I've written news for the gay press since 1985, for around 350 newspapers and magazines. The day after Ronald Reagan died, I sat in my home office and scanned through the backup CDs of my oldest floppy disks and long-dead hard drives to get a sense of how we gays and lesbians viewed Reagan during and after his presidency.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was how seldom Reagan's name came up in my news writing apart from newsmakers' references to his apparent silence on gays and AIDS.
As Barbra Streisand put it in an address to an AIDS Project Los Angeles fundraiser in 1992: "I will never forgive my fellow actor Ronald Reagan for his genocidal denial of the illness' existence, for his refusal to even utter the word AIDS for seven years, and for blocking adequate funding for research and education which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
The most sensational thing to appear on my backup CDs was my first-hand report from the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. I wrote:
A crowd of Republicans listening to a speech by President Ronald Reagan turned on a group of 15 protestors from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) during the Republican National Convention in New Orleans Aug. 14. Five ACT UP members were arrested in the ensuing mêlée. All 15 of the protestors were punched and kicked by the angry mob.
"If we had stayed there one minute longer, we would have been killed," said ACT UP's Neil Broome. "These people were rabid. ... They wanted to beat the living shit out of us. In all my time with ACT UP, I've never seen anything like this."
The fight broke out at the New Orleans Convention Center as Reagan addressed thousands of convention delegates and other supporters during official opening ceremonies. All three major TV networks and the Cable News Network carried the outbreak live.
"All we were doing was standing there with our 'AIDSGATE' signs," said ACT UP's Heidi Dorow. "Suddenly this group of young men in suits started shouting things like, 'Let's get the faggots' and 'Queers go home.' We responded by chanting, 'History will recall, Reagan and Bush did nothing at all.'"
"At that point," said ACT UP's Frank Smithson, "the crowd became really ugly. They started grabbing our signs and ripping them up and then punching us."
The activists attempted to retreat, but were surrounded by hundreds of Republicans. "They had the most intense looks of hatred," said Broome. "They were calling us commies, faggots and queers. At one point, several of them began chanting, 'You deserve to die.' I was literally afraid for my life."
On Aug. 2, 1988, Reagan prohibited federal agencies from discriminating against employees infected with HIV, but refused to seek a law banning such discrimination nationwide, as recommended by his AIDS commission. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., commented: "The Reagan administration has done its best to avoid making even a single helpful AIDS decision in the eight years of the Reagan presidency. They handpick a commission and then don't even have the courage to accept its recommendations."
An analysis I wrote on Oct. 18, 1988, of the positions of presidential candidates George Bush and Michael Dukakis stated: "The Reagan administration has indicated it may support collecting statistics on crimes against gays and lesbians. ... The Reagan administration has left issues of HIV testing confidentiality and availability to the states. ... Under the Reagan administration, a nationwide AIDS education mailing, originally conceived in the mid-1980's, was not sent until June of 1988 due to political in-fighting over content. The administration refuses to provide explicit information on sex and drug use."
My archives provided notable outbursts from veteran gay activists.
"Fuck you and fuck your father," actor Harvey Fierstein shouted at Michael Reagan during the May 20, 1997, episode of TV's Politically Incorrect when the topic turned to Ronald Reagan's handling of AIDS. In February of 1989, author Larry Kramer outed Reagan's son Ron on CNN's Larry King show.
"The irony is Nancy's best friends are gay and their son Ron Reagan is gay -- the essence is that Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan have sold their son down the river," Kramer said. "Ron Reagan could have been the biggest hero in the world if he had the courage to come forth and say he was gay, to shame and encourage his parents to do something about this epidemic, but because he didn't, more of us are dead."
Confronted on his own TV show by outing inventor Michelangelo Signorile in 1991, Ron Reagan described himself as "straight."
"It's [saying I'm gay] insulting to my wife of 11 years because it says she's living a lie, and I don't like that," Ron said.
Signorile responded that he'd heard Ron's wife was a lesbian. In August of 1992, Reagan daughter Patti Davis told The Advocate: "They [my parents] think it's abnormal. I certainly don't think they feel that whatever someone's sexual preference is, is OK. They think that God made men and women to make love and any variation on that theme is in some way blasphemous."
On April 11, 1990, Reagan published a tribute to hemophiliac AIDS victim Ryan White in the Washington Post.
