Reagan, Koop, Gays, AIDS & Myths

Many gay folks are still upset about the “fact” that Ronald Reagan never said the word “AIDS” until 1987. Every time the subject of the early years of A… wait, in the first year or so the thing didn’t have a name – that was 1980-81 – that was Reagan’s first two years in office. That was the year that gay folks were still felons in ¾s of the states. That was the year that a few dozen, maybe a hundred gay guys died of mysterious causes. Then, then it was GRID – for Gay Related Immune Disease – that they used the word “Gay” was remarkable, but, little remarked today. It was GRID for about 2 or 3 years. This was 1982-1985. And what was there to say about it? That’s what I never encounter – what did anyone want Reagan to say? And, more importantly, how were words going to mean anything, do anything? The nation as a whole was not gay friendly in the least – to all of a sudden expect the president to get all teary eyed over gay guys dying was a bit much. Reagan was leading a country out of economic travail and dealing with Soviet Union – perhaps a bit more important that some guys dying of an unknown disease that only seemed to strike gay guys.

Meanwhile, what he did do was pump millions of dollars into the CDC and NIH and research – he put the money up. And, for reasons unrelated to gay stuff, he just so happened to have appointed C. Everett Koop – and he got to work, and didn’t flinch – and to some degree he had to be telling Reagan or his advisers what he was doing. Then now, I read this at the Washington Post –

“The theatrical appearance, however, masked a fierce self-confidence, an unyielding commitment to professional excellence and a willingness to challenge the expectations of his patrons.”

So, Koop looked like a liberal, but he wasn’t, so it was theatrical. If he was a liberal, it would be deference to tradition or something. The number liberal professors with not-so-ordinary beards is legion, I never see them called theatrical, that’s for sure. Meanwhile, the expectations of his patrons might well have been that he have unyielding commitment and professional excellence and actually get something done. I suppose the Post thought Reagan would appoint the stooge and be done with it. Oh, that’s right, Reagan probably gave a damn about the services over which Koop would master.

“A 64-year-old retired pediatric surgeon at the time Ronald Reagan nominated him in 1981, Dr. Koop had no formal public-health training. His chief credential was that he was a socially conservative, Christian physician who had written a popular treatise against abortion.”

His chief credentials might well have been a “ fierce self-confidence, an unyielding commitment to professional excellence and a willingness to challenge the expectations” – that wasn’t masked at all, but that the expectations of the Post were skewed – not the man who appointed him.

“His confirmation took eight months.” – yes, well, Democrats in action for the good of the people. He wasn’t the political flunky with the inside the beltway knowledge, that’s what they were miffed at – he didn’t have the baggage and relationships that make DC so cozy. No, he was an outsider, with “ fierce self-confidence, an unyielding commitment to professional excellence and a willingness to challenge the expectations” – and that unnerved people.

“Few people expected him to talk about homosexuality, anal intercourse, condoms and intravenous drug use when almost nobody else in the Reagan administration would even utter the word “AIDS.”

The man was appointed when there was no word “AIDS” to utter. The first 5 years of the Reagan Administration saw 2 years of an unknown number of single never married probably gay men dying of strange causes – and two years of GRID – at a time when virtually every American had no problem with killing us off. And so, Koop “uttered” the desired word, after it appeared in the scientific community – and was he fired? No. He talked about homosexuality – was he reprimanded? Not that I recall. Did congress even haul him in and wonder what he was doing? No. It seems that the administration was well aware of his talk of gays and sex and AIDS – and let the man do what “a fierce self-confidence, an unyielding commitment to professional excellence and a willingness to challenge the expectations” would do – to the Post this seems miraculous.

To many gay men it’s still that the president didn’t say the word – and I’m thinking, how important do you think you are? And, don’t you remember there were other things going on? And, don’t you recall that not a single hetero was saying a nice word about gay folks healthy or sick or dying? And, don’t you recall that Reagan authorized the money – the money that mattered – not palliative words – but the research money – and, the frank discussion. I can’t for the life of me that Koop just up and started talking about the subject without Administration knowledge and approval. And if he did, they certainly kept him around to keep up the talk.

