Hillary Clinton and the Nancy Reagan AIDS Thing: What We Hoped To Accomplish

ACT UP 25 memorial man grieving in front of posters of people who died of AIDS
ACT UP 25 memorial, corner of 18th and Castro, San Francisco. Man grieving in front of posters of people who died of AIDS. Photo by Greta Christina.

What did we hope to accomplish?

Quick summary, for the six of you who were vacationing on Mars and may have missed it: Hillary Clinton recently said this utterly fucked-up thing about how Ronald and Nancy Reagan had “started a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS, and praising Nancy Reagan’s “low-key advocacy.” The Internet exploded with queers and others screaming about how this not only erased the reality of the many AIDS activists who actually did start the conversation about AIDS, but rewrote the history to laud the very people who had ignored AIDS, perpetuated the shame and silence about it, and caused the deaths of millions in the process. Clinton issued a brief apology on Twitter: the Internet exploded some more, with queers and others screaming about how this was nowhere near good enough, how Clinton’s historical revisionist bullshit needed a much stronger and clearer response than a 140-character apology. Clinton finally issued a more thorough statement, spelling out that the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS, acknowledging the activists who did start the conversation, and discussing the history of AIDS and AIDS activism in the U.S.

After the first apology, during the second round of the explosion, a number of people expressed bafflement and even disapproval at the exploders. “Why do you have to keep talking about this?” they asked. “She apologized in her tweet. What else do you want? You’re giving Donald Trump and the GOP ammunition. Why don’t you let it go? Why do you keep pressuring her? What do you hope to accomplish?”

Speaking for myself, and for some others but not all: What we hoped to accomplish was the second statement.

We got Clinton to learn some important history that matters to us, and to use her sizable platform to educate others about it. We got millions of other people to learn this important history. We got the actual national conversation about AIDS that she’d claimed the Reagans had started. We put a serious dent in the disgusting, revisionist Reagan hagiography — and we got Clinton to help us do that. And we got her to realize that we are not to be fucked with, and that she cannot take us for granted.

The second statement was not perfect. I wish she had explained how she made this ghastly mistake in the first place; I wish she hadn’t praised herself and her platform (that definitely undercuts an apology); I wish she had actually said “I’m sorry” (she did in her tweet, she didn’t here). But there were things about the statement that were surprisingly good. It was a pretty good brief summary of the history of HIV/AIDS, and the points it addressed about the current U.S. epidemic and what needs to be done about it were very on-point: a number of people I know who work in public health or HIV say it could have been written by one of them. And she gave a shout-out to ACT UP, which was surprising and awesome. I’m not sure any serious Presidential candidate has done that before.

We would not have gotten any of that if we hadn’t kept pressing.

There’s something important about this incident that I think some people may not be tracking on. It’s almost impossible to convey what it was like to be in the LGBT community during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, when your friends and community were dying in huge numbers, the government was ignoring it at best, and most of the world was laughing, scolding, shaming, shunning, or worse. The scars from those years run deep (here is an extraordinary piece of writing about it by Tim Kingston on the Grief Beyond Belief website). And there were so many people who had to put a lid on their grief when it was happening, who had to just put their heads down and cope. When people saw the Reagans being lauded as heroes of the epidemic — the very people who were arguably most complicit in what can fairly be described as a genocide — the lid came off. When you saw the Internet explode, you weren’t just seeing a Presidential candidate criticized for a dreadful gaffe. You were seeing over 25 years of pent-up grief and rage.

I’ll be honest and clear: It wasn’t just straight people, or people who didn’t live through the worst years of the pandemic, who were trying to convince us to quit screaming. LGBT people, people who were around during those days, were saying it as well. There is, of course, a huge variety among our community, including a variety of responses to AIDS and the way people speak about it. And when it comes to an issue that’s this emotional, this traumatic, this loaded with personal grief and political rage, it can be hard when other people who went through it are responding differently; when other people are more pragmatic or more ideological, more diplomatic or more hard-assed, more willing to forgive or less. My own general rule is that, within some obvious broad limits of ethics and legality, people get to speak about their own marginalization any way they like, and people get to decide for themselves who they forgive and when. When emotions are running high, though, I get that this can be hard.

But speaking up makes a difference. Demanding accountability from the people who represent us, or who are asking to represent us, makes a difference. Do not tell people who went through a genocide how to speak about it.

(Note: Please DO NOT turn this into a Sanders/Clinton election thread. I will enforce this, possibly without second chances.)

Hillary Clinton and the Nancy Reagan AIDS Thing: What We Hoped To Accomplish

6 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton and the Nancy Reagan AIDS Thing: What We Hoped To Accomplish

  1. 1

    As a Clinton supporter I was appalled by her original remarks, and that was certainly reinforced by the reactions of so many LGBTQ folks like yourself and Ingrid in my social media feed. Social media and our incredibly interconnected world is a fascinating part of this story. The reactions were immediate and impossible to ignore in exact opposition to how easily the AIDS epidemic was to ignore during the Reagan era. As straight teen in the early 80’s in the Midwest I had no idea what was going on, and I was a bit of a politics and news junkie. There simply wasn’t anyone making national news on the subject.

  2. 2

    I wish she had explained how she made this ghastly mistake in the first place

    The most likely answer is that she didn’t. She knew the truth perfectly well, and just wanted to kiss up to people who still love the Reagans, and didn’t mind throwing the LGBT community under the bus to do so. From her perspective, the mistake wasn’t what she said, it was underestimating how much it would piss off her ostensible constituency.

  3. 3

    “I wish she had explained how she made this ghastly mistake in the first place;”

    I’m torn on this. That was my initial hope, but then I’m kind of glad she didn’t because it would’ve made it even more about herself and really threatened to cross the line into defensive excuse-making.

  4. 5

    What was most surprising to me was that she said that in spite of her strong involvement in government during the 1980s. She was very involved in Civil Rights and politics at the time — how does someone with that intimate knowledge of what was going on have such an inaccurate perception of it? It boggled my mind.

  5. AMM

    I remember back in the early ’80’s reading about “GRiD” as they called it then. I didn’t know many openly gay people then, but my wife-to-be did, and all but one of them was dead by around 1986 when we moved out of NYC. I remember how many politicians (and I include a lot of religious leaders in that category) basically called it “God’s punishment of gays,” and when reports of straight people getting it got too many to ignore, they called it “God’s punishment of all of us for not exterminating the gays.” I remember thinking at the time, “it’s a disease, it’s not going to restrict itself to ‘bad’ people.” The failure to deal with AIDS in the earlier days, when it could perhaps have actually been eliminated, is one of the great political failures of the century.

    My rather cynical view is that ACT-UP and the like played less of a role than the ever-increasing numbers of prominent straight and closeted gay people dying of AIDS. Suddenly, AIDS was no longer just killing weird perverts in bad neighborhoods (and IV drug addicts), it was killing “normal” people’s friends and relatives. People could no longer entertain the delusion that an epidemic would confine itself to some despised social group. Once the people that the power structure is set up to cater to realized it could kill them, too, it became politically feasable to devote resources to eliminating it or at least reducing its impact.

    I also think that AIDS is what led to the current acceptance of gay people. Safely closeted gay people discovered that the closet wasn’t so safe after all, and many (most?) decided if they were going to die anyway, why add to their misery by hiding? And as they came out, more and more people who’d never (knowingly) met a gay person were forced to recognize that gay people were people like themselves.

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