secretary. Frank credits her with trying to do more about AIDS than Reagan, and Surgeon Gen. C. Everett Koop with also trying—“but he did it entirely on his own, without support from the administration,” Frank said.
David Mixner, once a close of Bill Clinton’s, who famously warred with him over his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy, recalled his one meeting with Reagan, in 1978, during the fight over California’s Briggs initiative. John Briggs, a conservative state legislator from Orange County, sponsored, with Anita Bryant’s support, Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have banned gays from teaching in schools.
“It was almost a foregone conclusion,” Mixner said.
Initially, polls pointed to a 75 percent margin of victory for the initiative.
Reagan had just left the governor’s office four years before and was on his way to the White House. Mixner went to visit Reagan along with his then-partner, Peter Scott, who has since died of AIDS.
“What was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting, turned into 45,” Mixner said. “It was just the three of us. He never listened more carefully, thoughtfully.”
After the meeting, going against his staff’s advice, Reagan came out against the initiative.
While others who were involved in the campaign, such as Tom Ammiano, who is now a San Francisco city supervisor, said that the door-to-door campaign foes waged against the initiative may have helped win the battle, Reagan’s voice in opposition was pivotal on election day, when the initiative lost by more than a million votes, and was even defeated in Briggs’ own Orange County.
But Mixner’s argument that day wasn’t about gay rights. It was that “whatever your personal beliefs are,” Mixner recalled telling the future president, “this initiative will lead to anarchy in the classroom. Failing students will be able to blackmail their teachers. All they have to do is say you’re gay. Students will take over the classrooms.”
“‘Young man, I’ve never thought of it that way,’” Mixner said Reagan told him. “It was the last time I’ve been called young man, but I knew my audience.”
But, on AIDS, Mixner said, Reagan was a “disaster.”
“His lack of action. His failure to come to terms with it seven years into his administration,” he said. “There is no way you can ever forgive or forget that. If they had treated the initial cases the same way the treated American Legionnaires’ Disease, or toxic shock syndrome, many of my friends would be alive today.”
“But there wasn’t a queer community,” he added.
Like Jones, Mixner said that AIDS brought people out of the closet.
“Wealthy, white, black, no matter where you came from in the early days of AIDS, if you got AIDS, you were gay and you were doomed to a horrible and painful death,” he said.
On the day in 1987 that Reagan, at the urging of his wife and Elizabeth Taylor, first talked substantively about AIDS at an AmFAR banquet, Mixner was arrested in front of the White House, protesting the FDA’s foot-dragging in approving experimental AIDS medications.
But he said that one effect of Reagan’s death has been to force survivors “ to go back to that horrible genocidal decade, to go back and look at it.”
AIDS killed portions of two generations of gay men in America, and the lasting legacy of their death, could potentially be silence about the realities of the epidemic. As of press time on Wednesday, two major newspapers of record, The New York Times and the Washington Post, had run a total of two pieces with references to AIDS in the Reagan years. Among all the laudatory coverage, The Times ran one piece, on page A20,that mentioned AIDS. The Post managed just two sentences in an omnibus article about things the Reagan Administration did wrong.
But the Post has managed a complete report on the horses that will draw his caisson.
“All of this hyperbolic praise that could lead to his image on our currency, is greatly disrespectful to the enormous damage he caused the country,” Leno said on Wednesday.
“Once again, as in the 1980s, we have been ignored in all of this,” Mixner said, “I guess that’s just part of his legacy.”