Blood stains on their hands
Every year on December 1st, because it is World AIDS Day, I post a list of names. They are the names of people I knew personally who died from complications of AIDS. Those names are: Frank, Mike, Tim, David, Todd, Chet, Jim, Steve, Brian, Rick, Stacy, Phil, Mark, Michael, Jerry, Walt, Charles, Thomas, Mike, Richard, Bob, Mikey, James, Lisa, Todd, Kerry, Glen, and Jack.
Let me be clear, that isn’t every single person I knew who died from the disease. Those are only the ones I knew well enough that I cry when I type their name. Yes, I’m crying now. I have been alternating between crying and shaking with rage since reading that Hilary Clinton said, “The Reagans, particularly Nancy, helped start ‘a national conversation’ about HIV and AIDS.” And then went on to describe her as an advocate for AIDS research!
I get it. Nancy Reagan just died, and Hilary’s a politician on a national stage and is expected only to say nice things about the recently deceased. Fine. Compliment Mrs Reagan on bucking the rest of the Republican establishment and coming out in favor of stem-cell research. Never mind that it was for selfish reasons, at least it was for a worthy goal. But the Reagans absolutely did not open a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. We in the queer community had been shouting, begging the powers that be to do something, anything about it for five years (while tens of thousands in the U.S. were infected, and thousands died) before President Reagan actually mentioned the name of the disease in public. It took another two years before he referred to it as a health crisis—and don’t forget that Reagan recommended a $10-million cut in AIDS research spending the same year that the U.S. death toll reached 5,500.
When the Reagans’s close friend, Rock Hudson, was dying of the disease, trying to get into a hospital in Paris to try an experimental treatment, Nancy, after receiving a desperate telegram asking for her help, wouldn’t even authorize a staff member to call the hospital on her behalf to ask if they might let Hudson (who wasn’t a French citizen, of course) in.
Listen to this recording of a Whitehouse press briefing when a reporter asks about the Whitehouse’s reaction to a Center for Disease Control bulletin about A-I-D-S, “also called the gay cancer” officially labelling it an epidemic:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
You almost can’t hear the reporter ask, “In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?” because everyone keeps laughing.
As I mentioned above, that list I post every year consists only of the people I knew well enough that I still cry thinking about them decades later. Through the early nineties, my late husband and I went to more funerals and memorial services than I can count. Many of them were people he had known before we met. Some of them were friends, lovers, or relatives of people one or the other of us knew, but we hadn’t been particularly close to the deceased ourselves. We went to the services to support the people who were mourning the death. We went to the services because sometimes the deceased’s own families wouldn’t attend. Sometimes we held services separate from the family’s because the partner/lover/life-long companion was barred from the official funeral by the family.
There was more than one time that we had to choose which memorial service to go to, because more than one was happening at the same time, and too far apart for us to attend a part of both. So many people were dying, we had to choose who not to comfort, because at the point when research and medical intervention could have limited the spread of the disease, people at the Whitehouse had been laughing at our suffering and dying.
And then to have Clinton, who has tried to portray herself as an ally of the queer community, praise Nancy for being an advocate for AIDS research? That’s when I lost it.
I was deeply closeted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had only a very small number of sexual encounters with other men during the time when so many were getting infected with the virus that no one knew existed. Even with that limited exposure, it is shear luck that I’m alive to bear witness to those years. Even though I wasn’t out, once the illness had been identified, I was keenly aware of how ordinary Americans perceived it. One of the most chilling moments for me came while sitting in a pew of a church in 1984. Our heads were all bowed in prayer, and the visiting pastor leading the prayer actually thanked god for the “plague of AIDS which you have sent to exterminate the homosexuals.”
Reading Clinton’s comments took me back to that moment. People like Nancy Reagan were not having a conversation about how to save people from AIDS, nor were they advocating for research for a cure. People like Nancy Reagan were thanking god for our suffering.
Never mind that Jesus commanded his followers to take care of the sick. He didn’t say to care for the sick that we deemed worthy. He didn’t say to care for the sick that lived a specific lifestyle. He specifically said to care for the sick, and people in prisons, and other outcasts of society. He said that the way you treated those outcasts was how you treated him. And he said that anyone who came to him on the day of judgment and had not cared for the sick, prisoners, outcasts, and the other “least of these” would be cast out of heaven and into the eternal fire; because they were not following his commandment.
But we’re not supposed to say anything like that about a famous person who has died. Even if she refused to raise a finger to help one dying friend get medical treatment. And apparently especially if she helped impede access to treatment for hundreds of thousands of people who were sick and dying. We’re apparently supposed to lie and say that she helped the very people whose blood is on her hands.