Today is the centenary of the birth of the American president under whose regime the American people developed the slogan “SILENCE = DEATH” to describe his, and much of our country’s, silence in the face of a plague killing thousands of people thought to be disposable. It is the centenary of the president under whom more than 200 Marines were ambushed in their scantily-protected barracks in Lebanon, causing him to withdraw our troops from the region and birthing a narrative of run-away-Americans that continues to animate the world view of cave-dwelling radicals in faraway Afghanistan.
It is the centenary of the president who, to distract Americans from feeling bad about the US Marines’ largest one-day loss of life since Iwo Jima in WW2, and a year before his re-election campaign, launched an invasion of an unthreatening Caribbean nation two days after our Marines died in Lebanon — based on the socialist leaning of the elected president of Granada and some scared medical students who couldn’t gain admission to real American medical schools.
It is the centennial of the birth of the president who launched his general election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Chaney, a 21-year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi; Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old white Jewish anthropology student from New York; and Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old white Jewish CORE organizer and former social worker also from New York, were murdered sixteen years before: civil rights workers seeking to register African-American voters in the deep South and lynched for their trouble. And this presidential candidate, now the nominee of a major party and likely the next president, used in this maiden speech the phrase “states’ rights” to leave no doubt as to his tacit appeal to the Southern whites who remembered, or were related to, or who found not guilty, the lynchers of those three brave young men.
And surely this president whose centenary we note today was uninformed about any Paris negotiations with the Iranian mullahs prior to his election about the release of the American hostages held in Tehran — released immediately after he took the oath as President. Just as he was uninformed during his presidency of the outlaw foreign policy going on in the White House, right under his nose, that contravened the law of the land in so many ways: criminal dealings with Iran, illegally funding the contras, using funds obtained illegally, repeatedly lying to Congress.
All of this on his watch, and yet unknown to him.
Truman might have nationalized the steel companies, and JFK jawboned the steel manufacturers over their prices, but this new president knew what part of the workplace contract he was hired to break: the workers’ side. He’d done it as the head of the Screen Actors’ Guild, betraying his members while providing protection to several young starlets, one of them the fellatio-talented Nancy Davis, who became his astrologist-obsessed Lady MacBeth, or Second-Hand Rose as she styled herself cleverly for Village tastemakers overwhelmed by her first-year White House spending. The money flowed like it never had before in Washington, as did the liquor, and other party favors.
The GOP rode this man to power so that they could steal, and party, on the taxpayers’ dime. It was their turn, damnit: the California Mafia wanted in. And with today’s Century Boy, they got who they needed — a dim and trusting “amiable dunce” who wouldn’t inquire too much about the kleptocracy growing up around him.
And who better than he could say the platitudes — “they slipped the surly bonds of earth… and touched the face of God” weren’t his own words, said when the Challenger blew up under pressure to make political deadlines in untested cold weather. But he made those words his own — better than any crooner or speaker they’d ever put up before. He managed to convert many Democrats to his team as he implemented long-term debt policies that crippled their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ financial futures.
The kids who lived to see their futures, that is.
Because, besides the sin of the Church of Trickle-Down, the apostasy of the Catechism that Tax Cuts Pay for Themselves, the first proof that Deficits Don’t Matter, the first flawed postulate that Government’s Not the Solution, Government’s the Problem, today’s Century Lad made one critical misstep when it came to public health.
SILENCE = DEATH
And thousands of Americans died for this silence.
Millions of earthlings have perished because this sudden health emergency wasn’t treated as the public health crisis it clearly was — because it had to do with buttsex. Because Ronald Reagan was, um, squeamish about the buttsex — and therefore unwilling to talk about or hear much about The Gays at all — AIDS didn’t get talked about in his Administration.
I lived in Washington DC in the eighties and saw the lads who’d come to that City on a Hill to implement the Reagan Revolution: single men who thought they’d escaped the bounds of their small towns or less cosmopolitan cities, who figured that they could lead their private lives privately, not “out” as people were starting to call it, until they got sick and had to head back home for care. Because the public care for AIDS in DC wasn’t about white boys, and no one at work wanted to hear about your “liver cancer” — so many nice teetotalers jetting home across the nation to mom and dad’s to see a liver specialist back home, only to die unheard from six months later, a small obit in their local paper mentioning “an unexpected blood disorder” or, bravely, “an acquired immune disorder.”
