The Real Record of the Reagans on Gays and AIDS

Nancy Ronald Reagan.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan wave to supporters at an electoral meeting in November, 1984.

Don Rypka/Getty Images

Excerpted from The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser.

Twelve days before Reagan was elected president in November, 1980, Christians for Reagan, a supposedly independent lobby organized to capture the fundamentalist vote for the Republican nominee, announced that it would pay for a barrage of advertisements throughout the South, which attacked President Carter for “catering” to homosexuals. Citing the language of the Democratic party platform, Gary Jarmin, national director of Christians for Reagan, described the purpose of the campaign this way: “If there’s any reason at all they should oppose Carter, this is it.” On one spot, an announcer intoned, “The gays in San Francisco elected a mayor; now they’re going to elect a president.” Before the ads began, polls had shown that Carter, a born-again Christian, still had considerable support among the Evangelicals. But the hard-hitting TV spots were extremely effective, and they helped Reagan carry every Southern state except Georgia, where Carter had been governor. Partly because the commercials never aired in New York or Washington, most people outside the South were never aware of them. …

The Reagans came from a Hollywood milieu that had always embraced discreet homosexuals; that was probably the reason for their occasional displays of enlightenment. Besides Rock Hudson, Nancy Reagan’s gay friends included the decorator Ted Graber, who supervised a $1 million renovation of the family quarters at the White House. After Mrs. Reagan’s sixtieth birthday celebration, her spokesman confirmed that Graber had spent the night at the White House with his lover, Archie Case. Graber was also a frequent guest at state dinners, as was the ubiquitous Jerry Zipkin, the New York socialite and marathon walker of wealthy women.

By far the most influential gay man in the Reagan inner circle was Robert Gray, an extremely successful Washington public relations man who had been a closeted capital player ever since he had served as Dwight Eisenhower’s appointments secretary. In 1980 he was Reagan’s deputy campaign director and campaign communications chief; then he became co-chairman of the president-elect’s inaugural committee.

Coded references to Mr. Gray in the New York Times included descriptions of him as a “a trim, precisely groomed man” and a “perennial bachelor noted for his charm and connections.” In New York, the gay power broker Roy Cohn boasted of his influence within the Reagan White House, and his law partner, Tom Bolan, became head of the screening committee for federal judgeships in New York State. Six autographed pictures of Reagan decorated Cohn’s office, including one inscribed, “With Deepest Appreciation for your Love and Support.” On New York op-ed pages, Cohn wrote of Reagan’s “generous nature, great warmth and reluctance to inflict personal hurt.” In some ways, Cohn was the ideal gay friend for the Reagans, because he was not only deeply closeted but also publicly self-hating. Asked about the persistent rumor that his ballet dancer son, Ron Jr., might be gay, the presidential candidate said in 1980, “He’s all man—we made sure of that.”

Steve Weisman, who covered Reagan’s first term as president for the New York Times, thought the “White House wasn’t that homophobic because Nancy had friends who were gay. But it was definitely a place where you would hear one staff member call another staff member ‘a fag’ behind his back.”

It was also a place where anyone who was gay—and not a decorator—was expected to remain firmly within the closet. As a health catastrophe developed at the beginning of this administration, the lack of any openly gay officials in Reagan’s entourage would have terrible consequences. In fact, the presence or absence of openly gay people would determine how almost every major American institution reacted to the greatest medical crisis of the decade. …

Homophobia led many decision makers to discount the AIDS epidemic, partly because they didn’t care much about those who were sick, and partly because they believed that as long as they were straight, they themselves would never have to worry about it. The only real heroes were a few scientists inside the CDC, who lobbied early and often for more money to fight the epidemic, and a very small group of congressmen from California and New York, including Philip Burton, Henry Waxman, and Ted Weiss, whose openly gay staff members convinced them to take the epidemic seriously. Bill Kraus, a gay aide to Burton, and Tim Westmoreland, the gay counsel to a Waxman health subcommittee, were particularly important in sounding the alarm. In April 1982, Westmoreland wrote a statement for Waxman to read which declared, “There is no doubt in my mind that if the same disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent, or among tennis players, rather than gay males, the responses of both the government and the medical establishment would have been different.” In September of that year, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the National Institutes of Health had spent $36,100 per toxic shock death in fiscal 1982; $34,841 per Legionnaires’ disease death in the most recent fiscal year; and just $3,225 per AIDS death in fiscal 1981 and $8,991 in fiscal 1982.         

Congressional staffers joked that NIH really stood for “Not Interested in Homosexuals.” Republican priorities were perfectly clear, right from the start of the Reagan government. One of the administration’s first official acts was to propose a cut of nearly fifty percent in the appropriation for the CDC—from $327 million to $161 million. At the same time, Reagan asked for an immediate increase of $7 billion in defense spending and an additional increase of $25 billion for the following fiscal year—for a new annual total of $220 billion. Veneration for what Dwight Eisenhower had dubbed the “military-industrial complex” had never been higher. And although the Democratic House did a good job of resisting many of the Republican efforts to reduce spending on health care and research, the administration frequently retaliated by refusing to spend the moneys that Congress had appropriated. Inside the Reagan administration—at the White House, at the Office of Management and Budget, and within the Department of Health and Human man Services—there were no openly gay staffers, and therefore, very little will to attack the problem forcefully. In public, Reagan officials routinely pretended they had all the dollars they needed to fight the disease, while dissidents inside the administration secretly begged for more money. …

Reagan’s alliance with the religious right, and its squeamishness about explicit descriptions of unsafe sex, combined to prevent the comprehensive sex education that young people desperately needed to avoid infection. Members of the Moral Majority believed that it would be worse to describe gay sex to young people than it was to deprive them of the information they might require to stay healthy. This attitude was another indication of the persistence of the myth that homosexuality was contagious—even though Reagan himself had publicly rejected that idea during the battle over the Briggs amendment that would have banned gay teachers from California’s public schools.

It was five years into the epidemic before one important member of the Reagan administration finally delivered a direct attack on the criminally irresponsible attitude toward AIDS education which the president’s religious allies had encouraged. In October 1986, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a blistering report. “Many people, especially our youth, are not receiving information that is vital to their future health and well-being because of our reticence in dealing with the subjects of sex, sexual practices and homosexuality,” the surgeon general wrote. “This silence must end. We can no longer afford to sidestep frank, open discussions about sexual practices—homosexual and heterosexual.”

Koop said AIDS education should begin “at the lowest grade possible” in elementary school and be “reinforced at home” by parents. And he made it clear that anal intercourse—described in explicit detail in his report—had to be one of the activities young children were educated about for their own protection. But neither Reagan nor George Bush nor Bill Clinton would ever do anything significant to implement these extremely sensible recommendations.