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How George H.W. Bush’s Death Is Irrelevant After World AIDS Day

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Keith Haring, Ignorance=Fear, 1989.

Guest Post by Max Silver

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 marked a National Day of mourning for President George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday, November 30. CNN has an article about it. The New York Times has it covered, too. You already know Fox News is going to spin this story up till New Year’s Eve. If they could have it their way, they’d probably mourn his death for years as a current event. Even Google honored the 41stU.S. President’s passing, with a solemn, gray-lettered theme set as their logo-of-the-day.

Google honoring President George H.W. Bush, 1924-2018

However, this man’s death is irrelevant. Why? Because December 1, 2018, marked World AIDS Day, an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS Pandemic caused by the spread of HIV. It was a day for the millions of people around the globe who are still infected, as well as remembering all those who died, who are still dying, every day, from this fatal disease. At least Google made a logo to bring global awareness to this life-threatening crisis on World AIDS Day on December 1, right? Nope. Not this year, not the last. Not ever. Feel free to check the Google Doodle Archive for zero results on “World AIDS Day.”

According to HIV.gov, more than 1.1. million people are living in this country with HIV today, and 1 in 7 aren’t even aware that they have it. An estimated 38,500 Americans became newly infected in the year 2015 alone. Yet Google, and the majority of U.S. mainstream media-outlets, would rather focus our attention on prayers and reflections for Papa Bush. Well then, if it’s reflections they want, let’s reflect on what his administration did to prevent this ongoing crisis from getting worse during his presidency from 1989 to 1993 (Hint: Not much.)

George H.W. Bush swearing in as Director of Central Intelligence, 1976

Prior to his ascension to the throne of POTUS, George H.W. Bush served as Vice President to Ronald Reagan. He had previously held the Office of U.S. Director of Central Intelligence, a title that technically no longer exists but formerly made him head of the CIA. You can’t be the head of a federal spy-network and not know about a new outbreak in multiple continents around the world… Okay, maybe you can, considering the capacities of the men currently seated in “greater” positions of power in the U.S. government today.

By the time George H.W. Bush became President in 1989, AIDS/ HIV was already devastating people’s lives in this country. The first cases in which the disease was recognized in the U.S. occurred in 1981, with five young, previously healthy gay men who had contracted a rare lung disease called Pneumocystis carinii pneumoniaThe disease was initially called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) by an article in the New York Times on May 11, 1982. Cases were also being reported by drug-users through the injection of used needles. That same year, the disease was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, perhaps grudgingly when the CDC received reports of women who had contracted the disease from their male sexual partners, because now government-officials were forced to admit that this epidemic threatened communities within the heteronormative range, not just homosexuals, Black people, and other marginalized groups whose civil-rights were met with cruel resistance during the Reagan era.

On May 25, 1983, AIDS was finally mentioned on the front-page of the New York Times as the “No. 1 priority” of the United States Public Health Service. Six years later, George H.W. Bush is nominated for presidency. There are at least 100,000 reported cases of AIDS in the United States at this time.

AIDS activist Ryan White, circa 1989

Sure, towards the end of his term Bush did two good things. He signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which forbade discrimination against people living with the disease, and he also signed the Ryan White Care Act, the largest federally funded program for HIV/AIDS patients. However, it is not likely that either of these decisions were made by his initiative. Rather, those bills came into existence by leadership in activism and in Congress, not his leadership.

In an interview hosted by NPR’s Ailsa Chang with Urvashi Vaid, who led the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1989 to 1992, President George H. W. Bush “submitted appropriations bills each year on HIV that were inadequate and had to be increased by pressure brought on Congress. He opposed needle exchange programs that could have saved thousands of lives.”

The White House chose not to treat the nation’s “No 1. Priority” with compassion or expediency, because at first it appeared to be affecting LGBT and POC communities, the people who did not fit within the narrow parameters of conservative-political agendas aimed at the good white Christian majority of the American middle-class. Bush was not nearly as callous as Reagan – whose administration regarded “the gay plague” as some sort of amusing joke to be shared among colleagues – but it is apparent that ol’ Papa Bush’s efforts to stop HIV/AIDS were lazy and sluggish at best, if not contributing to the problem itself by ignoring the growing numbers of casualties while spreading false information to the masses. Bush defunded safe-sex programs and condom distribution, advocating instead for abstinence and “behavioral change”.

What happens when sexual-education programs are defunded amidst an epidemic involving a disease that can be sexually transmitted? Bush was the head of CIA before he became President. He probably knew the answer to that question, just as he knew that the evangelical vote held more sway with GOP than the vote of a dying queer.

Marchers at San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade carry signs for the Stop AIDS Project. June 29, 1986. Roger Sandler, photographer. 

I’m not going to pretend like I am catering to an audience of conservative readers with this article. Those people will love this man, and think of him as a President of great historical significance no matter what I say. However, there are liberals, Democrats, and free-thinking individuals out there who praise Papa Bush’s character nonetheless. That is not what this article is about. The point here is not to slander a dead man’s name based on his attributes as a person of character. That is irrelevant.

This article is about the legacy that President George H.W. Bush left behind with the termination of his executive office. If you look at what his administration did not do to save countless lives from HIV/AIDS for the sake of remaining popular in this country’s poles as a President, it is apparent that media is missing the point when they focus on the death of this man. They glaze over the adverse effects of his policies on millions of lives.

Nowadays, via the Trump administration, budget-cuts are defunding HIV/AIDS research, education, and prevention…yet again. We are still in the same epidemic from 1981, which was pre-existing in the ’70’s and might have been around even earlier with evidence of sporadic cases in the United States in the 1930’s. President George H.W. Bush died at the age of 94 several days ago. The whole nation mourns his loss. Google and other multinational companies lament him as well.  The damage he caused to this country, the deaths he deliberately ignored, can never be undone. But, he is gone now, and that makes Papa Bush irrelevant. HIV/AIDS, however, is still with us.

As of 2017, an estimated 36.9 million people around the globe are living with HIV. Think about that the next time December 1 shows up and Google chooses to remain silent.

Edith Alvarez’s 2012 mixed-media work “AIDS is Not Over”


Max Silver, born in Los Angeles and raised in San Francisco, is a Bay Area writer and illustrator. He writes journalism, fiction, sci-fi, historical fantasy, and he also draws comics and cartoon-animations. After college at Santa Cruz, Max moved to Chicago where he performed stand-up comedy. He then moved down to New Orleans, where he played clawhammer banjo and improvised lyrics for a living, before he moved back up to Chicago and eventually returned to the West Coast. Nowadays, Max is happily married and lives in the East Bay.

Follow Max on Instagram, @the_underhound or @sangfroidbooksinc for Sangfroid Books, Inc.

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