SILENCE = DEATH
But, mostly, liver cancer. It was an acceptable disease to say upstairs at the White House, apparently, because Nancy didn’t want to hear the word “AIDS” nor did her husband.
The politically explosive secret they knew they were keeping about their young son Ron brought them too close to their fears about this disease — they would not have the name spoken of in their presence, you see. Ballet dancer in New York, no girlfriends in the picture, probably “the Talk” at least with mom if not dad too — and suddenly this Syndrome the US government is unsuccessfully ignoring comes tap-tap-tapping at the Family Quarters upstairs at the White House.
That’s what made it really scary, I believe: no one knew how gay men were getting AIDS, no one know what to tell us about how NOT to get it, and no one was helping us gays figure anything out about it, because we were pretty much the reviled people we still are today, but without today’s exceptions like “It Gets Better,” Congressman Jared Polis, and GLEE.
We were figuring it out on our own, in storefronts and living rooms where gay people came and talked about what they’d read and what they’d heard and what their gay friends in other cities were hearing and reading. We didn’t have the government to help us, at all.
SILENCE = DEATH
“By the time President Reagan had delivered his first speech on the epidemic, of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with the disease; 20, 849 had died.”
That’s how I’ll always remember Hundred-Years-Boy. Today, tomorrow, and forever. I long ago counted my Hundredth Friend dead from AIDS, probably before this century dawned. 26 funerals and services: that was my 1987. 1986 and 1988 weren’t very different. Even into the nineties, the dirty secret of the Magic Protease Inhibitors is that, sure, there are a Lazarus or two among us, men who rose from their deathbeds and now race their bikes down the California coast to raise money for AIDS research. But: there were also lots and lots of people for whom the Magic Protease Inhibitor drugs of the nineties did not work, or were too late, or couldn’t get ahead of quick-developing resistance.
The Virus mutates fast when antidotes are introduced into its system, you see. It’s smart enough, and determined enough, to find ways to live despite the presence of drugs designed to stop its replication. So the pace — or at least the fucking START — of research was critically important. If we’d had the ramped-up research money to get us to Protease Inhibitors by the mid-eighties, how many lives would have been saved?
How many deathbeds I sat at could have had a Lazarus rise from them in 1988? 1989? 1990? 1991? 1992?
And through the nineties and well into this century, still we see, amidst the best peer-based prevention efforts money can buy, the continuing cycle: two seroconversions every single day in San Francisco. It’s unchanged, relentless (in a city where needle-infections have been ended through compassionate access to new points and where pregnant moms learn to treat themselves well enough to deliver uninfected children) but people get HIV through unprotected buttsex.
Still: the failure of prevention, that two San Franciscans get HIV every day, that in any random group of three gay men in that city, one will be HIV+. That failure goes to the shame, the silence, the fear of talking about sex, buttsex, homosex, with those who would indulge.
SILENCE = DEATH
Own it, Ronnie Reagan.
Among all your other fading and discredited contributions to American culture and the world, it is this concept: that we will die if we don’t talk about something that will endure. It is the one saving grace I can find in the eight years you reigned over us from the Oval Office — and the 12 worthless and destructive echo-years of your puppet/puppeteers the Bushes.
At least your failure taught us to talk about our disease and ourselves when we’re sick. And then we taught other sick people to talk about their disease, helping to bring cancer patients out of their own closet, empowering patients everywhere to demand solutions and cures and prevention strategies. We taught people they “had a disease” not that they were its “victim” or “sufferer.” And we made people know that our disease was not us.
SAY ITS NAME. TAKE ITS POWER. NAME IT.
And, finally, we showed that people can demand that our government help find the solution. Given modern, technologically advanced 21st century medicine, it is, in fact, the least we should expect from our government.
A government that is the solution, not the problem — like the one you promised and delivered for so many of my dead friends, Century Boy.