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Remembering George H.W. Bush’s Inaction on AIDS at Home While Detaining HIV+ Haitians at Guantánamo

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George H.W. Bush died on the eve of World AIDS Day, an irony not lost on many HIV/AIDS activists who remember the 41st president of the United States for his lack of action in the 1990s as the HIV/AIDS crisis raged on. Bush said little about the crisis during his years as vice president under Ronald Reagan, who didn’t even mention AIDS until the penultimate year of his presidency. Despite promises to do more after he was elected president, George H.W. Bush refused to address and fund programs around HIV/AIDS education and prevention, as well as drug treatment. We speak with Steven Thrasher, journalist and doctoral candidate in American studies at New York University. He was recently appointed Daniel H. Renberg chair of media coverage in sexual and gender minorities at Northwestern University. His recent article for The Nation is titled “It’s a Disgrace to Celebrate George H.W. Bush on World AIDS Day.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, looking at now the legacy of George H.W. Bush by taking a closer look at the former president’s record on HIV and AIDS. Bush died the day of World AIDS Day, right in the evening, an irony not lost on many HIV/AIDS activists who remember Bush Sr. for his lack of action in the 1990s as the HIV/AIDS crisis raged on. Bush said little about the crisis during his vice presidency under Ronald Reagan, who didn’t even mention AIDS for over six-and-a-half years of his presidency. Despite promises to do more after he was elected president, George H.W. Bush refused to address and fund programs around HIV/AIDS education and prevention, as well as drug treatment.

For more, we’re joined by Steven Thrasher, journalist, doctoral candidate in American studies at New York University, recently appointed the Daniel H. Renberg chair of media coverage in sexual and gender minorities at Northwestern University. He’ll begin next year. His recent piece in The Nation is headlined “It’s a Disgrace to Celebrate George H.W. Bush on World AIDS Day.” Why?

STEVEN THRASHER: Because, as you said, Amy, it’s ironic that Bush died on this evening. I had been at—I had been at events here in New York City honoring the dead. And George H.W. Bush was a very focal point of activism of gay activists while he was in office. By the time he left office, about 100,000 people had died of AIDS here in the United States, about more than a million had died globally. And he wasn’t some bystander at any point. He was vice president of the United States throughout the Reagan administration when the Reagan administration was not taking active steps. And as president, he had—he was spending money on the wrong things. He was spending money to invade Iraq, to continue militarism and many of the things that exacerbate HIV and AIDS when you’re not putting the right resources into them.

I think it’s good to really remember a couple things about this legacy—one, that one of the most salient actions against the inaction of the United States around HIV/AIDS was President—was when AIDS activists went to the White House in the ashes action, and they took the—

AMY GOODMAN: When was this?

STEVEN THRASHER: This was October 11th, 1991, I believe. And thousands of people marched to the White House, and they actually took the remains of their dead loved ones, and they threw them onto the White House lawn. And if you haven’t seen it, it brings tears to your eyes to see this. And it wasn’t the only time that ACT UP activists approached President Bush, H.W. Bush, so dramatically. They did so at his home. And even on the night where he lost re-election, they took the body of one of their comrades, who had said he wanted to have a funeral of fury and anger—they took his body to Bush’s re-election headquarters. And that was because President H.W. Bush was not doing enough for HIV and AIDS. He was telling people that it was a matter of personal responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of that night. This is David Robinson on the night of the election.

DAVID ROBINSON: Last April, my lover, Warren—last April, my lover Warren died, and I was going to send his ashes to George Bush with a protest letter. And I talked with friends from New York who—I felt like that was going to be real private, you know, like no one would know about it. And they suggested bringing it to floor of ACT UP. They said they would personally support it. So they said, you know, “When you’re in New York, why don’t you bring it to the group?” So I presented it as a next step in the activism. I mean, lots of people have been talking about, if they die, having their bodies used in a political funeral. I think the quilt itself does good stuff and is moving. Still, it’s like making something beautiful out of the epidemic. And I felt like doing something like this is a way of showing there’s nothing beautiful about it. You know, this is what I’m left with. I’ve got a box full of ashes and bone chips. You know, there’s no beauty in that. And I felt like a statement like this, throwing these on the White House lawn…

ACT UP ACTIVISTS: Bringing the dead to your door, we won’t take it anymore! Bringing the dead to your door, we won’t take it anymore!

AMY GOODMAN: So, this was the moment in October of 1991, the ashes action, where the man you were just listening to, David Robinson, and many others threw the ashes of their loved ones who died onto the Bush lawn, the White House lawn. It was—I think it might have been 1992, actually, this action.

STEVEN THRASHER: So, yeah. So, this is a direct confrontation of how there just wasn’t enough action from the Bush administration. And he was telling gay people this is a matter of personal responsibility, sort of putting the responsibility back on them, on us. But in actuality, what caused the AIDS crisis and what made it continue to spiral out of control was inaction from the government. It was not enough funding and research in the beginning of the years. It was the stigma and the shame around gay sexuality that the Bush administration perpetuated. It was doing very harmful things that sort of tied together both militarism and a lack of access to healthcare.

For instance, President H.W. Bush, he was president when refugees from Haiti were trying to flee the coup in 1991, and the Bush administration didn’t want them to be able to claim asylum in the United States—something that we are familiar with again still now—and so they said, “Where can we put these people that’s sort of not in violation of international law and doesn’t let them into the country and that we have control over?” And they put them at Guantánamo Bay. And so they created an enormous refugee camp on Guantánamo Bay. They did a mass test of HIV of all the people there. They segregated 270 people, I believe, who were HIV-positive, and then they forcibly sterilized the women who were HIV-positive, without their knowledge. And that was not only a disaster for both the way that people with HIV and AIDS were treated, it also created the legal architecture for the Guantánamo prison base after 9/11, a decade later.

AMY GOODMAN: In the end of your piece, you say, “Sadly, gay journalists have been among the worst to immediately whitewash this part of Bush’s legacy. Frank Bruni published a gushing New York Times column on World AIDS Day,” you write, “without mentioning the words 'gay,' 'homosexual,' AIDS, or HIV. Meanwhile, over at the gay magazine the Advocate, Neal Broverman headlined his insipid revisionism 'George H.W. Bush, No Ally But No Enemy of LGBTQ People, Dead at 94.'”

STEVEN THRASHER: Yeah, it was something that when we started to see the hagiography, that really bothered me, the official Times obit also, written by Adam Nagourney, another out-gay journalist, and none of them are mentioning HIV or AIDS, or barely, if at all, mentioning anything about gay people. And it’s really quite disturbing, because when George H.W. Bush was president, AIDS was something that affected potentially all gay people. After drugs became available during the Clinton administration, a lot of white gay people got access to the drugs, and they stopped caring about AIDS. And it’s something that’s still very much a danger for us.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Thrasher, we thank you for being with us. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back in 30 seconds, a special interview with Bernie Sanders. We talk about George H.W. Bush. We talk about Yemen and more. Stay with us.

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