In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis mobilized previously inactive gay voters, expanded the range of issues they focused on, and increased the number of people publicly identifying as gay. This post builds on three earlier posts on this blog about gay rights groups, parties, and coalition building.

Below, I document the reaction of the Reagan administration to the AIDS crisis and the concurrent change in political activity among gay rights groups and the gay population. To learn about the reaction of gay rights interest groups, I interviewed former National LGBTQ Task Force (NGTF) executive director Dr. Jeff Levy and read through the archives of NGTF and Human Rights Campaign (HRC). For the Reagan administration, I looked through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for the records of known socially conservative officials such as Chief Advisor on Domestic Policy Gary Bauer, Special Assistant Morton Blackwell, Attorney General Ed Meese, White House staff liaison for women Carolyn Sundseth, and public liaison Faith Whitlessly.

From 1981 to the end of President Ronald Reagan’s first term, hundreds of thousands of people contracted HIV (as AIDS was more commonly called by the end of the decade) and 45,000 people died from it. As of 2016, about 675,000 people have died in the US from HIV. In 1981, the Center for Disease control first identified the disease, not yet named, based on a few dozen cases. The disease quickly became associated with the gay population. In 1982 the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization mobilized to address the disease, then being called “gay cancer” or “gay plague” by some.

Reagan’s support for the culturally conservative New Right greatly worried gay rights groups before HIV was known. Some worried that the media reported it as a victory for the Christian Right, because “perception of power is often all that’s needed to turn events.”[i] After the disease spread, they feared it would reach epidemic proportions through inaction, or that the administration would take draconian measures towards gay communities. On the one hand, Reagan had publicly opposed the Briggs initiative, which would bar gay people from teaching in California, before President Carter did. In the 1980 primaries, he joined fellow Republican contenders George H.W. Bush and John Anderson in issuing a vague statement to gay rights groups that he supported their constitutional rights (only Anderson supported a gay rights platform plank). On the other hand, Reagan spoke at a “National Affairs Briefing” of conservative evangelicals immediately after militantly anti-gay religious broadcaster James Robison, whose television show had been cancelled for inflammatory statements. Campaign advisors Mike Deaver and James Baker cringed at the appearance, where Reagan used a line that Robison provided to him in the car ride from the airport – “You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you.” As of 1984, Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, joked with journalists about the disease and said that he hadn’t spoke to the president about it.

Reagan first publicly addressed the disease in 1985, but was less willing to fund research than Congress, then with a Republican Senate and Democratic House of Representatives. That year, reporters asked if he was willing to fund a massive research program against HIV comparable to the Nixon administration’s program on cancer. The president answered that HIV research was “a top priority,” but that his proposed $126 million in funding was reasonable given budgetary constraints. According to the New York Times, the nation’s top scientists said that was not nearly enough, and Congress raised the spending to $205 million in the budget that ultimately passed into law. Asked about whether HIV victims should be allowed to attend school alongside other students, Reagan said he saw both sides of the issue. In 1986, the president mentioned AIDS five times in a message to Congress, and said he asked the Surgeon General to prepare a report on it. A Kaiser Family Foundation report, summarizing spending in the 1980s, wrote “Beginning with a few hundred thousand dollars in FY 1981, federal HIV/AIDS funding increased to $8 million only one year later, and then nearly doubled every year from FY 1982 to FY 1989.”

Some officials in the Reagan administration complained that its HIV policies did not reflect its announced family values policies. In particular, Gary Bauer, the future president of the Family Research Council, wrote up many objections to late-administration HIV policy. In an interview with Michael Lindsay, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said “Gary Bauer … was my nemesis in Washington because he kept me from the president. He kept me from the cabinet and he set up a wall of enmity between me and most of the people that surrounded Reagan because he believed that anybody who had AIDS ought to die with it. That was God’s punishment for them.” Koop was originally appointed for his outspoken opposition to abortion rights, but had broken with Christian Right staffers over HIV policy, saying that the reaction of his White House opponents was a disease.

Bauer repeatedly cautioned that Koop’s policies would policy would play into the hands of gay rights groups, warning that “AIDS is not just a health issue, it is also a heated political issue.”[ii] Koop sent a mailer about HIV out to 20 million schools and doctors in 1986 and 107 million households in 1988. The mailer listed facts about the disease and ways to reduce risk through safe sex. Bauer criticized the mailer for departing from Reagan’s guidelines that the mailer “should encourage responsible sexual behavior – based on fidelity, commitment, and maturity, placing sexuality within the context of marriage.” The mailer as a whole, he complained, assumed “the inevitability of sex outside marriage (including homosexual sex).” In contrast to the drug section, which contained unequivocal advice against drug use, the mailer did not give unequivocal advice about how to refuse sex or otherwise abstain.[iii] On his copy of the mailer, Bauer wrote in the margins that recommending condoms was “awful advice,” comparable to “Russian roulette.”[iv] Furthermore, the graphic sexual terms violated the privacy of parents who wished to talk to their families on their own terms.

