When Ronald Reagan died on June 5, many gay Americans lost no tears. The conventional view in gay political circles is that Reagan, a strong conservative, was virulently anti-gay. In this view, Reagan was propelled to office by the newly powerful religious right, and repaid that support with socially conservative administration appointments and policies. (Most unforgivably, according to the conventional view, Reagan did nothing while thousands of gay men died of AIDS. That's a charge I'll address in my next column.) The truth about Reagan and gays, however, is more complicated.
Start with the notion that Reagan himself was anti-gay. Like most of us, Reagan reflected the prejudices of his times. Born in 1911, he grew up in a small-town world that misunderstood and feared homosexuality. He was 62 by the time homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental disorders. According to biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan shared the common view of his time that homosexuality was a sickness. He was not above telling jokes about gays.
Still, perhaps because he worked with gay actors in Hollywood and had gay friends, Reagan was relatively tolerant. Cannon notes that Reagan was "respectful of the privacy of others" and was "not the sort of person who bothers about what people do in their own bedrooms." This attitude was consistent with Reagan's larger philosophical commitment to individual liberty and limited government.
Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis (the politically liberal one), recounted on Time magazine's website that she and her father once watched an awkward kiss between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in a movie. Reagan explained to his daughter that the closeted Hudson would have preferred to kiss a man. "This was said in the same tone that would be used if he had been telling me about people with different colored eyes," recalled Davis, "and I accepted without question that this whole kissing thing wasn't reserved just for men and women."
During Reagan's presidency the first openly gay couple spent a night together in the White House. In a column for The Washington Post on March 18, 1984, Robert Kaiser described the sleep-over: "[The Reagans'] interior decorator, Ted Graber, who oversaw the redecoration of the White House, spent a night in the Reagans' private White House quarters with his male lover, Archie Case, when they came to Washington for Nancy Reagan's 60th birthday party. . . . Indeed, all the available evidence suggests that Ronald Reagan is a closet tolerant."
Tolerance is not acceptance, however, and Reagan made it clear in speeches that he would not cross the line to the latter. Said Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign: "My criticism is that [the gay 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."
Aside from his tolerant personal attitude, Reagan's actual record on civil liberties for gays was surprisingly good. Cannon reports that Reagan was "repelled by the aggressive public crusades against homosexual life styles which became a staple of right wing politics in the late 1970s."
In 1978, for example, Reagan vigorously opposed a California ballot initiative sponsored by religious conservatives that would have barred homosexuals from teaching in the public schools. The timing is significant because he was then preparing to run for president, a race in which he would need the support of conservatives and moderates very uncomfortable with homosexual teachers. As Cannon puts it, Reagan was "well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue" but nevertheless "chose to state his convictions."
Reagan penned an op-ed against the so-called Briggs Initiative in which he wrote, "Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. 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." This was a remarkably progressive thing for a politician, especially a conservative one about to run for president, to say in 1978. The Briggs Initiative was overwhelmingly defeated. Its sponsors blamed Reagan for the defeat.
Nor does Reagan's record as president support the view that he was strongly anti-gay. Reagan was not much worse on gay issues than Jimmy Carter, his opponent in 1980, who avoided even meeting with gay groups. Walter Mondale, Reagan's opponent in 1984, received only tepid gay support, according to gay activist Urvashi Vaid in her book Virtual Equality. Neither Carter nor Mondale made support for any gay rights measure an issue in their respective campaigns, though their party's platform included a gay rights plank.
The military's ban on service by homosexuals was firmly in place long before Reagan became president. It remained in force during his tenure, of course, but discharges for homosexuality declined every single year of Reagan's presidency, suggesting the administration wasn't interested in anti-gay witch-hunts.
It's true that no pro-gay legislation, like an employment non-discrimination bill, made headway during the Reagan years. But anti-gay legislation also made little progress. Reagan often talked the talk of religious conservatism, but he did not often walk the walk.
His priorities were elsewhere: reviving the country's morale, strengthening national defense to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, limiting the growth of the federal government, and boosting the economy. At each of these, Reagan succeeded brilliantly. Gays, like all other Americans, continue to benefit from his legacy.