Bilerico Report

Why Ronald Reagan’s legacy should be vilified, not sanctified


1987: 41,027 persons are dead and 71,176 persons diagnosed with AIDS in the U.S.

After years of negligent silence, President Ronald Reagan finally uses the word “AIDS” in public.

He sided with his Education Secretary William Bennett and other conservatives who said the Government should not provide sex education information. (They are still saying it!)

On April 2, 1987, Reagan said: “How that information is used 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.”

Today would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.

The American ultra right and Christian conservatives, along with nearly all of the GOP are singing his praises, and in the case of the politico’s, either trying to emulate the “Gipper” or at least live in the long shadow of his career and life’s accomplishments.

I’m not, and not just because I’m Canadian.

No, I think that Reagan was despicable on numerous social issues that have left a legacy of hatred, disdain, and hypocrisy on anyone who was not lily white, christian, and upper middle class to wealthy. In particular, nearly everyday as I hear more vilification being heaped on the LGBTQ community, I deem that the true legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Frankly? I have zero sympathy for the suffering he endured at the end of his life with Alzheimer’s disease as I see that as “biblical” amends for the suffering he caused towards tens of thousands of his fellow Americans who suffered from AIDS — most dying — and the legacy he left that allows so-called christian organizations like Focus On The Family, Family Research Council, Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, and the American Family Association, to name a few, who parade never ending streams of hate towards gay persons and hold Reagan up as their shining example of a good and decent American president.

In a word? Bullshit. As events proved last fall in this country with American teens taking their lives, words from these Reaganesque organizations are deadly. I’ll even take that one step further — it spread overseas to Uganda where hate of gay and lesbians is codified, and thanks to American Evangelicals, led to the death of LGBTQ equality rights activist David Kato.

Let’s review shall we?

LGBT Rights

No civil rights legislation for LGBT individuals passed during Reagan’s tenure. On the 1980 campaign trail, he spoke of the gay civil rights movement:

“My criticism is that [the gay movement] isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I.”

Civil Rights

Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Reagan gave a States’ Rights speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, when running for president in 1980 (many politicians had spoken at that annual Fair, however). Reagan was offended that some accused him of racism.

In 1980 Reagan said the Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South”, although he later supported extending the Act.

He opposed Fair Housing legislation in California (the Rumford Fair Housing Act), but in 1988 signed a law expanding the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Reagan was unsuccessful in trying to veto another civil rights bill in March of the same year.

At first Reagan opposed the Martin Luther King holiday, and signed it only after an overwhelming veto-proof majority (338 to 90 in the House of Representatives and 78 to 22 in the Senate) voted in favor of it.

Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. Reagan said the Restoration Act would impose too many regulations on churches, the private sector and state and local governments.

Response to AIDS

Perhaps the greatest criticism surrounds Reagan’s silence about the AIDS epidemic spreading in the 1980s. Although AIDS was first identified in 1981, Reagan did not mention it publicly for several more years, notably during a press conference in 1985 and several speeches in 1987. During the press conference in 1985, Reagan expressed skepticism in allowing children with AIDS to continue in school, stating:

It is true that some medical sources had said that [HIV] cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem.

The CDC had previously issued a report stating that “casual person-to-person contact as would occur among schoolchildren appears to pose no risk.” During his 1987 speeches Reagan supported modest educational funding on AIDS, increased AIDS testing for marriage licenses and mandatory testing for high risk groups.

Even with the death from AIDS of his friend Rock Hudson, Reagan was widely criticized[citation needed] for not supporting more active measures to contain the spread of AIDS. Until celebrity Elizabeth Taylor spoke out publicly about the monumental amount of people quickly dying from this new disease, most public officials and celebrities were too afraid of dealing with this subject.

Possibly in deference to the views of the powerful religious right,[citation needed] which saw AIDS as a disease limited to the gay male community and spread by “immoral” behavior, Reagan prevented his Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, from speaking out about the epidemic.

When, in 1986, Reagan was highly encouraged by many other public officials to authorize Koop to issue a report on the epidemic, he expected it to be in line with conservative policies; instead, Koop’s Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome greatly emphasized the importance of a comprehensive AIDS education strategy, including widespread distribution of condoms, and rejected mandatory testing. This approach brought Koop into conflict with other administration officials such as Education Secretary William Bennett.

Social action groups such as ACT UP worked to raise awareness of the AIDS problem. Because of ACT UP, in 1987, Reagan responded by appointing the Watkins Commission on AIDS, which was succeeded by a permanent advisory council.

The Failure to Act: The Reagan Administration’s Deliberate Failure to Address the Aids Epidemic — watch:

Opinions and advice expressed in our Views & Voices columns represent the author's or publication's own views and not necessarily those of LGBTQ Nation. We welcome opposing views and diverse perspectives. To submit a article, column or video, contact us here. Due to the volume of submissions received, we cannot guarantee publication, however you are invited to express your opinion in the comment section below.

This Story Filed Under