What Hillary Clinton's Reagan Gaffe Tells HIV/AIDS Advocates: Push Harder

Brandon Cuicchi
Brandon Cuicchi

Last week was jarring for the HIV/AIDS community. It started with the death of Nancy Reagan, setting off yet another news cycle painting over the Reagans' horrible legacy with as much lipstick as possible. This has been a recurring theme since the days of the Reagan presidency, leaving a significant part of the American population unable to see the pig underneath.

But over the course of the week, the usual wave of Reagan revisionism and apologies was directly challenged, even in the mainstream media, with the truth that the Reagans had completely ignored people with HIV and AIDS during the first six years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. To this day, the horrible deaths of tens of thousands in the U.S. during that time remain burned in the minds of those who survived. Until Friday, it appeared as though revisionism might not win this round.

For example, when Zeke Stokes of the LGBT media organization GLAAD put up this tweet, it was quickly challenged:

Stokes apologized, saying that he was speaking of her "brand of politics," not her role in the administration's (nonexistent) HIV/AIDS policy.

So it was with great shock and sadness that HIV advocates heard Hillary Clinton say on MSNBC on Friday that Nancy Reagan had started a "national conversation" on AIDS through "low-key advocacy."

If HIV advocates thought they stood on solid ground with the Clinton campaign and the larger Democratic Party, Hillary's remarks should serve as a wake-up call. Certainly Clinton wasn't going to celebrate the Reagans' war on drugs after being visited by so many Black Lives Matter activists in recent months. Yet, the fact that she thought she could get away with praising any Reagan response to AIDS -- and didn't foresee repercussions from HIV activists -- proves how small a role we are playing in her campaign and how insignificant she regards us.

Now is the time to push much harder -- not just in this presidential campaign, but at all levels of political leadership -- rather than being satisfied with what the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns released on HIV/AIDS issues in the days following the Clinton gaffe.

This election year, with its aura of populist idealism, is the perfect moment for HIV advocates to press their demands on the Democratic Party at the local and national levels. In the past two years, dozens of New York HIV advocates have met as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo's AIDS Task Force to create a blueprint for ending the AIDS epidemic in New York State by 2020. The result is a straightforward how-to manual for curbing the epidemic there and elsewhere around the country. It recognizes the lack of housing and access to healthcare as the serious HIV-infection drivers they are, while emphasizing pharmacological interventions such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) in addition to condoms.

Since Cuomo's announcement of the blueprint last year, advocates have focused on securing the budget commitments necessary to make it a reality, with the idea that it should also become the HIV/AIDS platform of the national Democratic Party. After all, when 63 sharp activists have already come together to create a comprehensive and aggressive plan to stem the epidemic, it seems foolish to sleep on it and reinvent the same wheel down the road.

Throughout this election year, advocates must keep pushing New York's AIDS blueprint and its most progressive aspects on the national Democratic Party -- no matter who becomes its presidential nominee. Making apologies for the candidates or cutting them slack along the way signals that Democrats needn't bother addressing us beyond the winks and smiles we've gotten so far, and does a disservice to the cause so many in our community have lost their lives fighting for.

Brandon Cuicchi is a filmmaker and AIDS activist. He grew up in Memphis, TN and resides in Brooklyn.