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 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 much 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.