Nancy Reagan, gay men and the end of an ugly era

The past few days, queer people of a certain age have been rejoicing at news of the death of former First Lady Nancy Reagan. I’ve seen “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!” all over Facebook and Twitter, as well as quips like, “I hear that Ronald and Nancy Reagan truly loved each other. I hope they can reunite in hell.”

On the left, there’s plenty of free-floating reasons to have hated Nancy Reagan: her preoccupation with fashion and decor, for one, as her husband was enriching the rich and cutting social programs, or her simple-minded and puritanical approach to drug policy (“Just Say No!”).

But among queer folks, perhaps especially gay men, special vitriol is reserved for Nancy Reagan because – even though it was well-documented that she (and Ronald) had close gay friends dating back to their Hollywood years, even letting one such couple stay overnight in the White House – she publicly did or said nothing to stop the AIDS crisis as it erupted in the Reagan era, taking those friends’ lives one by one.

Yes, reportedly, she privately urged her husband to talk about the disease publicly and open up funding – which he finally did, in 1985, four years after the crisis began and after more than 12,000 had already died. But given the immensity of the crisis, and presumably how many gay men Nancy must have known who were affected by it – actors, hairdressers, designers, decorators, and their friends and lovers – and how much proxy power she had, she did next to nothing.

It even emerged last year that she declined to help her old Hollywood friend Rock Hudson when, suffering from AIDS, he requested special White House intervention to be moved to a hospital in France where he could get cutting-edge treatment.

But I don’t particularly see Nancy Reagan as a witch. I imagine she even felt affection for these men. Instead, I’d rather celebrate her death as the death of a certain era that she reflected: an ugly, closeted one in which society women in New York, DC and Hollywood used gay men as their personal prettifiers, unthreatening party escorts and gossip companions but more or less regarded them as less than fully human, as eunuchs whose lives were expendable.

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