Jill Biden hit with criticism over honouring Nancy Reagan during Pride month

Reagans have long been criticised for homophobia and inadequate AIDS response

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Tuesday 07 June 2022 23:17 BST
Jill Biden unveils stamp of first lady Nancy Reagan
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June is LGTBQ+ Pride Month, and the White House has attracted controversy for hosting a high-profile event at the beginning of the month unveiling a postage stamp featuring Nancy Reagan.

Critics say the former first lady and her husband, president Ronald Reagan, were publicly homophobic and failed to meaningfully address the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, despite them being friends with many LGTBQ+ people they knew from their time in Hollywood and washington society.

On Monday, current first lady Jill Biden hosted a ceremony revealing the stamp, where she praised Ms Reagan because she “made such a difference.”

“First lady Nancy Reagan served the American people with grace,” she said. “She understood that the role of first lady came with inherent pitfalls and scrutiny, yet she found the humanity in it all.”

Many in the LGTBQ+ community and beyond argue that the Reagans failed to find the humanity in the queer community throughout their public careers, and especially during the crucial early moments of the AIDS crisis.

In 1967, Mr Reagan, then governor of California, fired what he believed was a “homosexual clique” in his administration, with Ms Reagan calling being gay a “sickness” and an “abnormality.”

In his run for the White House, Mr Reagan won the support of virulently homophobic far-right religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, and said the gay liberation movement “isn’t just asking for civil rights; it’s asking for recognition and acceptance of an alternative lifestyle which I do not believe society can condone, nor can I” in a 1980 campaign speech.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan share a moment in this undated file photo.

By the time he became president in 1981, Ronald Reagan waited for years before he ever publicly discussed HIV/AIDS, even as it killed thousands across the US.

For years, the city of San Francisco was spending more on HIV/AIDS treatment than the entire federal government, and as the epidemic persisted, President Reagan continued seeking to slash AIDs funding.

He only mentioned the condition by name in a speech in 1987, in the twilight of his presidency, after more than 20,000 people had died, many of them LGTBQ+.

Nancy Reagan reportedly turned down a 1985 request from her close friend actor Rock Hudson for White House assistance securing experimental AIDS treatment in France.

"Only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness,” the actor’s representatives wrote the White House in a message.

Former aides have said Ms Reagan was sympathetic to Hudson’s struggle, but felt it was improper for the White House to give a friend special treatment.

“I spoke with Mrs Reagan about the attached telegram. She did not feel this was something the White House should get into,” Reagan aide Mark Weinberg told Buzzfeed News, which reported on the exchange.

First lady Biden has not directly responded to criticisms of the Reagans and their relationship with the LGTBQ+  community.

“This ceremonial postage stamp unveiling was timed to commemorate Mrs Reagan’s centennial and was scheduled the day before the opening of the Ronald Reagan Institute building in DC,” the first lady’s office told the Huffington Post in a statement.

They also highlighted the White House’s vocal advocacy for LGBTQ+ people.

“President Biden and the First Lady have a long and proud record of supporting, fighting for, and leading on, LGBTQ+ rights, and those living with HIV/AIDs,” the statement read. “Just last month, Dr Biden visited a shelter in Panama for those living with HIV/AIDS and announced an additional $80m in PEPFAR funds for the region. The White House and the First Family are planning several ways to honor and celebrate PRIDE month.”

Last week, in a White House proclamation, the president called for Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Mr Biden wrote he “stands with every LGBTQI+ American in the ongoing struggle against intolerance, discrimination, and injustice.  We condemn the dangerous State laws and bills that target LGBTQI+ youth.  And we remain steadfast in our commitment to helping LGBTQI+ people in America and around the world live free from violence. “

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