Author’s Note: As I review this piece, I am disappointed with how little of the profound rage I feel has been communicated by the text. I have tried to remain as objective as possible, and rely heavily on inarguable statistics, in this protest of the Reagan administration’s AIDS policy so that my own emotions would not obscure my argument. But please understand, if you get lost in numbers, that as a queer male and as a human being, the facts I am communicating here overwhelm me with grief and anger. I hold on to my belief that we can only counter the forces of violence and ignorance with patience, compassion, and objectivity. And I am so angry that I can barely organize my thoughts.
When former First Lady Nancy Reagan died last week, I seriously considered making a post about her complicity in one of the most brutal regimes in American history. But I decided that would be in bad taste. I thought that as a human being I should show her the respect and leave her with the most basic dignity that she and her husband couldn’t extend to the people of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Iraq, Iran, East Timor, Afghanistan, Libya, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Grenada, and of course, the United States. She’s dead, I thought, she can’t do any more damage, I might as well just let it go. I should have realized that like her husband, a dead Nancy Reagan would be just as useful to the oppressive structures of power she helped define as she was alive.
Immediately after her death, politicians in both political parties began offering tributes with the deluded nostalgia that the Reagans seem to inspire better than anybody else. Donald Trump called her an “amazing woman” who “will be missed,” hoping beyond hope that nobody would remember the time he called her ugly. President Obama told us we are “fortunate to benefit from her proud example.” Bernie Sanders, who seems to have forgotten his passionate 80s opposition to the Reagan administration’s terrorist campaign against the Nicaraguan government, said she “was an exemplary First Lady.” But nobody seems to have gone as far overboard as another former First Lady, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In an interview with MSNBC after Reagan’s funeral, Clinton complimented her “courage and grit,” and went a step further: “It might be difficult for your viewers to remember how hard it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan – in particular, Mrs. Reagan – we started a national conversation, when before nobody would talk about it.”
It’s not surprising that Hillary Clinton would extend her revisionist take on personal history to protect Nancy Reagan. The two women had a lot in common. They married smooth talkers who took power based off of the appeal of their personalities rather than their politics. Both are remembered as politically savvy First Ladies (Nancy arranged her actor husband’s campaigns, and organized his speaking agendas as President). They participated in their husbands’ administrations, the two defining regimes of the neoliberal era, as they demolished the American working class and spread massive violence throughout the third world through the brutal doctrine that masquerades as Smart Power diplomacy. They used their position to take formative public roles in the so-called War on Drugs that played on blatant racism both on a personal and structural level to devastate and disenfranchise communities of color and create the world’s largest and most powerful prison industrial complex. And they both used their perceived feminine softness to distract the public from the atrocities their husbands committed, deeply undermining the feminism they pretended to espouse. Hillary and Nancy deserve each other; if the arc of history truly bends, as Dr. King suggested, towards justice, then they will soon have nobody left to lie for their legacies.
But for those of us who choose to live in reality, Secretary Clinton’s comments on Mrs. Reagan are not just the usual baseless banter of a politician exceptionally gifted at subverting the truth. Clinton has the endorsement of largest and most publically successful queer rights organization in world history, the Human Rights Campaign. Surveys find that among the 5% of American voters who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, Hillary leads with 48% support (to Sanders’s 41%, Trump’s 2%, and Kasich’s 1%). But defending the Reagans’ AIDS record is a blatant attempt to rewrite the radical and revolutionary history of queer America. It is an attempt to hide the fact that queerness is a threat to the establishment so that our country’s queerest generation can not understand their power. It can be easy for young queer people forget (especially in the wealthy, white, voting class) the fundamental reality of queerness in imperial culture: those in power demand conformity to their oppressive standards for gender and sexuality, and rejecting those standards is a dangerous political act of liberation that the state has punished, and may again punish, with death.
In the face of such dangerous historical revisionism, we do not have the luxury of letting Mrs. Reagan rest, or phrasing things gently to comfort people who are already comfortable. The HIV/AIDS legacy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan is simple. Through deliberate and political inaction, they murdered tens of thousands of queer people, and fanned the flames for a preventable epidemic that to this day devastates the disenfranchised around the world. Pretending otherwise, out of malignancy or ignorance, is nothing short of an an attack on the millions of people around the world whose lives and whose identities have been destroyed by the intentional mishandling of the disease.