In this climate, gay rights interest groups paid much greater attention to public health issues than they had before. While gay rights groups had always supported social services, health care became the number one issue for many groups and voters. After the 1992 election, exit polls showed gays more concerned with health care than any other issue, despite Republicans’ inordinate attention to the alleged decline of family values during the election.[v] NGTF Executive Director Dr. Jeff Levy recalls that government services were “much lower on the agenda prior to AIDS. You didn’t see gay organizations advocating around Medicaid. You didn’t see them advocating around Medicare. You didn’t see them advocating around social security.  And suddenly those were very big issues in our lives.”[vi]

More gay people were becoming politically active. Tom Chorlton, cofounder of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs, met with the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) and told them Chorlton claims that HIV galvanized gay votes in a way that abstract rights did not.[vii] Not only were they motivated by containing the spread of HIV, but also the need to make decisions for partners. Marriage discrimination became more salient as gay people were legally unable to make end-of-life decisions for partners dying of HIV. A consulting firm told the Triangle Institute that AIDS was the best way to inject gay money into a campaign.  The euphemism of ‘human rights’ isn’t working.  AIDS gives you a broad base — scientific, public health, education, parental.”[viii] In 1988, HRC reported that “The gay and lesbian vote is up for grabs, but can be motivated to vote for Michael Dukakis.  In the past, gay and lesbian voters seem to have cast their votes without a strong identification with gay and lesbian issues. AIDS can change that.”[ix]

All of these developments came to a head when Reagan appointed the President’s Commission on the AIDS Epidemic in 1987, saying that the disease needed to go “the way of smallpox and polio.” The commission included an opponent of condoms as a way to contain HIV, as well as Christian Right financier Richard DeVos. But it also included geneticist Frank Lilly, an openly gay board member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Bauer warned against appointing commission members who would “boo” administration policy, put an administration “stamp of approval” on gay lifestyles, and “drive a wedge between us and many of our socially conservative supporters.”[x] In another memo, Bauer wrote “Before we take any action, the President needs careful advice on how to avoid mistakes that will allow activist courts to turn our well-meaning efforts into a civil rights crusade based on sexual preferences. This would be a terribly damaging development.”[xi] Two administration critics were later added without Bauer’s approval later on. The chair was also replaced with retired Admiral James Watkins, who knew little of the disease. Admiral Watkin’s reputation as a person who joined the commission without any baggage helped lend credibility to the commission’s recommendations across the political spectrum.

In the end, the ACLU said the final report was a “pleasant surprise,” even though it had earlier sued the commission for biased membership. Bauer hoped the report would support the right of schools and blood banks to ensure they are not exposed through the virus, through required testing, reporting, and “in extreme cases, restrictive measures.” The final report moved away from these policies, considered earlier by the Reagan administration. It called for more research, treating HIV as a disability, ensuring the safety of blood supplies, drug and sex education, state and federal laws protecting HIV patients from discrimination, and financing care for HIV-infected persons. The recommendations reflected gay rights groups and public health groups more than cultural conservatives like Bauer, although the administration did not act on most of the recommendations. While activists had to continue fighting to implement the recommendations, many called the commission’s report an important first step. Its independent leadership gave a nonpartisan seal of approval to what gay rights and public health groups had been advocating. Support for HIV across parties was strong enough that some worried that Republican support would siphon gay votes way from the Democratic Party in the 1988 election. George H.W. Bush distanced himself from the administration on HIV policy and hinted at a more robust response.[xii]

Politicians found that addressing HIV was a way to signal support for gay rights groups without attracting attention to controversial gay rights issues. As one consulting firm wrote, “All agreed that AIDS allows candidates to address an issue of concern to the gay and lesbian community in a way that is acceptable to the larger community.  (This is a way for candidates to talk ‘around’ gay and lesbian issues.)”[xiii] The death of Ryan White, a 13-year-old who obtained HIV through a blood transfusion for hemophilia, led Congress to pass the Ryan White Act in 1990, which greatly increased public funding for HIV. The law was uncontroversial enough that it passed by voice vote and was later reauthorized by Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum later in the decade. By the 2000s, reauthorizations of the Ryan White Act offered funding in the billions. By reminding voters that the disease affects everyone, not just gay people, the Ryan White Act allowed politicians to vote for funding without appearing to be too ideologically to the left.

In the near term, some saw little change in public opinion on gay rights. A consulting firm wrote, “Data suggest that the AIDS crisis hasn’t changed people’s basic attitudes about homosexuality. Rather it has created ‘sympathy’ for the issue.”[xiv] A number of factors contributed to the striking change in public opinion on gay rights over the next three decades, including HIV, coalition building, political leadership, and media attention. Many people were less likely to hold hostile attitudes towards gay rights as they became aware of gay people in their networks. Even if HIV did not directly change public opinion, it led to better funded gay rights groups, more openness about sexual orientation, and more political activity among gay people, changing the conversation about gay rights.





















[i] Coexecutive directors to the Board of Trustees, May 29 1981, NGTF 147.

[ii]footnote 2

[iii]footnote 3

footnote 4

[iv]footnote 5

[v] Rimmerman, From Identity to Politics, 173.

[vi] Interview with Jeffrey Levy, August 15 2014 and Lance Ringel, July 18 2014.

[vii] August 4, 1983, NWPC 282.

[viii] Foreman and Heidepriem to Board of Directors of the Triangle Institute, February 2 1988, HRC Box 6.

[ix] Eric Rosenthal to Vic Basile, August 1, 1988 HRC Box 17.

[x]footnote 10

[xi]footnote 11

[xii] Foreman and Heidepriem to Board of Directors of the Triangle Institute, February 2 1988, HRC Box 6.

[xiii] Foreman and Heidepriem to Board of Directors of the Triangle Institute, February 2 1988, HRC Box 6.

[xiv] Foreman and Heidepriem to Board of Directors of the Triangle Institute, February 2 1988, HRC Box 6.

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