You Don’t Have to Speak Ill of the Dead, But You Can Probably Skip Their Funeral
Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, and how little the Presidency cares for the powerless.
As was quickly noted, Nancy Reagan was no friend to queers throughout the 80s. Regardless of whether or not it’s fair to blame the First Lady for the sins of the President, Nancy herself famously refused to help her dying friend because eugh, gays are gross.
Nancy Reagan’s legacy is not up for debate. What’s perhaps more poignant is the question: why did Hillary Clinton feel the need to show up in the first place?
The 1980’s were not a good time to be gay. I was born in 1983 to two lesbian mothers. Family life was good, I had lots of love and plenty of sweaters. But notably, there were few if any men in my life — they were all sick and dying of AIDS.
We were still outcasts back then, decades before Will & Grace, state-by-state marriage equality victories, and the Human Rights Campaign endorsed a Presidential candidate without polling their members. I had a younger sister and an older brother, although of course we lost custody of him to his abusive father because gays were unfit to be parents.
When I entered elementary school in 1988 I quickly grew accustomed to scratching out the “father” line on school paperwork and writing down “Mom 1” and “Mom 2”. The administration didn’t always appreciate my gumption but I had self-righteousness and a killer bowl-cut on my side. This was one year after Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS, after some 20,000 to 40,000 gay men had died.
I don’t remember how old I was when Claude died, only that he was a sweet man with a long pony-tail and a penchant for glass animal figurines. He had given me quite the menagerie in the short time I knew him, and my favorite of them was a small cat. I knew him from the Quaker Friend’s meeting we attended, although I found out later he was dating my sperm donor when he died. I also knew he died of AIDS. I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t afraid of AIDS. I’m 32 now and still terrified.
All this occurred without any leadership from our leaders. All national progress towards treating and preventing HIV came from activists in the streets. The LGBTQ community had no lobby and no favor from the White House. Why would Reagan react to a growing public health crisis if it only affected social deviants?
The first President Bush wasn’t much better. While Poppy Bush eventually signed the Ryan White CARE Act in 1990, he was still no fan of the gays. (It’s notable that the act was named after an innocent straight teen who was infected from a blood transfusion, deserving of dignity unlike those queers).
The Clinton administration increased funding for AIDS treatment and public health initiatives. When politically viable. He skipped out on funding needle exchanges because “politically the country wasn’t ready for it.” And of course, Bill himself signed both Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and The Defense of Marriage Amendment into law.
Generally speaking Democrats are more likely to increase much needed public funding. Don’t mistake this for political courage or leadership. See also: George W. Bush’s full term. Obama not supporting gay marriage in 2008.
Which brings us back to today. In 2016, the (generally white, cis, male) LGBT vote has become a powerful lobby. It would be unlikely any candidate could win the Democratic nomination without the support of the LGBT community. This isn’t due to some internal philosophical evolution. This is the result of (power) bottom-up change, gays and lesbians coming out to their friends and family and demanding equal treatment.
Hillary Clinton’s myopic comments today should be a strong indicator of how different things look from the top. Clinton credited Reagan for starting a conversation she actively worked to silence. In her walkback, Clinton said she misspoke, an excuse hard to believe regarding someone as scripted as Hillary. She’s put herself in an impossible place — one completely of her own choosing. If the former First Lady felt the need to show reverence to the dead, she attended the wrong funeral. There were many people who helped start the conversation on HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately many of them have been dead for decades.