The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Reagan and HIV: Truth or Myth?

Some people refuse to see any good in Ronald Reagan just as they refuse to see any problems with their anointed candidates. Witness how some praised Clinton to the hilt, yet he was the President who signed “the Defense of Marriage” act into federal law, which banned the federal government from recognizing gay relationships in any way.

It reminds me of when Franklin Roosevelt was conducting his shameful attack on Japanese-Americans. About 30 years ago I read a book by Richard Drinnon entitled Keeper of Concentration Camps, which looked at the career of Dillon S. Myer. Myer ran the concentration camp system set up by Roosevelt and later went on to run “Indian reservations.”

When Roosevelt started incarcerating American citizens merely for having Japanese ancestry there was little outcry. Racism was taken for granted within the Roosevelt Administration. The American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin, was almost as hard-core Left as one can get. If I remember Drinnon’s book correctly Baldwin, when asked if the ACLU would fight the incarcerations responded, “But the man in the White House is our friend.” The ACLU did nothing.

Witness how the Left, all over the world, pretended Stalin was not a monster. Witness how they ignored the imposed famine of Mao or the crimes of Pol Pot. I’m not arguing the Right is necessarily any more consistent either. I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy.

Celebrating Death

On Reagan’s death, Jay Beaupre, a gay journalist said, “I have a feeling that an awful lot of gay people are going to be cheering, that ‘Ding-dong! The wicked witch is dead.’” What a vile thing to say!

The Origins of the Religious Right

Michelangelo Signorile, one of the loudest voices in the LGBT community twisted and distorted history to make his case against Reagan. He said the religious “right-wing monster” opposing gay rights was created by Reagan, “It was he who brought religious conservatives into the party in the early 80s as a sort of quick fix for a party that needed some fresh energy. …Before the Reagan machine opened its arms to such people, the Bible-thumping crowd saw politics as unpure and dirty, something they didn’t want to get involved in.”

Signorile doesn’t know his facts or just ignores them. First, the Bible-thumpers were not non-voters prior to Reagan. They voted. In fact, they voted for Signorile’s preferred Democratic Party in such numbers the so-called Bible-belt was known as the Solid South, meaning solidly in favor of Democrats. Second, the first campaign to recruit and encourage “born againers” into politics in recent history was that of Democrat Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan. Carter was the first politician since the Democrat William Jennings Bryan to wear his “born again” label on his sleeve. Carter’s inspiration to fundamentalists at the time was big enough Newsweek magazine called 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” The evangelical Christianity Today, said, “After being ignored by much of the rest of society for decades, [evangelicals] are now coming into prominence. Indeed, 1976 seems to be the year of the evangelical.” That’s four years prior to Reagan’s election!

Fundamentalists in America were not organized as a political force when Carter was elected. Signorile is right when he says that born againers stayed out of organized politics — though they did vote. This wasn’t always so. It was the populist Left in America that was originally tied to the evangelical vote. The first successful born-again candidate was the “Progressive” racist William Jennings Bryan. But evangelicals retreated from politics after their anti-evolution campaign backfired making them look foolish and after their much-touted Prohibition created organized crime without stopping drinking.

The “Didn’t Say It Until 1987” Urban Legend

Previously we covered Reagan’s unique stand against the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in 1978—at a time when most liberal Democrats were reluctant to speak out. But it did show Reagan defending gays from the religious right at a time when most liberals were silent.

Reagan haters have a tendency to ignore his role in defeating Proposition 6, or at best they downplay it. They have other complaints. Christopher Seely, in the gay newspaper Washington Blade chided Reagan claiming “In reality, despite protests from activists, Reagan didn’t utter the word ‘AIDS’ in a public speech until 1987.”

People tend to forget AIDS was previously unknown and basically a new disease. It was only in mid-1981 the Centers for Disease Control identified the first handful of cases of what eventually was called AIDS. Because almost nothing was known of the disease, and the virus was not even identified yet, some called it GRID or “gay-related immune deficiency. The disease itself didn’t even have an accurate name until July 1982 and no one—including the LGBT community knew the magnitude or nature of what we were dealing with.

