Ronald Reagan campaigned for gay rights before he was President — a move considered by many a risk to his future political career. Reagan had been out of the California governor’s office for several years and was preparing to run again for President.
In 1978, California State Senator John Briggs pushed a state ballot initiative to prohibit the hiring of homosexuals as teachers. This was at the height of Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals and much of the religious-right opposed the concept of “gay rights.”
Support for the initiative was very strong initially and everyone around Reagan argued he should stay out of the fight. But, out of personal conviction people should only be judged on their merits, Reagan campaigned against the initiative.
He even went to so far as to write on op-ed in the now-defunct “Los Angeles Herald-Examiner,” against it in the closing days of the campaign.
“Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”
“Initiative 6,” as it was officially known, went down in defeat.
Perhaps the greatest criticism surrounds Reagan’s “supposed silence” about the epidemic spreading in the 1980s. First, it’s untrue the Reagan administration “said nothing” in response to the disease.
In June 1983, a year before the virus that causes AIDS had even been publicly identified, Reagan’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, announced at the U.S. Conference of Mayors the department “considers AIDS its number-one health priority.” She specifically praised “the excellent work done by gay networks around the nation” that had spread information about the disease.
Despite the oft-repeated claim that Reagan himself didn’t mention AIDS publicly until 1987, he actually first discussed it in September 1985. Responding to a reporter’s question about the need for more funding, Reagan noted the federal government had already spent more than half a billion dollars on AIDS up to that point.
“So, this is a top priority with us,” said Reagan. “Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.”
It must also be noted that Reagan was hardly alone. For years, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who was presiding over the epicenter of the disease, refused even to meet with AIDS groups.
A review of federal spending on AIDS programs during the Reagan years shows annual spending rose from eight million dollars in 1982 to more than $2.3 billion in 1989. In all, the federal government spent almost six billion dollars on AIDS during Reagan’s tenure.
On the other hand, in 1983 New York Governor Mario Cuomo, nixed on fiscal grounds the state senate’s bid to spend $5.2 million on AIDS research and prevention programs. Cuomo’s state health commissioner responded to criticism by saying that hypertension was a more important health issue for the state.
Aside from spending, it was Reagan’s surgeon general who sent the first-ever bulletin to all American homes warning explicitly about AIDS transmission. Finally, it was Reagan who created the first presidential commission dealing with AIDS and, in 1988, barred discrimination against federal employees with HIV.
Ronald Reagan may have been a lot of things — but a “gay-hater,” is not one of them.