Twitter Revives HIV History, for a Day

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Dec. 3 2013 10:41 AM

Twitter Revives HIV History, for a Day

Ronald Reagan montage
Ronald Reagan's spirit lives on at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Photo by Reuters/Mike Segar

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?

Tyler Lopez is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.


The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 


How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.


A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Sept. 12 2014 7:24 PM Come and Take It Libertarians fight for people whose property was seized by the police.
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
Sept. 12 2014 3:32 PM Yes, Those Straight Guys Who Wed for Rugby Tickets Are Mocking Marriage. What’s New?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?