On Monday, a sizable smattering of Twitter users reacted with shock over a reposted transcript of a 1982 Reagan administration press conference at which Press Secretary Larry Speakes made a series of lighthearted jokes about AIDS. (Sample quote: “I don’t have it. Do you?”) Perhaps most chilling, on six occasions, the transcript indicates “(Laughter).” At this point, of course, AIDS—then known as GRID, for gay-related immunodeficiency—had recently emerged as a new epidemic primarily ravaging gay men. Among the LGBTQ community, the Speakes moment is infamous, a single harrowing symbol for the administration’s cruelly callous dismissal of the epidemic. So why does a simple transcript of the event still shock and startle millennials—31 years after the fact?
There are a number of reasons behind mainstream culture’s depressing ignorance of AIDS history, but it mostly boils down to this: Many of the men and women who would remember it best are dead. The loss of more than 630,000 U.S. citizens to HIV/AIDS since the onset of the crisis has left a generational gap that no amount of movies, plays, or commemorative days can fill. An entire generation of gay artists, athletes, and activists died in the course of fighting the disease. But perhaps the most glaring sign of this gap is the lack of education regarding LGBTQ history in the United States. Many young people outside of California go through their entire primary education without hearing as much as a whisper about gay rights or gay history in the classroom. It’s all too logical that millennials, gay or straight, would be unfamiliar with a 31-year old White House press conference transcript. Many might be surprised to learn, too, that gays and lesbians were persecuted during the Holocaust, or that a pre-HRC gay rights movement fought alongside the American civil-rights movement throughout the ’60s and ’70s. After all, it took more than four decades for a sitting U.S. president to mention the 1969 Stonewall riots in a major speech.
Compounding the problem is the near-total lack of discussion about gay sex during sex education. Ronald Reagan—who famously asked, “When it comes to preventing AIDS, don't medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”—would approve of this silence. But in practice, it only leads to more shame, more confusion, and more infections. That battle still rages today, with conservative legislators attempting to ban even the smallest mention of LGBTQ issues during sex ed. (And that’s only among those progressive enough to support sex ed in the first place.) It’s no wonder that unprotected sex between men who have sex with men is on the rise, with an attendant increase in sexually transmitted infections.
The GOP’s heinous legacy of HIV/AIDS silence—and censorship—continues today. In 2010, John Boehner spearheaded a successful censorship campaign against a gay artist who died of AIDS; David Wojnarowicz’s video installation “A Fire in My Belly,” was later removed from the National Portrait Gallery. While many credit President George W. Bush’s initiatives to combat AIDS in Africa, far fewer people will remember his party’s efforts to cut funding for HIV/AIDS research by staggering amounts in 2011. In the same year, Republicans also re-enacted a ban on federal spending for needle exchanges, which help to combat drug-related HIV infections.
This counterproductive party line on HIV began, of course, with Ronald Reagan, who didn’t mention AIDS until six years after the disease was identified. Thanks, in part, to his administration, the epidemic was seen as a hilarious punch line instead of a growing epidemic. During Statue of Liberty rededication festivities in 1986, still a year away from his first mention of the rapidly spreading disease, Reagan honored comedian Bob Hope, who quipped about Lady Liberty contracting HIV. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry,” Hope joked. More than 100,000 New Yorkers would go on to die from the disease. But many millennials probably aren’t aware of that, or of the other indignities that befell people with AIDS back in the ’80s. As sad as that may be, it was also inevitable: Without the throes of death weighing on our minds, how can we be expected to remember a tragedy so vast, so terrifying, so preventable?