The gay community lost ground during the years of Ronald Reagan's administration as it reeled under the twin blows of the frightening emergence of HIV/AIDS and the growing prominence of the religious right. Reagan's importance was both in what he did and in what he did not do. It may still be too early to judge the full impact of his role in creating that history.
The first year of Reagan's presidency, 1981, saw the first recognition of clusters of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and 'gay cancer' (Kaposi's Sarcoma) among young, ostensibly healthy homosexual men. Those rare infections previously had been seen only among the very old with failing immune systems.
NIH and the CDC immediately began to investigate the startling phenomena as the death toll accelerated its upward spiral. By mid-1983 when they had identified the virus, nearly 5,000 cases had been reported; half of those patients were dead.
Many believe Reagan did not speak in public about AIDS until 1987, by which time there were 71,176 diagnosed cases in the U.S. and 41,027 deaths. Many AIDS activists criticized Reagan for a lack of leadership on the issue, which they believed had contributed to those deaths.
[One reader writes that The New York Times, in an article dated Sept. 18, 1985 and titled "Reagan Defends Financing for AIDS," reported: "President Reagan, who has been accused of public indifference to the AIDS crisis by groups representing victims of the deadly disease, said last night that his Administration was already making a 'vital contribution' to research on the disease.... Mr. Reagan said that he had been supporting research into AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, for the last four years and that the effort was a 'top priority" for the Administration.'"]
The truth is that many people, including those in denial within the gay community, were slow to understand the meaning of HIV and exercise appropriate leadership. Time, the dedication of thousands of researchers and caregivers, and the expenditure of vast sums of money have demonstrated that the scientific and medical issues surrounding AIDS are extremely complex.
Many of the scientific questions that were REAGAN from cover vaccine for HIV has eluded the grasp of scientists under four administrations. President Bill Clinton's commitment to an AIDS vaccine has met with as much success as President Richard Nixon's earlier war on cancer. They call into question the extent of impact of presidential leadership in the realm of basic science.
Perhaps that is why AIDS generally was missing from mainstream accounts of Reagan's presidency. Some things are seen as a force of nature, not of politics.
Reagan was the darling of social conservatives, despite being an inconsistent adherent to their norms. He is the only divorced man to serve as President. His years in Hollywood and exposure to gays in the movie industry left him about as comfortable with homosexuals as a man of his generation was likely to be. The first gay couple known to have spent the night as guests at the White House was long-time family friends interior decorator Ted Garber and his partner Archie Case.
More importantly, in 1978 as former Governor when he could have kept his views private, Reagan spoke out forcefully against the Briggs Initiative. That right-wing ballot measure in California would have allowed any teacher to be fired for 'advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting' homosexual activity. Most observers credit Reagan's opposition as a key factor in defeat of the initiative by more than a million votes.
A President often has his most lasting—and often unintended—legacy in his nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, as they serve long after the man has left office. For example, the 1986 affirmation of antigay sodomy laws was penned by Justice Byron White, John F. Kennedy's sole appointee.
Reagan's judicial legacy continues today. Antonin Scalia is the Court's most controversial sitting member and a vociferously acerbic critic of equal rights for gay Americans. Yet if Reagan is to be held accountable for the conservative nominee in 1986, Democrats were completely acquiescent in the 98-0 confirmation (with two Republicans absent) of Scalia to the bench and must share in that accountability.
Ironically it is Scalia's very comments on gay-related cases that have contributed to his becoming marginalized by his colleagues on the Court. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman and Reagan's first nominee on the Court, has turned out to be a centrist swing vote that often has supported gay cases. William H. Rehnquist already was serving on the Court when Reagan elevated him to Chief Justice.
The acrimonious battle over Robert Bork and the Senate's 58-42 rejection of him led to the nomination of Douglas Ginsburg, who withdrew from consideration after nine days when he admitted to having smoked marijuana. That set the stage for Reagan's final nominee, the moderate conservative Anthony Kennedy, who breezed through the Senate on a unanimous vote.
Kennedy has surprised virtually everyone by becoming a champion of the rights of gays. He wrote the two watershed legal opinions in the field: Romer v. Evans, in 1996, which struck down Colorado's Amendment 2 that prohibited legal protections for gays; and Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 ruling that eliminated sodomy laws. His language was unusually broad and inclusive.
He dealt with the odious 1986 Supreme Court decision that had affirmed the constitutionality of state same-sex sodomy laws by declaring in clear, blunt language: 'Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled.' The Court seldom so clearly admits its mistakes.
Lambda Legal attorney Ruth Harlow said, 'What Justice Kennedy replaced [Bowers] with is a resounding celebration of all of our liberties, all of our privacy. Gay Americans and straight Americans alike now have the right, made explicit by this court, to make their own private decisions about how they express their love for their partners.'
Those two decisions supply much of the legal foundation in extending the battle for full marriage rights and equality under the law. Neither Reagan nor his critics could have anticipated that when Kennedy was nominated.