It seems like everything Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton does causes controversy. Her most recent gaffe was at the funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan. Clinton gave Reagan and her husband credit for “starting a national conversation” on HIV/AIDS, according to The Washington Post.
That could not be further from the truth.
Throughout the ‘80s, the Reagan administration treated HIV/AIDS as a joke. Ronald Reagan did not acknowledge the disease until his second term, when more than 20,000 people had died from AIDS and its related complications. Nancy Reagan, of course, was not entirely responsible for her husband’s administration and its callous response to the thousands dying of the terrifying new epidemic. But she turned down cries for help from her longtime friend, movie star Rock Hudson, just months before he died of AIDS.
The LGBT community was especially stung by Clinton’s attribution of HIV/AIDS awareness to the Reagans. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the community was torn apart by the epidemic and the government’s slow response.
“Once the epidemic really started to hit, it was not uncommon to find 3, 4 or more people you knew had died each month,” one gay man who lived through the epidemic shared on Reddit. On top of the discrimination the LGBT community already faced, it then dealt with the stigma of HIV/AIDS. The aftershock of the crisis still has a deep impact on the community up to this day (I have firsthand experience of it).
As long as the disease mainly affected the LGBT community, no one cared. Once the epidemic spread to “innocent” victims like Ryan White, the government actually began to take notice. The AIDS crisis in the LGBT community was one of the defining events that spurred the modern gay rights movement.
Understandably, condemnation of Clinton’s remark came swiftly and angrily from the LGBT community. Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the massive LGBT activist organization that endorsed Clinton, tweeted, “While I respect her advocacy on issues like stem cell & Parkinson’s research, Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”
Clinton’s praise for the Reagans’ response to the AIDS crisis seems rooted in ignorance. There was literally no reason for her to bring up AIDS activism at Mrs. Reagan’s funeral, yet she did so. It was insulting to the activists who actually fought for HIV/AIDS awareness, to the thousands who died under the inaction of the Reagan administration, to anyone who has lost a friend to AIDS and to anyone today who is HIV positive.
Ignorance doesn’t excuse the insulting remark, but we shouldn’t get out our torches and pitchforks just yet. As a Hillary supporter and gay man, I was disappointed in her comments (“She was a classy lady who dressed well” would have sufficed as a tribute, Hillary, sis.) But her response to the loud criticism is a positive sign for Hillary as a politician and a person.
Instead of trying to sweep the firestorm under the rug or issue a non-apology, Clinton issued two separate apologies — a tweet soon after and an essay a day later.
In the essay, it became clear that Clinton had educated herself after the loud and justified criticism. She acknowledges the early work by the LGBT community for AIDS activism. She talks about the stigma thousands faced and still face today.
I cannot think of a single GOP candidate who would acknowledge a mistake and educate themselves on the topic like Hillary did. In her essay, Clinton calls for expansion to PrEP, pre-exposure antiretrovirals that greatly reduce the spread of HIV to new people. Currently, this medicine is rather difficult to get, yet it could significantly change the fight against AIDS in this country.
To this today, AIDS disproportionately affects the LGBT community and people of color, according to the Human Rights Campaign. While combinations of drugs allow HIV-positive people to live long and healthy lives, the virus can still be a death sentence for those without access to healthcare. Better access to medication like PrEP would be huge. Reducing the cost HIV medications is also a necessity in fighting the epidemic. The next president — ideally either Clinton or Sanders — vocally advocating for better HIV prevention and treatment could be a major turning point in our fight against the disease.
Politicians make mistakes. People make mistakes. And Hillary made a huge one. But out of that controversy came more attention for the AIDS epidemic, which still ravages sub-Saharan Africa and those without access to healthcare. The more awareness the ongoing epidemic gets, the closer we get to winning the battle. “We will not leave anyone behind,” Hillary promises in her essay. I hope she keeps that promise.