One of my housemates... let's call him "Bob"... came home Saturday afternoon with a new American flag for the house, which he promptly unpacked from its box and affixed at half mast to the included aluminum flag pole. He mounted it on the front of the house next to his bedroom window. When I saw it, I asked him who we were mourning. That's when he told me that Ronald Reagan had died.
"Bob" identifies himself as a gay Republican, by the way. This is a non-trivial detail.
That evening I had to endure the television news channels prattling on and on about Reagan and his legacy, while Bob watched the talking heads and gabbed on the phone for hours loudly to his friends about what a great man Reagan was. This made me angry and frustrated for a number of reasons, only some of which I was fully in touch with at the time. It's clear to me that Bob sees Reagan as a kind of father figure, above the simple adoration he holds for the man for political reasons. I just closed the door to my bedroom and played my music loud enough to drown out the idiot box.
I fell for Reagan's "Morning in America" feel-good campaign when I was a teenager. Hook, line, sinker. Later, after America reacted to the Iran-Contra scandal with a resounding "Who cares? What's on TV?", and when the Berlin Wall began to fall and everybody was crediting Reagan for the demise of Communism, I started getting really cynical about The Gipper. But he was fading rapidly from public view as his Alzheimer's worsened, and there seemed no point in further demonizing a man that most everyone clearly wanted to remain upon a pedestal.
So, it wasn't until I read this press release today that many of my fuzzy bad feelings about Reagan began to gel back together into identifiable forms. Bob would shrug this off and launch into the role of apologist if I even dared to bring it up, but I wouldn't. I find that I can't discuss politics with him for more than about three minutes, because his personal system of beliefs contradict his lifestyle choices so starkly that listening to his rationalizations makes me feel kind of sick. I'm lucky that I'm not filled with self loathing anymore. He reminds me all the time that some gay men don't ever get past that.
Anyway, I wanted to post this letter, so that you could read it. It's a press release and in the public domain, blah blah blah. I hope it makes you think. It didn't exactly make me angry, but it did remind me of one of the reasons why I have been feeling angry.
A Letter to My Best Friend, Steven Powsner, On the Death of Former President Ronald Reagan
Matt Foreman, Executive Director National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
June 6, 2004
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, how 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.)
Founded in 1973, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is the oldest national organization working to eliminate prejudice, violence and injustice against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people at the local, state and national level. The Task Force trains activists and leaders and organizes broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation. The Task Force Policy Institute, the community's premiere think tank, researches and reports on critical policy issues. As part of a broader social justice movement for freedom, justice and equality, the Task Force is creating a world that respects and celebrates the diversity of human expression and identity where all people may fully participate in society.