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Activists recall Reagan's record on AIDS: Former President's death sparks a different wave of mourning in


On June 11 in Washington D.C. a collection of past and present world leaders gathered in the National Cathedral to mourn the death of former President Ronald Reagan. A few hundred miles north in Cambridge at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church a group of about 30 people came together to mourn those who they said suffered under the policies of the Reagan administration, particularly those who died as a result of AIDS and homelessness during Reagan's time in office.

Reagan's death at age 93 on June 6 prompted a period of national mourning, but while many Americans have fond memories of the man known as the Great Communicator, some members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community take a more negative view of Reagan's legacy, in large part due to his administration's response to the AIDS epidemic. The Rev. C. Irv Cummings, who officiated the Cambridge memorial service, criticized Reagan for ignoring AIDS during the first years of the epidemic.

"One of my dearest friends died of complications from AIDS in 1991," said Cummings. "Had Ronald Reagan and his cabinet been less inclined to act like ostriches with their heads in the sand it is very likely that my friend would be alive today, as are many others for whom effective treatment has been found."

In 1981 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the first known cases of AIDS, at that point known as gay cancer or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). According to press reports, Reagan never publicly addressed the disease until September 1985 when a reporter at a news conference asked him whether he would support government research initiatives to fight the disease. According to the New York Times Reagan answered by saying that AIDS "is a top priority with us" and explaining that since he had taken office he had provided or appropriated about half a billion dollars to fight the epidemic.

Yet Reagan continued to clash with lawmakers and activists on his AIDS policies. According to press reports Reagan requested $85 million in 1986 for AIDS research, but Congress bumped that figure up to $244 million. Reagan unsuccessfully tried to rescind $50 million of that figure, according to the Boston Globe, but he ultimately agreed to Congress' figure. At the time the Globe reported that AIDS patients were dying at a rate of about 80 per week.

In 1987, Reagan proposed cutting the research budget for AIDS down to $214 million. Congress again responded by raising it to about $400 million, and Reagan again agreed to sign that figure into law.

In 1986, Reagan ordered Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a major government report on AIDS. Critics attacked Reagan for ordering the report on the same day he submitted requests to reduce the AIDS budget, according to the Globe. Koop's report called for mandatory sex education for children as early as elementary school, but Reagan's education secretary, William Bennett, and his undersecretary of education, Gary Bauer, strenuously opposed those efforts, calling for abstinence-oriented education.

At the Cambridge service it was clear that many in the GLBT community blamed Reagan for neglecting the AIDS crisis during his time in office. Sue Hyde, conference director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference, read aloud the names of 25 gay men who had died of AIDS-related causes during the Reagan administration, all of them major leaders or contributors to Boston's GLBT community. During the '80s Hyde worked in Boston as the news editor for Gay Community News and witnessed firsthand the toll AIDS took on the city's gay male community. Following the service she told Bay Windows that she found it difficult to listen to the almost uniformly positive coverage of Reagan's legacy immediately following his death.

"An entire political movement grew up around the silence of the Reagan administration. The AIDS activist movement took as its call to action 'silence equals death' because literally the silence of the Reagan administration was resulting in the deaths of thousands and thousands of gay men in our communities across the country," said Hyde. "So to have the canonization go forth and President Bush declare the unofficial national holiday to celebrate the life and good work of Ronald Reagan was the insult that was already heaped upon all of the injuries of loss of friends, loved ones, colleagues, community members in the course of the epidemic."

Larry Kessler, who served as executive director of the AIDS Action Committee from its founding in 1983 until 2002 and currently serves as founding director, said that he watched coverage of Reagan's funeral on television and was unprepared for his own reaction.

"Here I am watching the funeral procedures on Friday morning, and when they were playing 'Coming Home' at the airport, that's when I lost it," said Kessler. "... All of a sudden this rolodex in my head started turning, and I remembered the faces and names [of people] who had died."

Kessler said he believes hundreds of thousands of deaths might have been prevented if Reagan had charged the CDC early in the epidemic to focus on prevention efforts. He also said increased funding for research in the early days of the epidemic might have led to an earlier discovery of the protease inhibitors that have helped many with HIV stay healthy since 1996.

Daniel Curley, executive director of Cambridge Cares about AIDS (CCA), also criticized Reagan's administration for thwarting prevention efforts. In the '80s Curley helped organize a weekly People with AIDS Coalition dinner where attendees could be kept up to date on HIV/AIDS services in the Boston area.

He said during the Reagan years prevention programs targeting the gay community "were not allowed to [use] sexually positive or sexually explicit messages." He also said programs were limited in the ways they could talk about condom use.

Curley said Reagan's legacy on prevention policy lives on in the Bush presidency.

"I think that there's a new era of Reaganism coming with Bush," said Curley. He said scientifically proven prevention methods have been thwarted by restrictions on federal funding that compel recipients to stress abstinence as a prevention strategy, even when doing outreach to adults.

Yet memories of Reagan in the GLBT community are not uniformly negative. At the national level the Log Cabin Republicans credit Reagan with opposing California's Briggs Initiative in the late '70s, which would have prevented gay and lesbian people from teaching in the state's public schools. The success of the campaign to defeat the Briggs Initiative prompted gay conservatives to form Log Cabin in 1977.

Locally, GLBT conservatives also praise Reagan's presidential legacy. Jonathan Crutchly, a real estate broker who has lived in Boston since the mid-'70s and who helped found the local chapter of Log Cabin in 1990, said that complaints by activists about Reagan's AIDS record are grossly unfair.

"I think he did his job. He had priorities, and we were faced at the time with nuclear annihilation," said Crutchly, referring to the Cold War. "He won the Cold War without firing a shot, and I give him tremendous credit for that."

Crutchly also said activists were wrong to ask Reagan for public funding of AIDS research, arguing that the private sector had greater incentive to push for a cure than the public sector.

"From his first day in office Reagan said government is not the solution to all problems, government is the problem," said Crutchly. He pointed out that when Congress presented him with budgets appropriating funding for AIDS research, he signed them into law.

Crutchly said that Reagan's death was a loss for the country.

"The man was 93 at the time, but I was deeply saddened," said Crutchly. "... I miss him terribly."

Ethan Jacobs is a staff writer at Bay Windows. His e-mail address is

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Information in this article was accurate in June 18, 2004. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.