While many gay and black advocates have suggested that the government deliberately infected minority communities with Human Immunodeficiency Virus in the late 70s or early 80s (which, given the administration’s reaction, was hardly an unreasonable suggestion), there is no scientific evidence of these claims, and since they are often used to debunk legitimate critiques of Reagan’s mass murder, I want to state unequivocally that I am not suggesting that the government directly infected gay men or black people with the virus. The retrovirus that causes AIDS has likely lived for thousands of years in chimpanzees in the Congo region of Africa (at the time a colonial possession of the brutal Belgian empire). Scientists believe that it was first transferred to humans around 1920. The unspoken assumption here is that Congolese people were eating chimpanzee meat for the first time in history only ninety years ago, and while there exists very little literature speculating as to why this would be the case, the cause and effect is obvious with even a cursory knowledge of imperialist history in Africa; the ecological and agricultural devastation of exploitative Belgian rule caused mass starvation, forcing the people to resort to eating bushmeat that they knew held health risks. Like ebola, HIV would likely never have reached human beings if not for forced starvation in Central Africa.
Because of its long incubation period, HIV spread quietly in the Belgian Congo. In May 1960, a leftist nationalist movement in the region led by Patrice Lumumba came to power in the first democratic elections in Congolese history, and declared independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960, with Lumumba as Prime Minister. Lacking the resources for a major colonial war, the Belgians turned to their chief investors, American capitalists. On January 17, 1960, CIA agents assassinated Lumumba and plunged the Congo into a five year civil war, at the end of which American puppet Joseph Mobutu took power through military coup (he would remain in power until 1997 with CIA support). During the war, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Congolese people starved, and the UN called on international medics to provide humanitarian relief. A large group of these medics came from the Haitian pan-African regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and some of these medics (it could have been just one) were infected and brought the virus back to Haiti with them. Probably through the sex trade, HIV reached the gay male communities in New York City and San Francisco in the 70s.
In 1981, the Center for Disease Control observed unusual clusters of rare cancers and respiratory illnesses in gay men in New York and San Francisco (these are symptoms of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, the illness colloquially known as AIDS). Nothing was known about the “gay plague,” or how to prevent or treat it, but the Reagan administration was informed of the potential epidemic as early as 1981. In 1982, when there had been 243 confirmed deaths of the disease in the US, the CDC determined that AIDS was likely spread through sexual contact and intravenous drug use, and recommended the widespread publication of this information. Gay and lesbian community activists were at this point trying desperately to spread awareness of the crisis, and were already in cooperation with CDC officials. But President Reagan, whose electoral base was largely made up of homophobic conservatives in the Republican Party, would have been loathe to mention a sexually transmitted disease on television, let alone align himself with the cultural and political radicalism of the gay male community, and refused to use federal resources to spread any information about the disease. When asked about this, Reagan’s press secretary laughed at a reporter and implied that he was homosexual.
In 1983, French scientists isolated the virus responsible for AIDS, making HIV tests possible (a fact that wouldn’t be publically acknowledged by any official in the Reagan administration for over a year); meanwhile, the CDC determined that use of condoms and clean needles vastly reduced likelihood of infection. As the death toll entered the thousands (and grew exponentially), and as straight people began contracting the virus, confusion and panic tore through the country. Because the disease’s indisputable cause was hidden from the public deliberately by the government, the public turned to the other great source of American authority: religion. Millionaire televangelist Jerry Falwell, whose endorsement is generally credited with Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980, and who is probably more responsible for the ultra-conservative insurgency in the Republican Party than any other person, had this to say: “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” Reagan had no reaction, but continued to work closely with Falwell, whose Moral Majority foundation raised tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates, and in doing so endorsed this blatant homophobia and the crimes it inspired.
