Officer Wes remembers Reagan


June 11, 2004

Former president Reagan died this week.  Many people have fond memories of him and I respect that.  He is being treated as a great hero.  But my experience of his presidency was horribly sad and people deserve to know that side as well.

I was 17 at the time Reagan won the 1980 presidential election in part by courting the virulent anti-gay vote.  For those who may not remember how public this anti-gay rhetoric was, find some background on The (im)Moral Majority.  For a young gay guy, the tenor of the election’s anti-gay hatred was deeply spooky.

The First Report of what became to be known as AIDS was June 5, 1981.

Reagan's AIDS policy was to do nothing.  It was then seen as a disease of gay men and therefore, to his anti-gay supporters, it was killing the right people.  White House director of communications Patrick Buchanan asserted that AIDS was nature’s revenge on gay men.  (I wonder if Pat’s ever seen the study affirming that homophobia is associated with sexual arousal?)  The anti-gay propaganda that churned through the eight years of Reagan’s presidency had resonance into the next decade, as you can see by this exchange – featured in USA Today and The Advocate -- within my own family.

I tested HIV-positive when I took my first test at age 24.  The year was 1987.  In the seven preceding years, with Reagan at the helm, our government had done nothing to fight AIDS.  I was seeing friends die and I was scared.

Reagan only finally took some action at all on AIDS -- in 1987, SIX YEARS INTO THE EPIDEMIC -- in response to massive bad publicity being generated by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (“ACT-UP”) protests at Wall Street, the FDA and the White House.  Check out the photos and graphics from these 1987 and 1988 ACT-UP recaps.

In 1988 the Reagan presidency drew to a close.  By that time the CDC reports that 81,418 cases of AIDS were reported (find the column for cumulative totals through December 1988, page 5), most of them gay men, with about 70,000 dead.  To put that figure into perspective, 58,000 US soldiers died in Vietnam.

The AIDS mortality figure above was from The Truth About Reagan and AIDS, an interesting piece by Michael Bronski.  He was a prolific Village Voice columnist and gay studies professor.

Reagan’s vice-president had been George Bush, Sr.  In 1988 he was running for election as president.  Reagan stumped for him.  Bush came to Houston, where I lived, to raise funds.  I started protesting with ACT-UP.  Bush won election.  He ran for re-election in 1992 and the Republican National Convention was held in Houston in 1992.  The openly anti-gay rhetoric continued.  My protesting with ACT-UP continued.  (For a tender understanding of what that is like, listen to Acting Up on the Evening News.)

When Bush Sr. was defeated for re-election as president, I wept with joy that the reign of horrific indifference to AIDS and the vilification of gays was ending.

I’ll touch briefly on another personal recollection from the Reagan years on a topic that every U.S. taxpayer is still paying dearly for.  Reagan deregulated savings and loans.  At the time, I was a CPA auditor working with a firm that had an S&L as a client.  I came to understand that the deregulation was allowing developers to create or use S&Ls to raise money from depositors and invest that money in their real estate projects without any personal guarantees.  This was done nationwide on a huge scale, creating a building boom that eventually resulted in, well, a whole lot of excess capacity.  This in turn led to project failures.  Those failures mounted and mounted and mounted, which then caused a huge portion of S&L loans – almost 50% nationwide -- to go bad.  My firm worked as a consultant to the vastly understaffed Federal Savings & Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) to help shutter these now insolvent savings and loans –- 974 of them.  The government then had to make good on its promise of guaranteed deposits.  Ultimately the bailout cost to taxpayers was $124 billion (see Summary on what Adobe labels page 8, but which shows “33” as the page number in the bottom right).    Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans is but one book on the subject.

Reagan is not a man I remember fondly.  I wish his spirit peace.  And I also take a stand for remembering the entirety of his legacy.


Other people are also writing about Reagan…

A Letter to My Best Friend, Steven Powsner On the Death of Former President Ronald Reagan

by Matt Foreman, Executive Director National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Reprinted with permission.

June 6, 2004

Dear Steven,

I so much wish you were here today to tell me what to do. You would know if it's right to comment on the death of former President Reagan, or if I should just let pass the endless paeans to his greatness. But you're not here. The policies of the Reagan administration saw to that.

Yes, Steven, I do feel for the family and friends of the former President. The death of a loved one is always a profoundly sad occasion, and Mr. Reagan was loved by many. I have tremendous empathy and respect for Mrs. Reagan, who lovingly cared for him through excruciating years of Alzheimer's.

Sorry, Steven, but even on this day I'm not able to set aside the shaking anger I feel over Reagan's non-response to the AIDS epidemic or for the continuing anti-gay legacy of his administration. Is it personal? Of course. AIDS was first reported in 1981, but President Reagan could not bring himself to address the plague until March 31, 1987, at which time there were 60,000 reported cases of full-blown AIDS and 30,000 deaths. I remember that day, Steven - you were staying round-the-clock in Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital caring for your dying partner of over 15 years, Bruce Cooper. It was another 41 days of utter agony for both of you before Bruce died. During those years of White House silence and inaction, how many other dear friends did we see sicken and die hideous deaths?

Is it personal? Yes, Steven. I know for a fact that you would be alive today if the Reagan administration had mounted even a tepid response to the epidemic. If protease inhibitors had been available in July of 1995 instead of December, you'd still be here.

I wouldn't feel so angry if the Reagan administration's failing was due to ignorance or bureaucratic ineptitude. No, Steven, we knew then it was deliberate. The government's response was dictated by the grip of evangelical Christian conservatives who saw gay people as sinners and AIDS as God's well-deserved punishment. Remember? The White House Director of Communications, Patrick Buchanan, once argued in print that AIDS is nature's revenge on gay men. Reagan's Secretary of Education, William Bennett, and his domestic policy adviser, Gary Bauer, made sure that science (and basic tenets of Christianity, for that matter) never got in the way of politics or what they saw as "God's" work.

