There’s nothing more galling than revisionist history and last weekend’s reactions to the death of former President George H.W. Bush brought an onslaught of it to many social media feeds and, more predictably, to mainstream media.
I was stunned to see my own feeds filled with tributes to the 41st president — some written by gay men. And on World AIDS Day, no less.
Even the Advocate — once a leading critic of the Reagan-Bush administrations — joined this chorus of glossing over Bush’s anti-LGBTQ record. In an Advocate story posted on World AIDS Day about Bush’s death, the word “AIDS” appears just once in a reference to Reagan. The headline describes Bush as “no enemy of LGBTQ people.”
In Neal Broverman’s Advocate story, Bush is credited with signing the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. But he fails to mention that the measure was a far cry from passing a real hate crimes bill that Democrats and LGBTQ allies wanted in 1990 but was impossible to achieve given Bush was in the White House. Broverman also cites the 1990 removal of a ban on “sexual deviation” from the Immigration and Nationality Act that Bush presided over. But this glosses over the reality that removal of that language was part of a much larger immigration measure. Bush was no LGBTQ advocate. Quite the opposite.
He referred to gay men as “those people,” assailed ACT UP for its efforts at fighting AIDS, described same-sex parents as “not normal,” and vocally supported the military’s ban on gay service members. He gave voice to the far-right evangelicals who now dominate the GOP and appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. But worse than all of that, Bush was one half of the Reagan-Bush administration that was criminally negligent in responding to the emerging AIDS crisis of the early 1980s.
Bush is being lauded for his “civility” this week in breathless tributes from the mainstream media that mercilessly mocked him as president. In death, Bush has morphed into a saint because he was “civil” compared to the current White House occupant. The bar is low.
Bush’s patrician approach to the job was woefully out of step for the dire times in which he served as president. From a crippling recession to the horrors of the AIDS plague, America needed a bold fighter, not a polite placeholder president. He hated ACT UP because its members represented the direct opposite of Bush’s approach – they were loud, rightly angry and demanded accountability from the government that was ignoring them and the plight of tens of thousands of mostly gay men dying. Fuck civility when we’re losing an entire generation of American gay men. Bush and his predecessor Reagan turned a willfully blind eye to the epidemic because they and their evangelical base of supporters didn’t care about the lives of gay men, people of color and drug users, three groups disproportionately impacted by AIDS.
Bush refused to tackle AIDS honestly, repeatedly calling for “behavioral” changes rather than addressing education and prevention efforts directly and urgently to the communities most directly affected. He was so bad, even the Log Cabin Republicans wouldn’t support him.
Fast forward 28 years and all of that easily Google-able, damning information is somehow forgotten or ignored as the country embarks on a weeklong, saccharine embrace of a failed president who time and again chose callous political expediency over doing the right thing. And 28 years later, even some gay men are joining the Bush whitewashing effort. We can express sympathy for Bush’s grieving family without ignoring the unforgivable damage his “service” did to the LGBTQ community.
Nostalgia for the Bush era is misplaced. Those who died at the hands of an uncaring government presided over by Bush and Reagan deserved better on World AIDS Day.
Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.