Nancy Reagan and the AIDS policy that never was
No other first lady in US history has had more impact on the gay community than Nancy Reagan. Pity it was all negative. By Nic Holas.
Last Sunday, as LGBT Sydney came together for Mardi Gras weekend, former First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, died. Many may remember her as the dignified wife of long-dead President Ronald Reagan, she of the red frocks and hair set just so. However for many in the LGBT community Nancy Reagan is a deeply problematic figure and to some in the HIV community even one of our greatest foes. So, before the inevitable humanising Iron Lady-style biopic (starring Jessica Lange probably) comes along, let’s take a look at why some queer people are quite happy to see the last of this First Lady.
I spoke with Steve Macpherson, who as a young gay man worked in the Reagan administration as a White House intern. Today, Macpherson divides his time between Washington DC and his native Australia and consults on US presidential campaigns.
“Time has dimmed the memory of what this woman ‘contributed’ to the crisis we see today,” explains Macpherson.
“Nancy became Ron’s eyes and ears as he slowly descended into Alzheimer’s very early on in his presidency.”
Much has been written of how the Reagans failed to adequately address the AIDS crisis. Activists such as ACTUP and many in the affected community were openly critical of how the Reagan administration responded to the crisis, which ranged silence and willful inaction, to openly mocking anyone who questioned their lack of response.
Above: Nancy Reagan and, top image, with husband Ronald.
Nancy Reagan is most commonly dragged for refusing to help her old Hollywood pal, Rock Hudson, the silver screen lady killer who by the 1980s was slowly being killed by AIDS. She infamously denied his personal request to help him access revolutionary, experimental treatment in France. Hudson’s death in 1985 pushed AIDS and closeted gay men into the spotlight, forcing America to acknowledge that the issue went beyond Christopher Street and the Castro.
Macpherson clarifies that story somewhat, saying that behind the scenes the First Lady “did in many ways stand up for her close friend Rock Hudson with his own personal battle.“ However that private support, whilst lovely to hear about, was at odds with the public response offered by the Reagans. As an intern in the White House, Macpherson observed how Nancy Reagan “withdrew her support for many other friends in the movie world who were suffering in the outbreak of the AIDS crisis”.
Not just turning her back on the Hollywood community that made her and her husband famous (and paved their way to the White House), Reagan went even further, and Macpherson witnessed how the First Lady “helped in the legislative development of the repressive and bigoted approach that the Reagan administration pushed, and in many ways elevated the virus into a crusade against the gay community.”
Other ways Nancy Reagan’s time as First Lady affected the gay community included her oft-ridiculed ‘Just Say No’ campaign, a 1980s extension of the Right’s War on Drugs. That campaign, completely at odds with the values of harm reduction, increased the criminalisation of people who use drugs – a community in which LGBTIQ people are over-represented (along with People of Colour and other vulnerable communities).
The effects of ‘Just Say No’ are still felt today as our community continues to grapple with the issue. In the US, Reagan’s campaign directly impacted the calls for safer injecting equipment, which resulted in HIV transmissions via needles still being a significant cause of new infections in the US in 2016.
While some may think it improper to speak ill of the dead, great resentment is felt towards Nancy Reagan by those who endured the AIDS crisis. Many of those people now live with a compounded grief and trauma that has only recent been named, AIDS Survivor Syndrome. The death of the influential First Lady, often regarded as an icon of a now-shambolic Republican party, is an important moment for those men and women to process the still-seething anger from being left to die by a homophobic and uncaring administration.
Hopefully, now those men and women can take the next step forward in a long path towards letting go. For those who believe it unfair to focus on the actions of a First Lady, when it was her husband and his advisors that really should have been blamed, Macpherson offers this memory:
“Her effect on the Reagan presidency, as she assumed more and more of the decision-making process as her husband began to understand less and forget more, may well have been the greatest degree of influence that any first lady has had on the government of America. Clever, ruthless, domineering, but totally devoted in every respect to what her husband was hoping to achieve, I doubt there has been a first couple so dedicated to each other.”
Nic Holas is a writer focusing on living with HIV and the contemporary gay experience, and has been published in Hello Mr., Junkee, Star Observer, Cosmopolitan, and more. Nic is co-founder of The Institute of Many (TIM), a social umbrella for HIV positive people, and an ENUF Ambassador. Tweet him: @nicheholas. Nic is a contributing editor for GNN CheckUp.