Hans Johnson, a columnist for In These Times and commentator on The Young Turks on Air America, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Washington.
You won’t find it celebrated at his official library and shrine in Simi Valley. But 30 years ago, in the run-up to his own successful bid for chief executive, Ronald Reagan denounced a looming statewide ballot measure in California aimed at punishing any teacher or professor in a public classroom rumored to support homosexuality.
When publicized by a state newspaper, Reagan’s letter defending gay-friendly educators and rebuking sponsors of the referendum, known as the Briggs Initiative, proved pivotal in that ‘78 campaign.
So outspoken are today’s contenders for the White House in claiming Ronald Reagan’s legacy that his daughter Patti Davis spoke up disputing their comparisons. Yet she and other critics of such invocations miss one area in which the current field falls sadly short of the late president’s image: attacking the freedom of gay people.
How stands the current crop of GOP aspirants?
They blow hard and blow over in the face of religious-right pressure to treat gay people unequally. Mike Huckabee, for one, famously called the gay community “an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle” and ballyhoos his backing of a 2004 antigay ballot measure in Arkansas. On HIV and AIDS, he once called for efforts to “isolate the carriers of this plague.” Later on, he wavered in apologies for endorsing a quarantine, which he wrongly attributed to public health opinion at the time, rather than simply ignorance and hysteria.
Mitt Romney has referred to scripture in his drives to pass both a state and federal antigay constitutional amendment to deny marriage to committed same-sex couples. At times he says that he opposes discrimination. But in Massachusetts in 2006, he pushed for a bill specifically to allow discrimination in some adoptions and thus bar same-sex couples from caring for children in need of a loving home.
Even John McCain, who has openly gay advisers, is now courting the same “agents of intolerance” he criticized during his primary run eight years ago. He opposes a federal amendment to the constitution pre-empting equal marriage rights as an abuse of state power. But in 2005 he endorsed an Arizona antigay measure that, using government authority, would have taken away existing health benefits for same-sex couples. He went so far as to promote the measure in commercials.
McCains muddled and antagonistic tone on gay rights gives new meaning to his pledge of straight talk. “I don’t believe we should discriminate,” he said on ABC just over a year ago. “But I don’t think we need specific laws that would apply.” And in the final days of his Florida primary, he issued robo-calls to voters that used the inflammatory phrase “special rights” in decrying Romney’s earlier support for nondiscrimination measures.
In contrast, Reagan’s letter from 30 years ago was forthright and fair-minded. “Homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles,” he noted. “Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.”
Conveying firsthand what he might have learned from gay friends like Rock Hudson, Reagan’s letter deploring the Briggs Initiative remains an important political artifact. By rejecting the proposal along with the innuendo, investigation, and invasions of privacy it entailed, Reagan showed that gay people’s liberty is inextricable from everyone else’s. His restrained voice spoke volumes. Six weeks after release of the letter, the measure failed statewide by a margin of more than 4-to-3. The Briggs Initiative lost even in conservative Orange County, home of its namesake state senator and sponsor.
Vanquishing the measure triggered two other long-term patterns in the state. On the policy front, the governor and the state Supreme Court extended state worker and labor policies to bar discrimination against gays within a year of Briggs’ defeat. Led by organized labor and civil rights groups, California gradually developed health-care and relationship protections more inclusive than all but a few other states in the union. On the political front, owing both to social pressure and Reagan’s leadership, the state continued to breed a kind of Republican virtually extinct in the rest of the nation: moderates on gay rights, such as Pete Wilson, Richard Riordan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All have signed some gay-rights legislation backed by Democrats.
Don’t get me wrong: Reagan was no saint on gays. After two terms as governor, he paved his way to the White House with support from far-right activists like Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell, who roused voters with antigay rhetoric. On his watch as president, AIDS exploded. His tragically slow and lackluster response to the suffering of gay men and others triggered an outpouring of rage at the mounting toll of infection, sickness, and death. Finally, the conspicuous demise of Hudson himself, a fellow entertainment icon, broke the Reagans’ silence on an epidemic whose spread would taint their legacy.
Still, in taking a stand 30 years ago in a landmark battle on discrimination, Reagan cast a long shadow over his party. Top contenders in the GOP today equivocate on antigay discrimination amid their feverish pursuit of ultra-conservative primary voters. This underscores a lack of independence and resolve in standing up to some of the most poisonous voices in politics. It also shows stagnation on important moral issues of fairness and inclusion.
Reagan, for his heretical stand on basic freedom for gay people, now might face abuse or be a casualty in his own party’s nominating fight. This grim possibility should make all claimants to his name think twice about the party they are leading.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.