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Words matter: The AIDS crisis and Ronald Reagan

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Ronald Reagan and the AIDS crisis

Words matter: The AIDS crisis and Ronald Reagan

The decision by the Trump administration to gut the AIDS Council as well prohibiting the officials of the Centers of Disease Control to use LGBTQ words is reminiscent of then-President Ronald Reagan’s choice of words to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

This decision became the official policy of the US government then, which meant life or death for many of the LGBTQ community at that time.

Ronald Reagan and the AIDS crisis

Then-president Reagan wouldn’t utter the words “HIV” and “AIDS” during the start of the crisis, which meant the US government didn’t recognize it and thousands of mostly gay men died as a result.

In fact, his administration’s first reaction to the crisis was to treat it as a joke, as shown by the documentary by Scott Calonico, “When AIDS Was Funny.”

The audio of the 1982 press conference of Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes was posted by Vanity Fair and showed members of media joking with Speakes about the “gay plague.”

A similar press conference in 1984, with the death toll of 600 already up to 4,200, showed that the tone still wasn’t serious.

As Speakes said at the time when asked what the president’s reaction to this was, he said: “I haven’t heard him express concern.”

As scientists and researchers started clamoring for the need for more funding to address the virulence of the crisis, the Reagan administration was indifferent to their calls.

Writing in the Washington Post in 1985, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said: “It is surprising that the president could remain silent as 6,000 Americans died, that he could fail to acknowledge the epidemic’s existence.”

“Perhaps his staff felt he had to, since many of his New Right supporters have raised money by campaigning against homosexuals,” Waxman said.

Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan

The similarities of how words matter as government policy in the way the Reagan administration dealt with the AIDS crisis and how the Trump administration is currently handling the issues of the LGBTQ community is certainly striking.

“It’s not like this is about PC wording—this is about people being dead because there’s no way to serve them or research appropriate ways to serve them,” said Jaime Grant, the executive director of the LGBT-rights organization PFLAG, to Newsweek.

“If you can’t collect the data to understand the problems, and define who’s impacted, then you can’t solve it. It’s part of erasing LGBT people from the federal government data,” said David Stacy, the government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, also to Newsweek.

Referring to how the Reagan administration pretended that AIDS didn’t exist, Stacy said: “People died because the administration ignored them.”

LGBTQ in the face of government inaction

There were other times when the US government’s inaction defined a presidency for the LGBTQ community.

For example, Louis Sullivan, the then-secretary of Health and Human Service under President George H.W. Bush, suppressed a report on teen suicide pertaining to LGBT adolescents being at a greater risk for suicide as compared to their straight counterparts.

Transgenders will have a harder time debunking attacks against them using science because of the removal of terms like “science-based” and “evidence-based” in government policy.

In fact, with the removal of the word “transgender,” government agencies will not be able to come up with ways to reduce health disparities for them. Likewise, the removal of the word “vulnerable” will also affect how research looks into those affected by health issues.

Cecilia Chung, the senior director for strategic projects at the Transgender Law Center, told Newsweek removing these words is “a clear message that the administration wants to delegitimize [transgender] existence.”

Ronald Reagan’s silence equals death

In 1987, the saying “silence equals death” appeared as part of a project to raise attention to the AIDS crisis. In this case, the government’s own silence brought death.

“In the history of the AIDS epidemic, President Reagan’s legacy is one of silence,” said Michael Cover, former associate executive director for public affairs at Whitman-Walker Clinic in 2003

“It is the silence of tens of thousands who died alone and unacknowledged, stigmatized by our government under his administration,” Cover added.

Let’s hope the silence of this administration doesn’t let this happen again.

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