Even so, I think I could let go of this anger if this was just another overwhelmingly sad chapter in our nation's past. It is not. Steven, can you believe that the unholy pact President Reagan and the Republican Party entered with the forces of religious intolerance have not weakened, but grown exponentially stronger? Can you believe that the U.S. government is still bowing to right wing extremists and fighting condom distribution and explicit HIV education, even while AIDS is killing millions across the world? Or that "devout" Christians have forced the scrapping of AIDS prevention programs targeted at HIV-negative gay and bisexual men in favor of bullshit "abstinence only until marriage" initiatives? Or the shameless duplicity of these same forces seeking to forever outlaw even the hope of marriage for gay people? Or that Reagan stalwarts like Buchanan, Bennett and Bauer are still grinding their homophobic axes?

No, Steven, I do not presume to judge Ronald Reagan's soul or heart. He may very well have been a nice guy. In fact, I don't think that Reagan hated gay people -- I'm sure some of his and Nancy's best friends were gay. But I do know that the Reagan administration's policies on AIDS and anything gay-related resulted - and continue to result - in despair and death.

Oh, Steven, I wish so much you were here.


(On November 20, 1995, Steven Powsner, died of complications from AIDS at age 40. He had been President of the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center from 1992-1994.)



What Do We Do with the Rage and the Fury This Time?
By Eric Rofes

Reprinted with permission.

It is easy for some to see the few sensible voices refusing to jump on the bandwagon that is dramatically rewriting the Reagan years as cantankerous malcontents raining on our nation’s patriotic parade honoring this “national hero,” “great leader” and “greatest president.”

Call it a grudge steadfastly maintained by old timers who never learned know how to forgive and forget. Criticize it as a lack of respect for the dead. Condemn it as simply more Reagan-bashing from the Left.

Or identify it for what it really is: bold truth-telling amidst a nation wrapping itself in the worst kind of denial masquerading as ultra-patriotic zeal. Finger it as an attempt to puncture the Bush administration opportunistic efforts to utilize Reagan’s death to revive a failing campaign for re-election.

For the surviving victims of the conservative social and economic policies of the Reagan-Bush era, the past few days of all-Reagan-all-the-time television coverage by Stepford journalists have seemed oddly and horribly familiar. They remind us of the stark cultural divide that emerged ever more powerfully during the Reagan years between the privileged classes holding power and those who were marginalized, oppressed, and silenced.

For queers, they hearken back to the first seven years of the Reagan administration, when the tidal waves of AIDS began washing over the shores of the U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. Those of us who were out and involved in queer community life during the 1980s, watched as our friends and lovers dropped dead around us while America looked the other way. Reagan’s disgraceful and willful failure to speak out on AIDS and take action for those seven years mirrored much of the nation’s failure to acknowledge the terror visited on our communities.

Like many gay men during these years, I felt a profound disconnect between the world I inhabited and mainstream America. I was working as director of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Center during these years as terrified gay men poured into our clinics, support groups, and counseling center. As our small and under-resourced communities struggled to educate the public, initiate the first prevention campaigns, care for our friends, and bury our dead, Reagan said nothing and did nothing. His medical and health leaders did nothing. His budget directors, attorney generals, and legal experts did nothing. While gay men wiped drool and shit off our lovers, read mounting obituaries in gay papers, and funneled into the ranks of volunteer caregiver organizations, mainstream America marched forward to the Reagan priorities of making money, protecting privilege, and creating a culture of greed.

Am I the only one who is experiencing the current media love-fest of Reagan as a revisiting of the trauma of those early AIDS years? Am I the only one raging at the television screen, ripping the newspaper to shreds, cursing at my car radio? Am I the only one hungering for community leaders to create activism and rituals to disrupt and puncture this outrageous and insulting cultural amnesia?

Just as our queer community was abandoned and left on our own to create the early responses to AIDS, I encourage us to immediately initiate community-based opportunities to express our outrage at the dishonest reinvention of the Reagan legacy and to link up with all the other communities that are experiencing similar fury. In particular I suggest we:

  • Urge our community centers to immediately organize speak-out and teach-in sessions that will take place on the same days as Reagan lies in state in Washington, D.C. or very soon after. These community forums can serve as a place to vent our rage, expose the truth about Reagan, educate younger activists, and commemorate those who died due to Reagan’s failure of leadership.
  • Create public “shrines” in queer neighborhoods that colorfully and creatively expose what Reagan and his conservative movement did to people with AIDS, queers, people of color, women, poor people, and children. If we use campy neighborhood shrines to honor queer icons and community leaders, let’s also use them to vilify our greatest enemies, especially when the rest of the nation is honoring them as heroes.
  • Yank our Silence = Death tee-shirts out of storage, put them on, and explain what the slogan owes to Ronald Reagan…or be sure to wear colorful bright and gay clothing on the national days of morning for Reagan. We should all interrupt and speak out when friends, work associates, and family members mimic the media’s mindless commemoration of the Reagan years.

Reagan could only bring his lips to form the word “AIDS” when hundreds of queer community leaders converged on Washington D.C. on June 1st, 1987, sat in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and got arrested and taken off to jail. I remember that day well. We organized this national direct action event at the moment our terror and exhaustion morphed into outrage and fury. Today, after just a few days of hearing repeated voices in the media discuss Reagan as “the best president we ever had,” “a man who loved all Americans,” and “the man who brought the nation together and restored unity and pride,” my outrage and fury are back. I’m ready to take action.

Eric Rofes is a professor of education at Humboldt State University in northern California and a long-time activist based in San Francisco.


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