At 1:00 PM on Sunday, October 11th of 1992, activists from ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) New York descended on the White House. In what is now known as the Ashes Action, ACT UPers staged a political funeral, spreading the ashes of loved ones who had died from AIDS on the White House lawn in an act of grief, rage, and love. “150,000 dead / Where was George?” they chanted in unison. After dumping ashes over the White House fence, the ACT UPers then grabbed bullhorns and eulogized those whose remains they had dispersed in protest.
The action was largely inspired by David Robinson, an ACT UPer who wanted to mail his lover’s ashes to President George Herbert Walker Bush. ACT UPers were also influenced by a passage from artist David Wojnarowicz’s 1991 memoir Close to the Knives. Wojnarowicz, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1992, was concerned that those impacted by the epidemic would become numb to the immensity of the loss and would default to socially acceptable ways of mourning. He alternatively envisioned more powerful and authentic forms of grieving:
“I imagine what it would be like if friends had a demonstration each time a lover or a friend or a stranger died of AIDS. I imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps. It would be comforting to see those friends, neighbors, lovers and strangers mark time and place and history in such a public way.”
ACT UPers did just that, substituting ashes for the “lifeless forms” of lovers, friends, and strangers. They also staged such an action in response to George H.W. Bush’s failure to adequately address the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic as a way to, as Wojnarowicz suggested, mark the government’s neglect in a public fashion. Bush’s response to the epidemic was only mildly better than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Reagan formally addressed the epidemic at the Third International Conference on AIDS, held on May 31st of 1987 — seven years into his presidency. By the time he acknowledged the epidemic approximately 50,280 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 47,993 had died (CDC).
When he finally spoke, Reagan’s remarks did not engender confidence that his administration would take the epidemic seriously, diverting necessary funding to testing, safe sex education, drug trials, and treatment. Reagan, in fact, believed it was not the federal government’s responsibility to provide safe sex education to the American public. “How that information is used,” he said, “must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let’s be honest with ourselves, AIDS information can not be what some call ‘value neutral.’ After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons” (ACT UP).
Though Bush acknowledged AIDS in the early years of his presidency, he cut funding for AIDS research and refused to support safer sex education in public schools. Bush, in fact, was indifferent to any issue relating to the gay and lesbian community. He declined to rescind an Eisenhower-era Executive Order, which specified homosexuals could not receive federal security clearances, and did not concern himself with ending the ban on gays serving openly in the United States military. Bush, like Reagan, chose personal power over a humane and compassionate response to a new and deadly illness that cost thousands of Americans their lives. He instead pandered to the likes of far-right political figures such as Pat Buchanan — who infamously described AIDS as “nature’s revenge on gay men” — and Jerry Falwell. Reagan and Bush both played into conservative anti-gay rhetoric to consolidate their political power.
Former ACT UPer Garance Franke-Ruta observed that though ACT UP, which formed in March of 1987, is often associated with the Reagan era, “the reality is that much of the group’s most intensive work took place during the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush” (The Cut). In addition to the Ashes Action, ACT UPers protested the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during the Bush presidency.
Storm the NIH, one of ACT UP’s most dramatic actions, took place of May 21st of 1990. During the occupation, ACT UPers from around the country staged a massive “die in” and plastered government buildings with banners and posters demanding government action on the AIDS crisis. “The Government Has Blood on Its Hands,” one poster proclaimed. Nearly two-hundred people were arrested, but within weeks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) changed regulations to allow for an accelerated drug approval process. On September 1st of 1991, 1,500 ACT UPers also rallied outside of the Bush family’s summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. They carried with them posters designed by Avram Finkelstein and Vincent Gagliostro which labeled Bush as a “Serial Killer,” and noted that since Bush assumed office, approximately 20,000 Americans had died from AIDS.
Bush’s overall indifference to the epidemic turned to outright hostility where ACT UP was concerned. He described the group’s direct action style as “an excess of free speech” and recommended “behavioral change,” not political solutions, as a way to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “Here’s a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior,” he said. “You can’t do that in cancer.” He additionally claimed his administration was spending four million dollars on AIDS research when, in reality, the figure was less than two million (Washington Blade). Though he signed into law the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act, which improved the availability of care for those living with the disease who were low income or uninsured, many attributed this advancement to the pressure exerted by ACT UP and politicians such as Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi, not Bush’s leadership. As one ACT UP chant went:
“History will recall / George Bush did nothing at all.”
First Lady Barbara Bush took a more publicly tolerant stance on the epidemic than her husband. In 1990, she visited Grandma’s House, a home in Washington D.C. for children with AIDS and wrote a letter to the organization PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) stating “We cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups in our country.” Yet, the First Lady did not have the political power of her husband, and though her actions may have helped to dispel AIDS stigma, they did little to lower the body count or create institutional change. George H.W. Bush’s stance on gay rights would mellow in his later years — he made headlines in 2013 when he participated in the wedding of Bush family friends Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen — but this does not absolve the deaths of thousands, and the political climate of the time is no justification for indifference tantamount to murder.
George H.W. Bush died on the eve of World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Thus it seems only fair members of the LGBTQ community, in particular, former members of ACT UP, called attention to his deplorable AIDS legacy amidst the mass media’s dominant narrative of his impeccable character and supposed “decency.” As former ACT UPer Zoe Leonard once observed, “AIDS revealed not the problems of the virus, but the problems of society.” AIDS, in other words, was not solely a medical issue, but a societal issue that could have been solved through political action on the part of the world’s most wealthy and powerful government. The problem was not simply the dissemination of information and the formulation of effective treatment, but the entrenched homophobia, racism, and sex negativity that prevented those in power from doing so.
We honor former presidents such as George H.W. Bush because, as Franke-Ruta argues, “he held power over the fates of hundreds of millions of citizens, and the direction of the world. How he used that power, or failed to use it, must be reckoned with by any who seek to fully understand his legacy. To speak now, as several have, about the Bush administration’s lack of response to the AIDS crisis is not about dishonoring the man’s death, but about honoring the deaths of others who were equally beloved to their communities, but far from equal in power, then or now” (The Cut).
That Bush’s indifference to the HIV/AIDS is overlooked within the dominant narrative of his presidency exemplifies the fact that the history the community whom today we refer to as LGBTQ is still not an integral part of the American story. As longtime gay rights activist and creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt Cleve Jones precisely observed: “A former president dies and people just line up to revise history. Don’t come near me with that shit. Seriously.”
Though outrage at the sanitizing of Bush’s legacy is justified, LGBTQ people should, in turn, work to make the realities of our history visible beyond moments when the nation is commemorating the life of a former president. The depiction of the Bush presidency, and of the man himself, is a wake-up call to the dangers of leaving our history unattended. As the ACT UP Ashes Action demonstrates, we can mark time, and place, and history in a different way. Through collective action, our stories — whether of triumph or suffering — can be made integral and whole. They will not be abandoned like ashes scattered to a hostile wind.