Remember when AIDS was funny? When the health crisis disproportionately affecting gay men was met with a stunning lack of compassion? That's the basic thrust of a new documentary short that premiered Tuesday on Vanity Fair's website.
In When AIDS Was Funny, filmmaker Scott Calonico cuts together audio recordings from three White House press briefings between 1982 and 1985 with photos of AIDS patients from the same era. The end result underlines just how ineffective President Ronald Reagan's administration was at tackling the crisis (not that they even tried for many years). Here's a breakdown of just some of the deeply rooted homophobia at play in Press Secretary Larry Speakes' answers.
1. Complete and utter ignorance
More than 850 people had already died from complications of AIDS in the U.S. by the time of this 1982 press briefing, most of them gay men. The fact that HIV and AIDS had also been known as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) and, less formally, the "gay plague," no doubt contributed to the Reagan administration's state of self-willed ignorance.
2. Deflective gay jokes
Despite not knowing what AIDS was—or at least feigning ignorance of the crisis surrounding it—Speakes proceeds to make locker room jokes about it once press pool reporter Lester Kinsolving refers to the disease as the "gay plague."
3. The '82 press secretary equivalent of "no homo"
4. A casual joke about the Lavender Scare
When Speakes said that Kinsolving should "stay over there" in the State Department, he's most likely referencing the hundreds of alleged and confirmed non-straight people who were fired from the State Department back in the '50s. These "sexual perverts" were deemed "security risks" to the government's Cold War effort by the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy because they could be easily compromised by blackmail and were generally believed to be morally bankrupt. (You can read more about the "Cold War persecution of gays and lesbians in the federal government" in David K. Johnson's The Lavender Scare.)
5. Attempts to shame Lester Kinsolving for doing his job as a journalist
Because if you're a reporter who asks questions about a health crisis that had taken the lives of more than 2,300 people by 1983, you must be gay.
6. Deafening silence from President Reagan himself
As Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson notes in his write-up of When AIDS Was Funny, President Ronald Reagan didn't publicly comment on the AIDS crisis until his second term in 1985, when more than 5,000 people had died in the U.S.
7. A total lack of interest in the health crisis
Did I mention that this guy was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1987? Because this guy was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1987.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.