Monday, January 16, 2012

Ronald Reagan: not as anti-gay as I had thought

NPR had a very interesting article on Ronald Reagan yesterday. It discussed the modern Republican canonization of Reagan and how the generalizations about Reagan's presidency stack up against his actual presidency.

As you might expect, the real Reagan is different than the rosy Republican legend. The real Reagan eliminated taxes on lower-income Americans while raising them on middle and upper-income Americans. The real Reagan made virtually no change to abortion law, and he communicated with pro-life advocates over the phone rather than in-person.

However, I learned that the real Ronald Reagan is also somewhat more complicated than the entirely anti-LGBT politician recalled in progressive legend.

Within the gay community, Reagan is often remembered for turning his back on HIV/AIDS research during the height of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. The fatal consequence of Reagan's refusal to investing research dollars in treating the disease was exacerbated by the inflammatory anti-gay comments he and his administration made about gays "deserving" AIDS. These facts are not legend, and hundreds of thousands of people--Americans, gay and straight alike--would likely have been spared agonizing deaths had Reagan acted differently. I maintain that Reagan's passive and active opposition to HIV/AIDS research remains a horrible mark on his presidency.

However, what I learned from the article was that Reagan was instrumental in stopping the Briggs Initiative--California's 1978 draconian ballot measure that would have made it illegal for LGBT people to be public school teachers. John Briggs himself, the virulently anti-gay legislator who authored the ballot measure, cited Ronald Reagan's involvement as the principal reason the ballot measure failed. I had no idea. From the Wikipedia article on the Briggs Initiative:

The former state Governor (and later US President) Ronald Reagan moved to publicly oppose the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, answered reporters' questions about the initiative by saying he was against, and, a week before the election, wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it.

The timing of Reagan's opposition is significant because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and moderates who were very uncomfortable with homosexual teachers. As Lou Cannon (Reagan biographer) puts it, Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue” but nevertheless “chose to state his convictions.” Extensive excerpts from his informal statement were reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle of September 24, 1978. Reagan's November 1 editorial stated, in part, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this.”

It is notable that politicians as diverse as Reagan, Gerald Ford, and (at the end of the campaign) then-president Jimmy Carter all opposed the bill.

While polls initially had showed support for the initiative leading by a large margin, it was defeated by a landslide following opposition by the LGBT community and prominent conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike.

If you have some spare time, consider checking out the article for yourself.

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