Reagan’s 1982 federal budget contained $8 million to begin research on this disease even though AIDS was not a major problem in the United States at that time, with only few known cases relatively speaking. The CDC notes that between June 1, 1981, and September 15, 1982 they only “received reports of 593 cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the whole country.” That’s under 40 cases per month out of a population of 229.5 million at the time, or about one case per 5.7 million people. So, when it first surfaced very, very few people thought it would be a significant problem given how rare were the cases.

The magnitude of the disease was unknown, which is why even the gay community didn’t respond to the crisis at first. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization was only founded in 1982 to fight the “gay cancer;” that was in New York City where the first cases were discovered. Elsewhere the disease was largely ignored. The activist group ACT-UP was only founded in 1987 while the AIDS research group AmFAR was only founded in 1985.

As the magnitude of the disease became known federal spending under Reagan increased and it increased substantially. After the first allocations in 1982 the budget on AIDS issues increased more than five fold in 1983 to $44 million. In 1984 it doubled again to $103 million, doubled again in 1985 to $205 million, then to $508 million in 1986, $922 million in 1987 and in Reagan’s last budget it climbed to over $2.3 billion. From the year it was identified to his last year in office Reagan signed into law AIDS spending totaling in excess of $5.7 billion.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, in their report Trends in U.S. Government Funding for HIV/AIDS: Fiscal Years 1981 to 2004, reported:

Beginning with a few hundred thousand dollars in FY 1981, federal HIV/AIDS funding increased to $8 million only one year later, and then nearly doubled every year from FY 1982 to FY 1989. Since then, increases in federal funding for combating the epidemic have been more gradual.

So what is the Left complaining about? The argument comes down to when Reagan first said the word “AIDS” in public. Some note in 1985 he mentioned the word at a press conference. Of course by that time his administration had already spent $868 million on the issue but people were quibbling over who said what word and when. If you read Seeley carefully you’ll see his complaint is Reagan didn’t use the word AIDS in a proper speech until 1987 so the press conference mention was dismissed.

Even that is not true. In early 1986 Reagan gave “A Message to Congress on America’s Agenda for the Future” and mentioned AIDS five times. He pledged, “We will continue, as a high priority, the fight against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).” That’s at least a full year before Seeley claims. In addition Reagan mentioned it in writing a year earlier. The New York Times ran an article on September 18, 1985 which quotes Reagan as saying his administration had funded AIDS research for the last four years and that it was a “top priority.” How did Reagan tell the New York Times this in 1985 if he never used the word until 1987? But the 1987 claim has taken on something of the status of an urban legend.

If you read the various claims you will see how the parameters kept changing. What was first the claim that he “never uttered phrase AIDS” until 1987, became he never said it in a speech. That was later rephrased, as he never said it in a “major speech.” That leaves the definition of “major speech” entirely up to the individual who can draw the parameters anywhere he likes and get exactly the results he wants.

But the Los Angeles Times of September 19, 1985 quoted famed AIDS researcher Dr. Paul Volberding saying it’s an important “start” for the President to be “commenting on it [AIDS] publicly.” For individuals who insisted Reagan never mentioned the words AIDS until 1987, such as Kramer and Seeley, to be correct they would have to claim both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times engaged in fake news when they reported on public remarks on the issue by President Reagan in 1985. Two years before the Urban Legend says Reagan mentioned AIDS we have documented proof AIDS researchers were commending Reagan for doing what the Urban Legend says he didn’t do.

The Genocidal President?

Another accusation making the rounds is that Reagan was somehow responsible for the deaths of many gay men. One gay author said: “After the emergence and rapid escalation of the epidemic in the early eighties, it took until almost the end of Reagan’s second term (1987) to finally address the existence of this epidemic. Without a coherent public health sector, or federal funding for targeted gay health promotion efforts, HIV/AIDS wiped out an entire generation of gay men within the United States.”