"Sadly, Ryan's is not the only life to have been cut short by AIDS," Reagan said. "In a most poignant way, he told us of a health crisis in our country that has claimed too many victims. There have been too many funerals like his. There are too many patches in the quilt. We owe it to Ryan to make sure that the fear and ignorance that chased him from his home and his school will be eliminated. We owe it to Ryan to open our hearts and our minds to those with AIDS. We owe it to Ryan to be compassionate, caring and tolerant toward those with AIDS, their families and friends. It's the disease that's frightening, not the people who have it."
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Robert Bray was wholly unimpressed.
"We urge our leaders to take action while they hold positions of power, not after they reach the safety of retirement and are outside the spotlight of public scrutiny," Bray said. "Some will salute Mr. Reagan for his post-presidential words on AIDS. But for all the children alienated from their schools because they had HIV, and all the families bombed out of their homes by hysterical neighbors, and all the IV drug users, Black, Hispanic and Asian people with AIDS, and all the gay men who died alone in some anonymous hospital room, for all these people there was no editorial. There was no PSA. There was no Great Communicator offering compassion or action. There was only presidential negligence and a legacy of shame."
In February of 1990, Reagan visited children with AIDS at the University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles. He said, "I hope my visit will bring more attention to the need to do something about this horrible disease."
On his way into the hospital, Reagan was confronted by ACT UP/Los Angeles' John Fall, who screamed: "You are a murderer and a hypocrite. If you had done something eight years ago these children wouldn't be dying."
A 1987 entry in a history of AIDS on the respected Web site Aegis.com states, "After a six year silence, U.S. President Ronald Reagan uses the word 'AIDS' in public for the first time." Other sources, including the University of California at San Francisco digital library, say that happened in 1986.
ACT UP/New York's Web site quotes him as saying: "AIDS information cannot be what some call 'value neutral.' After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don't medicine and morality teach the same lessons?"
References by Aegis, Streisand and others to the first time Reagan discussed AIDS may be references to the first time he addressed the topic voluntarily. In fact, Reagan talked about AIDS as early as Sept. 17, 1985, during a nationally televised press conference, when asked about the disease by reporters, according to a transcript located June 8 by longtime AIDS activist and blogger Michael Petrelis.
Reagan was asked: "Mr. President, the nation's best-known AIDS scientist says the time has come now to boost existing research into what he called a minor moonshot program to attack this AIDS epidemic that has struck fear into the nation's health workers and even its schoolchildren. Would you support a massive government research program against AIDS like the one that President Nixon launched against cancer?"
Reagan replied: "I have been supporting it for more than four years now. It's been one of the top priorities with us, and over the last four years, and including what we have in the budget for '86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I'm sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it'll be $126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there's no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer."
The questioner continued: "If I could follow up, sir. The scientist who talked about this, who does work for the government, is in the National Cancer Institute. He was referring to your program and the increase that you proposed as being not nearly enough at this stage to go forward and really attack the problem."
Reagan replied, "I think with our budgetary constraints and all, it seems to me that $126 million in a single year for research has got to be something of a vital contribution."
Another reporter asked, "If you had younger children, would you send them to a school with a child who had AIDS?"
Regan replied: "I'm glad I'm not faced with that problem today. And I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it. I also have compassion, as I think we all do, for the child that has this, and doesn't know, and can't have it explained to him why somehow he is now an outcast and can no longer associate with his playmates and schoolmates. On the other hand, I can understand the problem with the parents. It is true that some medical sources had said that this 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. I can understand both sides of it."
In 1990, Reagan made a public-service announcement for the Pediatric AIDS Foundation which the San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle said amounted to an apology for his neglect of the epidemic while in office.
Reagan said, "We can all grow and learn in our lives and I've learned all kinds of people can get AIDS, even children. ... I'm not asking you to send money. I'm asking for something more important. Your understanding. Maybe it's time we all learned something new."
Numerous Web sites offer an identical AIDS timeline that contains the sentence, "1990: Ronald Reagan apologizes for his neglect of the epidemic while he was president."
None of them quotes what he said and the quotation does not appear in the thorough "Quote Unquote" column I've written monthly or biweekly since 1988.
A lengthy search of the Washington Post and The New York Times archives for "Reagan apologizes AIDS", "Reagan apologized AIDS", "Reagan apology AIDS", "Reagan sorry AIDS" and "Reagan AIDS" turned up nothing.
Veteran AIDS activists Larry Kramer, the writer who founded ACT UP, and Sean Strub, who founded POZ magazine, have no recollection of the apology. Neither does veteran New York City AIDS journalist Andy Humm.
Journalist Andrew Miller said: "That's a lot of bullshit. Reagan said no such thing. I was editor of Outweek at the time."