In 1984, the death toll passed 7,000, and instances of violence and discrimination directed at gay men skyrocketed. Because they had no way of knowing that AIDS couldn’t be spread by breath or spit, people saw queer people as a constant threat of disease, and although the government kept no specific record of the victims of hate crimes, the unnamed victims of murder could number in the thousands. Terrified for their survival, queer men (and their lesbian allies, who were already more politically active) were forced to recognize the fundamental radicalism of their existence, and to use their own lives and deaths to bring attention to the crisis the President not only refused to acknowledge, but actively exacerbated. They found themselves organizing alongside poor black people, who, although their rates of addiction have always been as low as those of whites, were less likely to have access to clean needles or to condoms, and therefore more likely to become infected (today, 45% of all new HIV infections in the US are in black Americans, who experience discrimination in health care, probably at higher rates than openly gay white men).
In 1985, with the death toll at over 12,000, President Reagan first mentioned AIDS. When asked about allowing children with HIV from blood transfusions in schools, he replied, “Medicine has not come forth and unequivocally said ‘This we know for a fact that this is safe.’” This was of course a lie which stigmatized even children with the disease; the CDC had already determined that there was no risk without sexual or blood-to-blood contact.
In 1986, death 25,000, Surgeon General C. Everett Coop published the first federal document detailing the available information on the disease; he had been blocked from publishing a report in ’83, and published this report without submitting it to the President for review (a move so public that Reagan couldn’t object). Proof that the government had understood the AIDS crisis for years and chosen to obstruct the spread of life-saving information inspired a massive backlash.
In 1987, death toll over 40,000 , ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, was formed by gay radicals in New York, protesting at Wall Street, the Food and Drug Administration headquarters, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and even the White House. As pressure mounted from the left (and as the virus spread to the heterosexual bourgeois), President Reagan finally publically addressed the AIDS crisis (when he spoke at the American Foundation for AIDS Research, he was booed by the crowd of survivors he had to face), acknowledging the existence of the virus, and calling for the compassionate treatment of the infected. Almost immediately afterwards, AZT became the first drug found to reduce the symptoms of AIDS (its unprecedented cost, starting at $10,000 per year or $21,000 in current dollars, would lead to more unnecessary deaths, though these were not Reagan’s fault). But the damage was done. Over 40,000 people, the overwhelming majority gay or black, had already died, and another 36,000 were known to be infected. By 1993, over 200,000 people had died in the United States, and the disease had been irreversibly planted in the gay and black communities (today, over 500,000 queer American men have AIDS, and they account for 63% of new infections in the country; gay men are overrepresented by a factor of almost 30 in the infected population, and black people by a factor of almost 4). The delay in developing a treatment has killed an unknowable number of people, not only in the US, but in the third world; the global death toll for AIDS is over 34 million, with about 2 million dying annually, and over 36 million are infected.
The numbers may be numbing, so if you skipped to the bottom, here is a brief summary. Ronald Reagan deliberately blocked the spread of information about an easily preventable epidemic, he let tens of thousands of people die so that he wouldn’t have to be seen helping gay people, and Nancy Reagan stood by his side. And then Hillary Clinton praised both of them for their handling of the crisis and starting a conversation about the disease.
So we’ve established that she was exactly wrong, a fact that she admits. Her apologists have already begun to spin the narrative that she had been misinformed, that she needs to keep track of so many statistics that it’s unreasonable for her not to make a few mistakes. After all, she apologized “expansively” (her apology included references to the Reagan family’s contributions to Alzheimer’s research which, while perhaps laudable, is utterly irrelevant to the mass murder Clinton was unaware of). In the world where pseudo-fascists can run for President, this slip up really worth getting so angry about?
Yes. Because if Clinton doesn’t remember the Reagans’ attempted genocide of queer men only thirty years ago, it is only because she spent the 80s climbing the ladder in the political structure that required that attempted genocide to survive. And if she had been made aware of their atrocities (which seems likely considering the number of protests ACT UP held at the White House during her husband’s administration, which blocked a federal needle exchange program and sheltered the predatory pharmaceutical industry and its exorbitant prices for treatment), then she deliberately tried to paint over the attempted genocide of gay men so that she could win over a few conservative voters at a funeral. Gay men survived not because of Nancy Reagan’s “low-key activism,” but because of the men and women who took to the street because they understood that Silence Equals Death, they understood that the state is their enemy, they understood that the difference between living and dying is the constant struggle against structures of power. Sexual and gender revolution is a constant battle against authoritarian power on the most personal level possible, and in this fight that so many people died for, Hillary Clinton just told us beyond a shadow of a doubt which side she will take.