On Reagan’s Birthday, Pledge Not to Forget the AIDS Deaths His Administration Laughed Off
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February 6 is ex-president Ronald Reagan’s birthday. To celebrate, let’s never forget what his administration did for the queer community, nay, the world — laugh off thousands of people dying of AIDS.
Mother Jones has some excerpts from Jon Cohen’s book Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine containing transcripts of Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes answering questions about the AIDS crisis during the early ’80s. (If you want to hear something that’ll make you want to punch everyone, listen to the audio of Speakes’ discussion with a journalist in Scott Calonico’s short film When AIDS was Funny.)
The following conversation took place on October 15, 1982, just a few months after a meeting of community leaders and medical experts named the deadly disease AIDS rather than keep its previous label, gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).
REPORTER: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
LARRY SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” [Laughter] No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?
I don’t have it. Do you? [Laughter]
No, I don’t.
You didn’t answer my question.
Well, I just wondered, does the President—
How do you know? [Laughter]
In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Does the president, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any —
There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
No, I mean, I thought you were keeping —
I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no — [laughter] — no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
By then, 618 people had already died of AIDS but they were mostly gay or Black so, LOL, we guess.
But hey, it was only 1982, and the epidemic was still emerging, so maybe the Reagan White House didn’t know any better. Surely they wised up to the situation as the plague spread across the nation. Surely.
A year later, on June 13, 1983, a reporter asked Speakes if the Reagan administration intended to take any small steps to respond to the AIDS crisis. Here’s how it went:
REPORTER: Larry, does the president think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their “cruising”? [Laughter] What? I didn’t hear your answer, Larry.
SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest —
You were acknowledging but—
— interest in this subject.
You don’t think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising — it would help AIDS?
We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we’ll make it available to you. [Laughter]
Back to fairy tales.
Get it? Fairy tales. Because it’s a disease that kills a lot of fairies. Hilarious.
During that year, there was an AIDS outbreak in central Africa, and 2,118 AIDS deaths in the United States. In addition, blood banks didn’t know how to screen their blood supplies for AIDS or HIV, so blood transfusion recipients were all at risk of contracting the disease.
The reporter made Speakes laugh by suggesting some sort of public information campaign aimed at urging the public to change their sexual behavior in the hopes of preventing the spread of the disease. A public information campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS? What kind of zany country would do a thing like that? (Answer: Australia would, and it worked really well.)
Jon Cohen recounts how around that time, CDC officials tried to explain how AIDS transmission worked to Margaret Heckler, a lawyer whom Reagan had appointed to head the Department of Health and Human Services. After being informed that AIDS was likely spread between gay men via anal intercourse, Heckler (who was evidently not a doctor) boggled and exclaimed, “Anal intercourse? You do that?”
This was the woman Reagan chose to handle the AIDS crisis.
But hey, it was still early on in the epidemic! Surely the White House got its act together the next year, right? It’s not like Ronald Reagan’s right-wing social values made him so homophobic that he thought gay men deserved to die simply for having sex, right? That would be monstrous! That’s what Jason Voorhees thinks about human sexuality.
On December 11, 1984, a reporter asked Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes once again about the administration’s response to the AIDS crisis. After cracking a few jokes at the expense of thousands and thousands of dead Americans, Speaks admitted that Reagan hadn’t said a single thing about the AIDS epidemic, and Speakes hadn’t brought it up.
REPORTER: Since the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta — [laughter] — reports —
MR. SPEAKES: This is going to be an AIDS question.
— that an estimated —
You were close.
Well, look, could I ask the question, Larry?
You were close.
An estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the President, as Commander-in-Chief, take steps to protect Armed Forces food and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they forbid typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?
I don’t know.
Could you — Is the President concerned about this subject, Larry —
I haven’t heard him express —
— that seems to have evoked so much jocular —
— reaction here? You know —
It isn’t only the jocks, Lester. Has he sworn off water faucets?
No, but, I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?
Lester, I have not heard him express anything on it. Sorry.
You mean he has no — expressed no opinion about this epidemic?
No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it. [Laughter]
Would you ask him Larry?
Have you been checked? [Laughter]
Hilarious! 5,596 Americans had died of the disease by then. That’s 1.86 times the number of people who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, but they were mostly gays and Black people so it was funny.
So if you’re gay, HIV-positive or Black, be sure to honor Ronald Reagan’s birthday the same way he would have honored yours: stand over his festering corpse and laugh and laugh and laugh.