Well-known Leftist Larry Kramer, in the world’s leading gay news magazine The Advocate emitted a shrill and vicious attack at Reagan’s death. He wrote: “Our murderer is dead. The man who murdered more gay people than anyone in the entire history of the world, is dead. More people than Hitler even.”

Hitler! Reagan’s policies wiped out an entire generation of gay men! All of it hyperbole at best and slander at worst. None of it true by any stretch of the statistics.

The fact remains it was in 1981, during Reagan’s first term of office, that AIDS was first identified. There was no name for this “gay plague” until 1982 and the role HIV played in the disease wasn’t discovered until 1983. But consider the claims. The first author says Reagan was responsible for the death of an entire generation of gay men.

Absurd. From 1981 to the end of Reagan’s term in office a total of about 45,000 people died from AIDS. By no means were they all gay men. Many of the victims were women. Many individuals had contracted the disease from sharing needles or having sex with men who used IV drugs. Many were hemophiliacs and others who contracted the disease through blood transfusions. The 45,000 is the total number of deaths. The total number of gay men who were victims was significantly lower, about half that. During the 1980s there were approximately 250 million people in America. Just under half, or about 120 million of these people were men. About 5% of them would be gay which is around 6 million. Even if every one of the 45,000 deaths were of gay men this hardly comes anywhere near “wiping out an entire generation of gay men.” Nor does it come close to the genocide in Hitler’s death camps or those under Stalin in Russia.

Kramer’s accusation is equally bizarre. Reagan didn’t murder any gay men. Murder implies he went out and intentionally infected them personally or in some other manner disposed of them. Of course that didn’t happen. It’s merely an example of a rabid extremist being more rabid than usual. No doubt in more sane moments, if he had them, Kramer would admit Reagan didn’t actually infect anyone with AIDS.

How was Reagan responsible for the men and women who died from AIDS during his term in office? The argument basically is he gave an inadequate response. The Advocate, in a highly inaccurate appraisal of Reagan quotes Dr. Marcus Conant about Reagan. “Conant, who lost scores of friends and patients to the disease, is still deeply angry — one of many Americans who view Reagan’s legacy in a harsh light. ‘Ronald Reagan and his administration could have made a substantial difference, but for ideological reasons, political reasons, moral reasons, they didn’t do it,’ said the San Francisco dermatologist, who now deals with a new generation of AIDS patients. ‘President Reagan and his administration committed a crime, not just a sin.’”

But, one can only respond to a crisis when one knows what is the actual crisis. Second, one responds according to the magnitude of the crisis. In the case of AIDS in the early 80s no one actually knew with what they were dealing. The Reagan administration did spend money on the issue and they spent a substantial sum relative to the number of cases. That sum rose as the magnitude of the problem became clear. The administration did respond and it responded according to the facts as they were known when they were known.

Was it enough? No. Who did respond sufficiently? No one! Even many in the LGBT community ignored the disease, some dismissed it as an attempt to impose moralistic views on the gay community, some thought it a conspiracy against the LGBT community. It took several years before the magnitude of the disease and its actual nature were known. Then many groups stepped up to do their part. In other words, the lack of knowledge restricted the scope of the early response for everyone, including the Reagan Administration.

What response was possible at this time? In not one of the virulent attacks have I seen someone actually state what options were available. The first option is prevention of infection. The second option, today at least, is keeping the disease under control via medication. But this second option didn’t exist for Reagan or anyone else in the 80s. That only leaves the first option.

There are two ways of achieving the first method. One is through state control and the second is through individual effort. The government could have stepped in and outlawed homosexuality, arresting all gay men and incarcerating them in solitary confinement. Some radicals, such as Lyndon LaRouche, recommended gays be put in camps along the line of the camps Castro set up for gays. That surely would have stopped many gay men from becoming infected. It’s extreme and absurd, but all the other state options are merely less rabid variations of this. The government could not stop men from having risky sex or sharing needles. If it had tried the entire gay community would have rightfully responded very negatively to the suggestion.

