As the eight Republican presidential hopefuls taking part in tonight’s debate try to outdo each other in lauding the leadership and vision of President Ronald Reagan at his presidential library in Simi Valley, California, LGBT Americans will likely recall his administration’s deadly silence at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Those close to Reagan claim that he didn’t share the strong homophobia of his social conservative allies — the Reagans, after all, welcomed the first gay couple into their private residence and as governor, Reagan opposed a California initiative to prohibit gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools — but his refusal to speak out about the HIV/AIDS epidemic contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans and devastated the gay and lesbian community.
Reagan remained silent about HIV/AIDS from the very first confirmed cases in 1981 until the end of his second term, not speaking out about the disease until May 31, 1987. By the time Reagan addressed the epidemic at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died. The disease had spread to 113 countries, with more than 50,000 cases in 1987. As Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) wrote in the Washington Post in 1985, “It is surprising that the president could remain silent.” “Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals.”
Indeed, Reagan — who during his 1980 campaign said that society cannot “condone” the “alternative” gay “lifestyle” — could have chosen to end the homophobic rhetoric that flowed from his administration and most ardent supporters. The Moral Majority’s Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals,” and Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan said AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.” “The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution,” Buchanan wrote in a 1983 op-ed for the New York Post, concluding that homosexuals should not be permitted to handle food and that the Democratic party’s decision to hold their next convention in San Francisco would leave delegates’ spouses and children at the mercy of “homosexuals who belong to a community that is a common carrier of dangerous, communicable and sometimes fatal diseases.”
Dr. C. Everett Koop, Reagan’s surgeon general, later explained that “intradepartmental politics” kept Reagan out of all AIDS discussions for the first five years of the administration “because transmission of AIDS was understood to be primarily in the homosexual population and in those who abused intravenous drugs.” The president’s advisers, Koop said, “took the stand, ‘They are only getting what they justly deserve.'”
In light of this history, the LGBT civil rights organization GetEQUAL has organized a protest around today’s debate, calling for the GOP candidates to evolve beyond the homophobia of the Reagan years. “While the GOP candidates jockey for a position at the front of the political pack, our youth are taking their own lives in record numbers,” says Robin McGehee, director of GetEQUAL. “It’s time for these candidates to lead, rather than follow the bigoted and discriminatory philosophies of fringe, right-wing activists who insist on demonizing fellow Americans for political gain.”