Weeks like this underscore how much I’ve changed in my 40+ years on this planet.
As a child, I was taught that a good person forgives and forgets when someone causes you harm. Even if the person who harmed you doesn’t ask for forgiveness, it’s best to put the past in the past and move on. I was also taught that one doesn’t speak ill of the dead. Especially shortly after they’ve passed. That it’s bad manners and disrespectful to the grieving family.
I don’t think every crime can be forgotten. And I’m not sure everyone deserves forgiveness, even if they ask for it. That’s especially true of public figures and politicians.
Until today, I haven’t written about the passing of former President George H. W. Bush. My silence on his passing is partly because of those old lessons from my childhood. Those habits are hard to break. After all, I’m as concerned about public opinion and the approval of people as any other human being is.
But I’ve also avoided writing about his death because I’ve been trying to work out what I thought and felt about it.
A friend of mine, Spencer Keralis, summed it up this way on Facebook:
“The feelings I and my generation of LGBQ <sic> folks have about Reagan, Bush, and Clinton are deep and the trauma our generation experienced still marks us. We all lost friends, lovers, and heroes, and missed out on the mentorship, affection, and leadership of an entire generation that was just before us. The stigma around our way of life and our way of love that was fostered by Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, and the religious right that they pandered to still marks our feelings about love and sex years later.”
Spencer goes on to outline that Bush’s crimes weren’t just against the LGBTQ community. He notes Bush’s ties to the radical religious right, his ties to segregationist policies early in his career, and his involvement in wars around the world that foisted our imperialist agenda on other countries.
All of those are excellent points, but I’m going to focus on Bush, Reagan, and Clinton’s crimes against the LGBTQ community in this post because my own personal experiences are why I despise the legacies of all three men. And why I’ll never forgive them for the harm they’ve caused.
At the age of twelve, I had my first realization that I might not be heterosexual. I developed a crush on a girl in my class, and I was terrified of the feelings I felt. The year was 1984. That was the year that Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS, and 1985 and 1986 would see regular news reports about his family’s battles with school officials over whether he could return to classes or not.
In 1985, Rock Hudson died of AIDS, and that’s the first year Ronald Reagan would mention the disease that doctors had been battling for years. He wouldn’t make major policy speeches about it until 1987.
During those years, when the newspapers and broadcasts rarely mentioned AIDS or only mentioned it when someone famous died an ignoble, wasting, painful death, a lot of misinformation and fear was bandied about in my small town. None of us really knew anything about the disease or its victims, but we lived in fear of our town becoming like Kokomo, Indiana.
I don’t remember the specific date, but, one day, I overheard my maternal grandfather and my mother talking about AIDS and gay people. My grandfather—a man who ruled over our conservative, Christian, and Republican family like a patriarch of old—said that the government should “round up all the faggots, put them on an island in the Pacific, and nuke the hell out of those bastards. Keep the rest of us safe from God’s punishment for their sins.”
His exact words have been burned into my brain because I was terrified. Terrified he or my parents might somehow learn that I had a crush on another girl. Terrified I might be one of those “faggots” and doomed to a painful, wasting death. Terrified that my family would disown me for my queerness, the way they had disowned my older sister a few years earlier when she became pregnant outside of wedlock.
In response to my family’s bigotry, I buried my feelings about other girls as deeply as I could. I somehow found a boyfriend in junior high, even though I had few friends because most of the kids at school thought I was “weird” or “queer.”
Bush, during his one term of office, barely could be bothered to address LGBTQ concerns or even offer up AIDS funding. For an outline of his failings as a leader, you might check out this article by Philip Picardi, who interviewed Eric Sawyer, a prominent AIDS activist, about the Bush years. To sum it up, he wasn’t an improvement on Reagan.
As for me, I successfully buried my attraction to girls until college. I lived in a girls-only dorm, and I think most of my dorm mates figured out I was a lesbian long before I did. I wouldn’t come out until Jen came into my life, thanks to a fencing class and a car accident.
That was in 1993, when Bill Clinton became president. He had run on a moderate Democratic platform, but he promised the LGBTQ community better AIDS funding, legal protections, and more visibility during his campaign than we could get from Bush and the GOP. Then he took the oath of office and promptly shat on all of us.
He signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell into law in 1994. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act in the middle of the night in 1996. That shitty legislation made Jen and I spend nearly two decades as legal strangers in our own country. It would take the U.S. vs. Windsor decision to free us from DOMA.
More importantly, Clinton’s support for DOMA destroyed the financial lives of hundreds of gay men in the U.S. Many of these men sold their life insurance policies to pay for their AIDS medications. Many more lost their homes when their partners died of AIDS and the partner’s birth family—recognized by the courts as their only legal heirs—sold houses out from under these men. (For more on what our community faced, read Randy Shilts’ “And the Band Played On.” We lost a giant when Randy died.)
And now the political offspring of Reagan’s and Bush’s brand of conservatism are trying to repeal the gains our community has made. They’re aided by Clintonian Democrats, most of whom would actually be moderate Republicans if the GOP hadn’t shifted so far right in the 1970s and 1980s.
For the TL:DR crowd, I’ll say this: No, I don’t mourn George H.W. Bush. I didn’t mourn for Ronald Reagan, and I won’t mourn when either Bill or Hillary Clinton dies. It’s the one time in my life when I envy the way in which men eliminate liquid wastes because I’d like to piss on the tombstones of all three men for what they did to my LGBTQ generation and the generation that preceded us.
We lost so many amazing people. Talented artists and writers. Gifted mentors and teachers. Politicians who truly cared about their constituents. Men who dreamed of serving their country or community as soldiers, sailors, Marines, firefighters, or police officers. Brothers, uncles, sons, friends, and lovers.
And, worse still, are the millions of lives around the world that were destroyed by AIDS. For too many years under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, the U.S. failed to research AIDS because it was a “gay disease” or only affected “low-life drug addicts.”
But as we know only too well, millions around the world have been infected and died. The U.S. could have been a world leader in finding treatments and saving lives. But our collective homophobia, led by Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, kept us from funding the research necessary.
Our collective xenophobia made it easy to watch millions in Africa, Asia, and South America die. Our racism and classism allowed drug addicts on our streets—many of whom were veterans of our imperialist wars—die from AIDS because handing out clean needles meant we condoned their drug use.
Our hands are bloody with the deaths of millions. That can’t be forgiven. And it won’t be forgotten. We are not a nation of exceptionalism. But we are an exceptionally depraved nation. Reagan, Bush, and Clinton led us down this path. We should have known better.
If there is a hell and any justice, they’ll rot for their crimes.
(This image is the famous symbol of ACT UP, aka the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. They’ve long fought for better AIDS funding and support systems.)