The government did warn people about AIDS but government warnings beyond the initial ones have very little impact. Many of the initial victims of AIDS, and thus many of the 45,000 who died while Reagan was president, were infected before anyone, including Reagan, knew of the disease or how it was transmitted. There was simply nothing anyone could do — including those men themselves — to change that. Once it became known how the disease was spread it became almost universally known very rapidly. Very few of the men who have been infected since were not aware of the risks they were taking and what they could do to significantly reduce them.

Short of stepping in and preventing gay men from having sex there appears little the Reagan administration could have done to prevent more infections.

In addition these accusations seem to presume a omniscient knowledge of AIDS and HIV on Reagan’s part which was denied to everyone else. If Reagan didn’t do enough how about the gay community?

The Encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered & queer culture wrote about how many in the gay community saw AIDS during the Reagan years:

Although not always based on clear scientific evidence, the conflicting arguments that gay writers presented did much to raise awareness of the disease in the gay community. Protective of the accomplishments of gay liberation, some writers, such as Michael Bronski, lamented the demonising of gay male sexual culture. Sceptical that the urban gay lifestyle, which its detractors characterised in terms of recreational drug usage, multiple sex partners, and sexually transmitted diseases, was responsible for the destruction of gay men’s immune systems, Bronski pushed for a more precise scientific explanation.

Although confusing and contradictory, the initial lack of consensus among gay writers and activists on the cause of AIDS prompted many to challenge each other, community leaders, and the medical establishment.

The gay community itself was confused by this disease and didn’t understand it either. There was great resistance even to the idea of “safe sex” practices from some elements within the community. Konstantin Berlandt, of the San Francisco gay publication Bay Area Reporter told his readers: “I didn’t become a homosexual so I could use condoms.” Berlandt, like many radicals, attacked AIDS activists who suggested safe sex practices. He called the officers of the Harvey Milk Club “our own worst enemies” and claimed engaging in safe sex “is actually collaboration with the death regime that delights in blaming ourselves and would pin the blame on us. The myth of ‘safe sex’ fosters the finger pointing when anyone of us does come down with the disease: ‘You see, we told you so. We brought it on ourselves.’” This is reminiscent to the denialism of the fringe Right regarding Covid today.

While activists such as Berlandt were openly attacking AIDS prevention through safer sexual practices, Reagan’s Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop, called attention to the disease in a massive way and promoted the use of safer sexual practices. The Washington Post reported:

Koop was an unexpected vehicle for AIDS education and advice on safe-sex practices.

…Koop became famous for frank, practical and nonjudgmental talk about AIDS. In 1986, he issued a report to the American people about the disease, with 20 million copies distributed to local governments, schools and physicians. In 1988, an eight-page version was mailed to 107 million households, which he recalled being told was the largest mass mailing in U.S. history.

That one mailing reached more people than everything done by all the AIDS groups put together. It is largely forgotten while Reagan is falsely accused of having a government that did nothing on the crisis.

What would have happened if Reagan had used the federal government to try and change high risk sexual behaviour in a more aggressive manner? In San Francisco, when the city tried to close sex clubs there was outrage by activists within the gay community. A libertarian response, and the one I took while living there during this debate, was such closures only moves the high-risk behavior to less controlled environments where it is harder to educate and encourage “safe sex” practices. Many on the Left, however, argued any such efforts were maliciously inspired. As late as 1999 the radical gay activist group ACT-UP in San Francisco was trying to get the city to reverse itself on gay bathhouses.