“Among AIDS activists Dr. Koop became an unlikely hero, although some came to think that his sexually explicit talk tended to further stigmatize gay men.”

Gay men are paranoid, to a degree, and with good reason – there are, after all, and were, many people who state quite explicitly that they are out to get us. Of that there can be no doubt. Gay men are also prudes when it comes to sex talk – bizarrely, for our reputations as heathen sex fiends, gay men don’t like to talk about sex, and we particularly don’t like to do it with heterosexuals and the public at large. Still, Koop talked, and AIDS activists worked well with the man. Though, it is apparent, from the “unlikely hero” bit that their expectations were wrong about the man – and that it wasn’t Koop’s doing that any gay men didn’t like exactly what he was doing. Still, the sex had to be talked about – there’s no way around it – so, he talked. And gay men, prudes we be, (I have heard heterosexual men talk about their last night’s conquest in details and glory be in ways I have never talked about sex, it’s amazing what hetero guys will say in the man caves of their lives,) got squeamish about the sex talk. There was no further “stigmatizing” to be done – we were so roundly despised that the joke swiftly rose “How do we spell relief?” “AIDS” – for the vast swath of society wished us ill.

“Most of us thought that a huge part of how the crisis grew exponentially was that those in power chose to ignore it for as long as they could,” recalled Peter Staley, a founding member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. “He was the only person in that administration who spoke the truth when it came to AIDS.”

And here’s this Staley fellow talking about ignoring the crisis as the administration let Koop do what he did, and put up hundreds of millions in research, and followed ACT UP’s idea of speeding drugs to patients even if they were merely experimental. The administration in fact seemed to be doing all that was required – except saying some maudlin stuff about how gay men were dying when it wasn’t just the people in the administration’s distaste for a discussion about gay folks, but it was every last politician’s distaste, and every American’s distaste.

At the death of Ed Koch the gays started to trash him too, for “not saying a word.” Meanwhile, he too acted instead of talked. Frankly, I always could use action far more than words.

Though, still, to this day, I have yet to hear the vaunted proposed speech that any gay man supposedly wanted Reagan to utter. When should he do it? That’s not said. On what occasion should he say good things about the most despised people – felons, mind you – the nation ever had? Why is this burden on Reagan to say something – and forever be pilloried for not “uttering” the word “AIDS” which only existed for half his time in office – and why the Post and this Staley fellow and so many of my gay friends don’t put aside their expectations for words – and congratulate Reagan and Koop for doing what they did.

My gay brethren don’t seem to realize that without the hundreds of millions of dollars Doctor Fauci and many others wouldn’t have found the HIV, wouldn’t have done a thing about AIDS – it’s the budget – the money – the money was put up right away. That’s the thing for kudos. But, no, aw, Koop was a shocking surprise because he’s wasn’t the anti-gay monster gay activists expected, and there seemed to be no way politically for gays to say something good about the actions of Reagan because he didn’t use the word “AIDS.” That’s too bad. And now, even today, the Post can’t bring itself to say a good word about what Reagan and Koop did – but can only obliquely refer to it by some sort of surprise and shock.

Well, RIP Doctor Koop – and thanks for all you did. 107 million brochures about AIDS to every household in America did more to help gay folks than you can ever believe. It told America that gay citizens were real, and having a bad time of it, and America shouldn’t be fearful, but with ingenuity could solve the problem. In a sense, he made gay folks human to all Americans who had previously thought me might well be space aliens. Maybe he didn’t say it like that – but he was the one, as a member of the Reagan administration, which just had to know about 107 million pieces of mail – which brought gay men into the minds of every American – and that was a good thing. Our progress was built on this, too. It only got better. And no speech by Reagan would ever have reached so many or done as much — doctors are just more trustworthy than politicians, eh?

But, to the degree that Reagan and Koop, and Koch, didn’t do anything, and gay men did it all, if that’s the argument you want to make – then we gay folks should remind the Right Wing that we did it the old fashioned American was of self-reliance and personal effort and our own community without having to bleat to the government – and let them deal with that reality. For we were more rugged individualistic that most Americans could hope to be.


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