As the USA bid Nancy Reagan and the 1980s goodbye recently, some of us got an abrupt and surprising reminder of why we don't share much of the rest of the country's golden nostalgia about the Reagan years. Hillary Clinton in an interview with Andrea Mitchell praised the Reagans for starting " a national conversation [about AIDS], when before nobody would talk about it." Of course the Reagans did no such thing. The disease first appeared in gay men in 1981, but it wasn't until 1985 that President Reagan even mentioned it publicly, and it was 1987 before he gave any kind of speech about it. The Reagan administration had no AIDS policy and didn't want one. In fact, they were openly contemptuous of the people among whom the disease first appeared in the USA, gay men. For example, here is a sample from a press conference in 1982 with then press secretary Larry Speakes:
All during the Reagan years and into the reign of Bush I, people talked about AIDS sufferers as if they deserved it, as if they had it coming. Religious fanatics began banging on about God's wrath (as they always do) being visited on gay people for being their own perverse selves. Many of those self appointed apostles gleefully celebrated the rapidly growing number of cases and deaths in the gay community. Those damn faggots just couldn't die fast enough or soon enough! They took it up the ass, they deserved to die, declared one Wall Street trader.
And then in 1985, Ryan White, a 14 year old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion was denied readmission to his school in Indiana. All the holy men had to back track and admit that God, like the USA, does collateral damage when taking out the bad guys. Ryan White became an official "innocent victim" of AIDS. Before he died in 1990 of the disease, Ryan White to his everlasting credit said that all of the sufferers of AIDS were innocent victims. That one gracious act heaped mountains of live coals on the heads of our dear leaders. And indeed he was right. ALL the victims of AIDS were innocent.
As in every plague that ever was, so it was with AIDS. The disease and its spread inspired hysteria, superstition, and bigotry. The disease was bad enough, but the fear and hostility of frightened people caused victims to die in destitution and humiliation as well as in physical agony. I certainly saw a lot of that with my own eyes. A young artist I once knew contracted the disease at age 24 and was dead within months of his diagnosis. His father was a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and effectively disowned his son upon hearing the diagnosis. He would not visit his son, pay for his treatment, allow any other family to visit him, and wouldn't even come to his funeral when he died. A group of friends and the young man's sister cared for him in his last days and paid for his funeral. His bereaved sister was so angry with her family for the way that they treated her brother that she broke off all contact with them. I doubt that they are reconciled more than thirty years later. There are many such stories, and some much worse than this. I remember that the hysteria over the disease was so bad that my mother lost her health insurance, not because she was gay or infected, but because she was in a profession that had a lot of gay men, physical therapy. It was months before the clinic she worked for could find an insurance plan willing to cover them.
I was in my late 20s and in my 30s when the worst of the plague hit in Saint Louis and in New York. I visited way too many death beds and attended far too many funerals for a man my age at the time. I remember the men in their 40s, 30s, and 20s with walkers like decrepit old men. I remember that the younger they were, the faster they died; usually because they were uninsured and poor. I knew affluent successful professionals who lost everything upon their diagnosis and died poor and on Medicaid. There were a lot of people in Saint Louis who ended up in Saint Louis City County Hospital where a hostile staff frequently withheld care and left AIDS sufferers to the mercy of religious fanatics and thieves who preyed on them.
The Reagan Administration's policy on AIDS was one of malign neglect. They decided to let the disease rid them of a nuisance population; effectively a policy of genocide without having to spend money on bullets and gas, and without the mess and guilt.
The disease was a catastrophe, not a curse. It was not just a catastrophe for gay men, but an enormous human catastrophe. It affected poor minority communities disproportionately in the USA. It cut like a scythe through populations of drug addicts. The disease spread through heterosexual contact in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. The disease so ravaged Africa that it set back decades of social and economic improvement on the continent.
As in every plague, people reacted with selfishness and fear. As in every plague, those who were unaffected concluded that those afflicted somehow deserved it. As in every plague, there were all kinds of superstitions surrounding the disease that impeded the care for the suffering and held up efforts to find a treatment and a cure. As in every plague, there was no shortage of demagogues eager to exploit people's fear of AIDS and loathing for the victims. There was no shortage of cynics who decided to go along with this for their own reasons, or to just look the other way.
I've always worried that AIDS would be thrown down the old all-American memory hole, that the whole shameful episode would be conveniently forgotten. Or worse, that its history would be re-written and falsified to protect the sacred cows of Conventional Wisdom (like the blessed Reagans).
That does not seem to have happened since Ms. Clinton's gaffe falsifying history was so quickly exposed and she was forced to apologize.
Between 1981 and 2000, 448,060 people died of AIDS in the USA, including a lot of people I knew and loved.
I will never forget, and I can never forgive.
My current parish of Saint Luke in the Fields in New York was especially hard hit during the height of the AIDS plague. Clergy staff spent most of their time with the dying in hospitals, especially in the now defunct historic Saint Vincent's Hospital. There were years when the funerals were so frequent that they would burn through two or three Pascal Candles before Easter.
Saint Luke's choir frequently sang this beautiful setting by John Tavener of the Eastern Rite Funeral Ikos at funerals of AIDS victims.