Nancy Reagan's Bloody HIV/AIDS Legacy

Matt Ebert
Matt Ebert

There are deaths that compel us, deaths that trip us up, deaths that defy our conventions, and deaths that bring out the worst in us -- for me, Nancy Reagan's death is all of this. It sets off a gong if you are of a certain age. It should set off a gong in all of us -- even if you never lived through the eighties.

I was fifteen when the Reagans came to power. I was twenty-three when they left office. In that time, 1980-1988, nearly 150,000 American died of AIDS. I can't mourn the death of the former first lady; there are 150,000 others Americans who must come first.

Seeing a picture of the Reagans in 2016, I am reminded of what a terrible time that was for so many of us. Those at risk for contracting the virus, and those who cared for us, spent the best part of the first seven years of the epidemic trying not only to comprehend why we were dying but why the Reagan administration did not have our backs. The government was our enemy -- and Nancy Reagan, in her blood red dresses, was the embodiment of a new ruling class of conservative thought. Like Margaret Thatcher in England, Nancy was our First Iron Lady, a poster child of Just Say No-isms: drugs, sex, rock and roll.

Now, when I hear the back-room chatter of Ronald Reagan's inner circle, when I am reminded of Nancy's refusal to help Rock Hudson, I am thrust upon those deadly days again. Nancy Reagan's death should be a reminder to everyone why conservative values do not save lives -- almost as if Republicans by nature are missing the gene of compassion -- conservative healthcare prescriptions are no better today than they were in 1985.

I know why I hate nostalgia. The Reagans scorched a lot of earth in eight years. But it was their callous treatment of the AIDS crisis, and the people (mostly gay men, hemophiliacs, and IV drug users) who died that is seared in my mind when I think back to those days in New York City, San Francisco, and many points between.

A few years after the 40th President's death, Larry Kramer wrote in the New York Review of Books: "Ronald Reagan may have done laudable things, but he was also a monster and, in my estimation, responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler. He is one of the persons most responsible for allowing the plague of AIDS to grow from 41 cases in 1981 to over 70 million today. He refused to even say the word out loud for the first seven years of his presidency and when he did speak about it, it was with disdain."

Reagan first spoke of AIDS in 1985, five years into his presidency. And in fact, the Reagan administration did advance money and resources to fight the virus. Where the administration keenly failed us is in public policy. They needed to show mercy and compassion on a much greater scale, but compassion and urgency eluded them -- they were incapable of helping the sick. Hypocrites, they raised a Christian shield, a stock prop pinched from a Hollywood back lot and let their faith absolve them from doing anything.

As a result, many people died, many gay men died, they suffered the inhumanity of our great American society's cruel indifference--in 1985, our coming out party was too often our funeral. People with AIDS were marginalized, stigmatized, and their bodies were thrown in lawn and leaf bags -- all under the cold watchful eye of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

In 1985, when Reagan mentioned AIDS for the first time, and Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart premiered, and Rock Hudson died, I was twenty years old. With my memories of the Reagans, kneeling in a grotto thirty-five years of AIDS built, I clutch a cold, moldy, blood stained prayer book in both hands, and open to the blackest page.

May the Reagans be visited upon by the men and women whose deaths they hastened. May they come back in their skins, circa 1981-1988, and suffer the same cruel indifference and agonizing descent. Let Nancy Reagan walk in those night-sweat stained bloody bed sheets for all eternity, and when her time finally comes may they use the same black garbage bag for a coffin, and potter's field with no names. Anonymous actress -- first lady Nancy Reagan's AIDS legacy should be something we never forget, and never repeat. And today, pray those who died in her reign of terror rest in peace instead.

Read Matt's blog, Kick Rocks.