Colin Wilson puts Hillary Clinton’s comments on Nancy Reagan and AIDS into a personal and historical context.
I was tested for HIV several weeks ago. Gay men are encouraged to get tested annually: 1 in 7 sexually active gay men in London has the virus. “I can do the test that gives you the results right away,” said the nurse. It’s straightforward – several drops of blood from your finger, mixed with chemicals in little plastic vials, a tiny pool of pale blue liquid in a white plastic container. “If there are two dots that means positive, but you can see there’s only one.” But, if there were two, there are treatments now – a lifetime of pills and possible side-effects, but if everything goes okay, as long a life as anyone else.
Testing hasn’t always been like this. I remember discussing with clinic staff in the 1990s whether to test or not. The risks you had run were weighed up against the fact that treatments didn’t work very well. Did you cope well with stress, like waiting a week for the results? Did you have a good support network? I decided no, not to test, nothing to be gained.
A positive test in the 1980s, meanwhile, meant months to live. I remember an activist, still alive today, telling me how he sat after his diagnosis in a group of several dozen gay men at Terrence Higgins Trust. They were shown how to fill in the complicated application forms for Disability Living Allowance. Then a doctor signed each of their forms, asking that they be processed quickly, because the claimant could be expected to die within six months.
And gay men did die, in our thousands. In the United States alone, over 300,000 men infected through sex with other men have died of AIDS. Around the world they included the famous – Freddy Mercury, film director Derek Jarman, artist Keith Haring – and socialist activists like Mark Ashton, one of the founders of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. I remember the funeral of a comrade from Salford, pink flowers on his coffin for gay liberation, red ones for socialism. His books were sold as a fundraiser, which was what he wanted: I have his copy of the Arabian Nights on my bookshelves still.
How did those in power respond? Thatcher and Reagan both saw LGBT liberation as part of the gains of the 1960s which they had to roll back. As the tabloids whipped up homophobia, Thatcher introduced Section 28, legislation which banned local councils from “promoting homosexuality” and schools from discussing same-sex relationships in a positive way. In the States, Reagan did not give a major speech about AIDS until 1987, when over 20,000 people were dead. In 1982, his spokesperson Larry Speakes made jokes at a White House press briefing about the fact that many gay men were dying. Nancy Reagan refused to help Rock Hudson, a film star and old friend of hers, when he was dying of AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease”.
The AIDS campaigner Larry Kramer had a simple phrase to describe the response of the New York authorities – he said that they were “equal to murderers”. I think it describes the whole ruling class, then and now. United Nations figures from 2014 show that almost 25 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are HIV-positive – yet 15 million receive no treatment. Last month, American authorities reported that 1 out of every 2 gay black men could expect to become infected with HIV in their lifetime. The CDC, the body which heads up the US government response to HIV, stated that one major reason for higher infection rates among black people was poverty, which limits access to health care, housing and education.
This, then, is the context for Hillary Clinton’s statement on Friday that Nancy Reagan “started a national conversation” about HIV and did “very effective, low-key advocacy” on the subject. There is not a word of truth to this, and Clinton has had to retreat very quickly, claiming that she “misspoke”. It’s inconceivable that Clinton doesn’t know the facts. She led work on healthcare in the 1990s, after all, as the HIV epidemic continued in Bill Clinton’s first term. Why she thought it would be in her interest to lie about Nancy Reagan is something we can only guess at. It may be that she’s been part of the ruling clique for so long that it becomes unthinkable to criticise another member of the gang. It may be that she was hoping to pick up the votes of Republicans who think back fondly to the Reagan years but feel nervous about Trump.
But what is clear is this: Clinton has no respect for LGBT people, no respect for the disaster that came upon us at the end of the last century, no respect for the truth, no respect for our dead. We have seen, in the last few months, a constant stream of articles in the LGBT media which take for granted that we support Clinton. We are to look the other way when it comes to the war in Iraq, the destruction of welfare or racist police violence, because Hillary is on the side of LGBT people. Yet even that isn’t true.
Hillary Clinton feels she needs to reinvent Nancy Reagan now because attitudes to HIV have changed. That happened because thousands of us, LGBT people and supporters, protested and organised, came out to friends, family and at work. Here in Britain we marched against Section 28. In America, activists protested at the CDC till drugs were made available. In Africa, protests by groups like Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa have increased access to medicines. That’s how change happens, not by “low-key advocacy”, the powerful having a quiet word behind the scenes – and not by LGBT people thinking we have a friend in the White House. When the steady, poisonous drip of pro-Clinton articles in the LGBT media resumes, this is something we need to remember.