Hate is an awfully strong word and I try very hard not to hate people. I am human and there are some, living and dead, that I do hate or that I have hated.
Ronald Reagan, one of the most popular and beloved presidents in the history of the United States, is one of those people.
It has taken me almost 30 years, but I can now say that I no longer hate the man. I still question his legacy and I would love to have been able to sit down with the former president and talk with him about his actions, or lack of actions, in the 1980s that led to my feelings toward him. It wasn’t the fact that he was a Democrat and he switched parties and became a Republican. It wasn’t that he defeated President Jimmy Carter, one of my favorite commander-in-chiefs, in the 1980 elections.
The reason is that his ignorance or fear of AIDS and the government’s slow reaction to fighting the disease in the years that followed led to the deaths of more than 90,600 people, mostly gay men, in the United States in the 1980s.
While AIDS (unnamed at the time) was identified in the summer of 1981, President Reagan did not mention the deadly disease publicly until a press conference in 1985 and, even then, he was misinformed, “It is true that some medical sources had said that [HIV] cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem.”
That same year, teenager Ryan White, a hemophiliac who contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, was barred from his Indiana school and actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, making him the highest profile person to succumb to the disease and his face became synonymous with AIDS in the years to come.
But, still nothing from Ronald Reagan. It would be 1987 before the President would give his first speech on AIDS. This was the same year that AZT, the first AIDS drug, was introduced and ACT UP, an activist group, formed to protest the $10,000/year cost for the new drug.
Six years into the AIDS pandemic, President Reagan gave his first speech on AIDS, but 20,000 Americans had already died. For those reasons, activist groups saw the President as a “murderer”.
In the years to come, more medications would be offered including the drug “cocktails” in the mid-1990s where people with HIV and AIDS would take up to 60 pills daily.
Medications to fight HIV and AIDS are much more advanced these days and give people longer normal lives, but it’s expensive. By 2006-2007, it was estimated that the cost of extending the life of someone with HIV 24 years was $618,900.
Recent polls show that Americans no longer think that AIDS is a major problem. Those Americans are wrong – dead wrong. Of the new cases, 31% are in heterosexual couples and while African-Americans comprise 12.6% of the U.S. population, they make up 45% of the new HIV infections.
Across the world, some 33 million people are living with HIV, but only about 3 million people are being treated for it. And, in South Africa, more than 250,000 people die each year. This picture is of AIDS graveyards in South Africa.
Those numbers are part of the reasons I disliked, or, since I’m being totally honest, hated Ronald Reagan for much of my adult life. I was 16-years-old when the first cases of AIDS went public and I became sexually active in the 1980s as fear and hate spread throughout the world toward gay people because of AIDS, or “gay cancer”.
It’s hard not to dislike the man running the country at the time when people in your community were dying a very painful death and the government was dragging its feet. Boy, the country has really changed. In 2005, when hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Americans were much quicker to attack President George W. Bush and his administration for its failure to provide recovery for the victims in that deadly flooding. It was another case of the government failing to meet the needs of a minority in distress.
My views of President Reagan did not soften in the 1990s as I headed into my 20s and then my 30s seeing more and more people contract HIV and develop AIDS. I saw the resistance of religious leaders, school officials, and parents complain about sex education being taught to children and how abstinence was the answer in keeping our kids safe. I think that way of thinking got its start during the uptight, conservative regime of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Since President Reagan left office, scientists and the government have made great strides in AIDS education and treatment. There may never be a cure for AIDS, but, at least, now there is hope that people living with HIV can lead a more “normal” life.
This hope made me look closer at Ronald Reagan. As he grew older and Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of his mind, I knew that no matter how much I despised the man who so many loved, it couldn’t bring back all of the people who had died of AIDS since 1981.
I asked myself how the man who seemed so calm and collected could be so ignorant when the AIDS pandemic started. Maybe he had so many people telling him what to do and what to avoid saying because his political base would not want to hear about the cancer that those queers were spreading? Maybe he was advised that it didn’t affect middle and upper class white, heterosexual couples?
When I saw the 2003 Showtime movie, “The Reagans”, it made me feel a little sympathy toward the man, and in the past few years, I’ve bought several Ronald Reagan books and I want to learn more about him. But, I haven’t gotten around to reading them.
And, since I’m still more than a year behind on my “Time” magazines, I just read a February 2011 article with President Reagan’s daughter, Patty Davis. She said, “He was not a perfect man. He was not a perfect father. But he tried to reach higher, to understand what God wanted of him. He was a unique person who carved out a unique place in history. I sat beside him as he died. And now he sits inside my heart as I live my life, without him but with him.”
Reading her words and knowing that Nancy Reagan will turn 91-years-old tomorrow (July 6), it made me realize that it’s time for me to move on and find peace with the man who had many faults. What man doesn’t? I can’t forgive him, but I no longer hate him.
We can’t change history and the government’s lack of action in the 1980s with AIDS. While I can’t ask President Reagan what he was thinking when he ignored the disease for so long, I hope that the former president and all of the men, women, and children that died of AIDS during his presidency (and since) can come to peace with each other in that higher place.