Their laudable goal was to get “the government out of our sex lives,” said David Pasquarelli of ACT — UP. In ACT-UPs press release they said, “the AIDS epidemic is being used as a scare tactic to suppress gay culture.” Pasquarelli was quoted saying: “ACT-UP SF does not believe AIDS is caused by a virus.” Instead the cause is “poverty, drug use, malnutrition and the stress that accompanies an HIV-positive test result.” The Reagan Administration sent out 107 million brochures warning people abouth HIV and they are charged with genocide. Yet, ACT-UP SF and other radicals denied AIDS was a disease caused by a virus and in the rewritten history of today are lauded as heroes.

Knowing these things didn’t prevent Pasquarelli himself from dying of AIDS just as Covid deniers have succumbed to a virus they insist doesn’t exist. Before his death Pasquarelli was using his position as a prominent AIDS activist in San Francisco to argue AIDS was a fraud. It is surprising how quickly individuals who damn “climate denialism” today forget AIDS denialism among many on the Left only a few years ago. In one interview in 2002 Pasquarelli said:

The AIDS model, the HIV model, really fits in to the victimization we have all been subjected to as Gay men and Lesbians. Since we’ve been born we’ve been told that we need to be ashamed. We’ve been told that we need to be lonely, and that we’re sick, depraved individuals and if we don’t change our ways, we’re going to die a terrible, lonely death because of our ‘sin.’ That’s just been transferred onto the HIV/AIDS model.

It’s only now that some people are beginning to get out from under it and say, “If we’re ever going to have self-esteem, if we’re ever going to have sexual freedom, then we’re going to have to relinquish this HIV/AIDS lie.” And I think it’s incumbent upon all young homosexuals to do that: to reject it and resist it.

If the people most directly impacted by this disease didn’t know how to proceed what makes activists today—blessed with 20–20 hindsight—so sure Reagan knew what to do but maliciously choose to act to the contrary instead?

The only option Reagan had was one of education and research. Certainly spending in excess of $5 billion on AIDS did a substantial amount of both. Whether more education would have help is nebulous at best. It seems to be even if Reagan spent an hour on the television and showed the public how to use a condom it wouldn’t have made a substantial difference. I sincerely doubt some gay men failed to use condoms merely because Ronald Reagan hadn’t suggested it personally. And if he did make that suggestion in person some radicals would damn him for that, as we’ve already seen.

Evidence shows today many young gay men are unfortunately still choosing to ignore the risks of unprotected sex. The Chicago Tribune (June 5, 2001) said when AIDS was first reported many in the gay community saw the disease as a public relations disaster for gays and tried to sweep it under the carpet. The Tribune noted the apparent increase in high risk behavior among young gays shouldn’t be ignored: “The gay community, volunteer groups and the government cannot wait several years, as they did during the first wave of the epidemic, to face these new challenges.” The same day the Long Beach Press Telegram asked: “What part of ‘AIDS kills’ do young gays not understand?” Phil Wilson of one of the gay activist groups in the city lamented the increase in high risk sexual activity “may be the result of a feeling that even if a person develops AIDS, new drugs will help prolong their lives. That’s like sticking your hand in a lawn mower, and hoping surgeons might be able to reattach it… Let’s hope people who have multiple sex partners… gay or straight… realize that AIDS at this moment is a slow and awful death that can be prevented.”

If you reread the report on Marcus Conant from the Advocate you’ll see the apparent problem. The Advocate reported Conant “now deals with a new generation of AIDS patients.” Why? Reagan has been out of office since 1988. Other presidents have spoken out on AIDS. Massive education campaigns, especially in San Francisco, have been conducted repeatedly over the last several decades. When I lived on Castro Street in San Francisco you could hardly walk a block or go a day without the safe sex message being hammered home to you several times. So why must Conant treat a new generation of AIDS patients? The reason is simple: people still choose to take unneccessary risks. If, after all those campaigns, people still take risks why do Reagan’s critics believe more intervention on his part could have had any more substantial impact?

Of course the gay community, as a collective, is not responsible for the risky actions of young gays who ignore decades of history. Nor is it responsible for the actions of people like Pasquarelli. But then neither is Ronald Reagan.

Part One: Ronald Reagan on Rainbow Rights

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.