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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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