Many folks in the gay and lesbian community have, in the past two days, lamented the Reagan Administration's dismal record on AIDS and the great health crisis that began at the very dawn of the Reagan era. Some have been temperate, like Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force:
I do feel for the family and friends of the former President. The death of a loved one is always a profoundly sad occasion, and Mr. Reagan was loved by many. I have tremendous empathy and respect for Mrs. Reagan, who lovingly cared for him through excruciating years of Alzheimer's.
Sorry, but even on this day I'm not able to set aside the shaking anger I feel over Reagan's non-response to the AIDS epidemic or for the continuing anti-gay legacy of his administration. Is it personal? Of course. AIDS was first reported in 1981, but President Reagan could not bring himself to address the plague until March 31, 1987, at which time there were 60,000 reported cases of full-blown AIDS and 30,000 deaths.
I wouldn't feel so angry if the Reagan administration's failing was due to ignorance or bureaucratic ineptitude. No, we knew then it was deliberate. The government's response was dictated by the grip of evangelical Christian conservatives who saw gay people as sinners and AIDS as God's well-deserved punishment.
Some have been openly hostile.
But though it has been remarked upon before, it is worth emphasizing again the important role that Ronald Reagan played in the defeat of the Briggs Initiative. In 1978, John Briggs, a conservative Republican Senator from Orange County, sponsored Proposition 6 for the November ballot. Prop. 6 would have barred gays and lesbians from employment as public school teachers, and would also have led to the dismissal of those straight teachers who spoke out (even outside the classroom) in favor of gay rights.
By the late 1970s, the anti-gay rights movement (personified by former Miss America Anita Bryant) had had a number of successes around the country in passing anti-gay legislation. Using the slogan "Save Our Children", Bryant inspired the Briggs Initiative. In the summer of '78, Prop. 6 led in the polls by a comfortable margin. The nascent gay rights movement (led in California by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk) fought desperately, but seemed headed for disaster. No prominent conservatives opposed John Briggs. None, that is, until Ronald Reagan came out publicly against Prop 6. He did so after a meeting with David Mixner (later a Clinton Administration figure) in the fall. Bill Boyarsky writes in today's LA Times:
The anti-Briggs forces badly needed to win a prominent conservative supporter to their side and, against all odds, hoped it would be Reagan. They felt that the witch-hunting aspects of the initiative would offend his respect for legal institutions, and they were aware that he and his wife, Nancy, had long associated with gays in their years in Hollywood— but they worried that it would be a difficult political position for a conservative leader hoping to run for president to take.
Reagan met with initiative opponents, studied their material and, ultimately, at the risk of offending his anti-gay supporters in the coming presidential election, wrote in his newspaper column: "I don't approve of teaching a so-called gay life style in our schools, but there is already adequate legal machinery to deal with such problems if and when they arise."
His opposition turned public opinion around, and the measure lost with 42% of the vote.
Jonathan Rauch, a well-known advocate for gay marriage, writes that Mr. Reagan single-handedly turned the tide against the measure. Reagan gave political cover to those in the "silent majority" who might have been uncomfortable with homosexuality, but who were even more uncomfortable with outright bigotry. Three weeks after the defeat of the Briggs Initiative, Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco's City Hall. Thus in the same month, November 1978, the GLBT movement in America won its first great victory at the ballot box, and gained its first martyr. In the first of these, there is no denying that Ronald Reagan played a crucial part. In this, he was on the right side of justice and history.