Talking about former first lady Nancy Reagan on MSNBC on Friday, current leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton credited “president and Mrs Reagan – in particular, Mrs Reagan”, for having “started a national conversation” about Aids.
Aids historians, LGBT activists and anyone who cares about little things like the truth were immediately enraged at Clinton’s false claims. Ronald and Nancy Reagan were no more leaders discussing Aids in the 1980s than Republicans are at championing abortion access today.
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember,” Clinton said, “how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/Aids back in the 1980s.”
She didn’t lie there. Indeed, it was difficult to talk about Aids throughout the 1980s – largely because of the silence from the White House. In April 1987, activists unveiled a poster that said “Silence = Death” – a month before Reagan would finally devote a speech to the years-long epidemic. That slogan would become the motto of the group Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP), and according to their website, the slogan was asking “Why is Reagan silent about Aids? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican?”
It’s easy to denounce Reagan – out of office for 27 years and dead for more than a decade – with the distance of history. It’s also easy to criticize Republicans’ continuing love of abstinence-only sex education and opposition to gay rights as a continuing attempt to erase queer people today.
But for those of us who care about Aids and LGBT people, it is much harder and important to criticize the frontrunner of the Democratic party, who takes the support of gay voters for granted. Why, in 2016, did the Democratic frontrunner engage so blithely in the erasure of the people who actually did start the “national conversation” about Aids? Was it because they were gay men of the in-your-face variety of activism – many of whom died of the virus?
When Clinton said the Reagans led the way on Aids when “nobody wanted to do anything about it”, she is erasing these people from history in an ugly and dismissive fashion. People initially got HIV in this country through IV drug use, blood transfusions and sex. But while the Reagans looked the other way – even when a friend asked for help – it was was queer activists who were loud as hell in New York and San Francisco who forced the nation to face the plague.
Clinton said she could “really appreciate” Nancy Reagan’s “very effective low-key advocacy” that “penetrated the public conscience” on Aids. But the reality is, the people who really started the conversation were not low-key. They were not polite. They were not quiet in any way. They staged die-ins. They shut down streets. They threw the cremated ashes of their loved ones, already killed by Aids, over the fence of the White House to demand action.
Clinton later apologized, saying she “misspoke” about the Reagans on HIV/Aids. But what was she trying to gain by praising the Reagans in this way in the first place? I fear that she was engaging in a kind of dog-whistling, using the moment of Nancy Reagan’s death to appeal to voters who nostalgically loved the Reagans and dream of morning in America again. I fear by invoking a false Aids history, she was appealing to those who want a simpler time before gays got uppity. Perhaps she wants to peel off some of the white men voting for Sanders in the primary. Perhaps she is trolling for Reagan Democrats who might consider her over Trump in making America great again.
I have been frightened for some time that the crisis of AIDS is not over, especially for black America, and yet it has again largely been erased from our national political consciousness. Aids, which is projected to infect one in two black gay American men, is almost invisible from the presidential race. And now even the Democratic frontrunner has diminished Aids history herself.
Will gay voters and political groups, especially the Human Rights Campaign (which endorsed the other HRC months ago) demand that Clinton do more than say sorry, but demand that she audibly start a national conversation on Aids in America in 2016 – a time when it is still hard to talk about HIV? Will they question her praising Reagan’s Aids policies as a harbinger of deadly incremental things to come, given her claims to pragmatically work across the aisle in a way she says Bernie Sanders “never, ever” could? Will they hold their own, in this time, to as high a standard as they do the deceased leader of their opposition party – especially given her own pathetic past opposition on gay rights? This would be the only sincere way to begin to undo the damage Clinton has done to the men and women who fought, and still fight, Aids in the vacuum of political leadership.