April 20, 2018 at 1:45 pm EDT | by Staff reports
FLASHBACK: Blade’s 1989 report on Barbara Bush hugging man with AIDS

(Washington Blade archive)

Editor’s Note: Below is the article the Washington Blade published in its March 24, 1989 edition on then-first lady Barbara Bush’s visit to Grandma’s House in D.C., which housed children with HIV at a time when the disease was a death sentence.

Bush died this week at age 92 and was remembered for being a gay ally and bringing visibility to AIDS at a time when both carried substantial stigma. As the Blade article notes, Bush during her visit embraced not only children with the disease, but a gay activist with AIDS, Lou Tesconi. Tesconi died in 1991 at age 42.

Barbara Bush embraces man with AIDS

Barbara Bush and Jim Graham, then head of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, shake hands upon her arrival at the clinic for the dedication of the Bill Austin Treatment Center on Dec. 19, 1982. (Photo courtesy billwillsonphotos.com)

First lady Barbara Bush focused media attention on AIDS this week and startled some city activists when she hugged a gay man with AIDS in deliberate view of a field of news cameras.

Bush had just finished visiting a local shelter called Grandma’s House, for babies With AIDS, Wednesday morning when she escorted a small group of AIDS activists outside to a waiting corps of press photographers and reporters. According to Lou Tesconi, a gay man with AIDS who heads up another shelter for people with AIDS, Bush made a statement about AIDS “and then gave me a great big hug in front of everybody.”

Tesconi and Jim Graham, administrator of the Whitman-Walker Clinic and one of the other activists who briefed Bush on AIDS during the visit, said they considered the first lady’s hug to be an important symbol.

“This was really a splendid opportunity,” said Graham, “for the first lady to indicate her general concern about people with AIDS. Her holding Lou Tesconi was historic. It was totally on her own impetus, she came forward, it was very emotional but warm, she gave him a real body hug.”

Tesconi said Bush was clearly responding to his suggestion during the briefing inside the shelter that the first lady use her visibility and position to “collectively hug people with AIDS in front of the world.” Tesconi said Bush hugged him while they were inside the shelter, too.

Wednesday’s meeting was initiated by Bush, according to Tesconi, executive director and founder of the Damian Ministries, which provides services to women with AIDS and others. Tesconi said he also considers it an important symbol that Bush brought along with her to Wednesday’s meeting Dr. Burton Lee, the new White House physician. Lee, noted Tesconi, served on President Ronald Reagan’s AIDS commission.

“He came up to me afterwards,” said Tesconi, “and he hugged me, too. I felt throughout the morning that they were both very sincere about their concern over AIDS. It was not just a bunch of photo opportunities with babies. She hugged adults, too. We weren’t being used.”

First Lady Bush answered a few brief questions from reporters waiting outside the shelter. And though Graham and Tesconi said they could not hear her remarks from where they were standing, Patsy Lynch, who was allowed inside the shelter as a pool photographer for United Press International, said Bush called AIDS a “terrible disease.” When asked whether the government is doing enough to combat AIDS, said Lynch, Bush “started to say they’d have to ask George Bush about that, then she said ‘No, I don’t think there’s enough money for AIDS or for other illnesses.'”

Graham said he believes Bush may have been inspired to visit Grandma’s House in part because she is Episcopalian and the shelter is run by the Episcopal Caring Response committee. He said that in his brief remarks to the First Lady, he pointed out that he believes it is important for her to talk about “all people with AIDS, regardless of their age or their sexual orientation.” —By Lisa Keen

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