On Friday, March 6, 2016, in response to First Lady Nancy Reagan’s death, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recalled “how difficult it was to talk about HIV/AIDS” in the 1980s and praised the Reagans for helping to start a “national conversation” on the disease. She said,
…because of…Mrs. Reagan…we started a national conversation when, before, nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it…. [T]hat too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective, low-key advocacy but it penetrated the public conscience. And people began to say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’
As a long-time survivor who buried more than thirty friends who died of AIDS during the 1980s and 90s, I was quite shocked. Mrs. Clinton’s statement certainly did not reflect what I remember of the Reagan administration. In fact, the image I remember most from the Reagans’s response to the AIDS crisis is Reagan Press Secretary Larry Speakes actually laughing and joking when a reporter asked him about this new disease, AIDS.
“What’s AIDS?” Speakes asked.
“It’s known as the ‘gay plague,’” the reporter said.
“I don’t have it. Do you?” Speakes cackled.
The man whose job was to represent the Reagan Administration to us Americans and to the rest of the world laughed about AIDS as if it were a naughty adolescent locker-room joke.
Under pressure, Speakes acknowledged that neither Reagan nor anyone else in the White House knew anything about the epidemic, even though 850-plus Americans died from AIDS that year and thousands more had been diagnosed.
That is what I remember as the cornerstone of the Reagans’s “low-key advocacy” during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic.
Thirty-four years later, a candidate for the Presidency of the United States applauded the Reagans as allies of folks with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. That should have caused the jaw of every gay man on the planet who survived the Reagans to crash to the floor.
I don’t believe that Mrs. Clinton intended anything hurtful with her misstatement—and I certainly don’t mean to equate her misstatement with Larry Speakes’ blatant bigotry. I suspect Mrs. Clinton was simply scrounging for something nice to say about Mrs. Reagan. To Mrs. Clinton’s credit, judging from her apology/retraction, she seems to have learned from her mistake.
But this kind of off-the-cuff gaffe is significant because it is indicative of the many ways in which our real history gets erased or rewritten if we don’t safeguard it. And we safeguard our history by writing it ourselves.
This is why I write. I wear a hoodie that sums it up perfectly—“I Write What Should Not Be Forgotten.”
Neither forgotten nor rewritten.
I am utterly, unshakably convinced that it is vitally important for us survivors of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—all of us—to tell our stories about the grief and loss we have known; our stories about the friends and lovers and co-workers and family members whom we have lost to this plague; our stories about our own diagnoses, about being told in our twenties or thirties that we were going to die in a matter of months; our stories about outliving one death sentence after another; our stories about all the caregiving and home-nursing and growing-up-real-damn-fast that we learned how to do; our stories of ACTing UP and fighting back, of marching and dancing, of die-ins and riots; our stories of carrying a container of hot-and-sour soup six blocks to a sick and hungry friend, of hiding another sick friend’s porn stash from his visiting parents, of being entrusted with that friend’s ashes later.
Each of us who survived the pandemic has stories to tell that are unique portals to understanding a time of unfathomable loss and unspeakable grief. We spent fifteen years fighting for our lives and the next twenty fighting for our right to live. That’s a helluva lot of stories! They are unique tales of loss and grief, yes, but also of unprecedented heroism and growth, stories of a burgeoning awareness of community, stories of generosity and of building new families, stories of grace and revelry and healing.
It is up to us to tell our stories, to write our history as we lived and shaped it. We simply cannot allow other people to write or rewrite our history. Intentionally or not, they invariably get it wrong.
The first step in erasing a people is to erase or rewrite their history.
For the sake of us long-term survivors, and for those of us who didn’t survive the eighties and nineties, we cannot permit the straight-washing of our history.
It’s our history, it’s our lives, and it’s our obligation to tell the stories that we have lived. We control our history only if we write it.
Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé, Rick Greathouse. He is a Contributing Writer to A&U; follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.