The Politics of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Historians and Histories

Type: Paper Session

Tags: LGBTQ History and Queer Studies; Politics; Women's History


Epidemics do not announce themselves but “arrive on cats’ paws,” noted public health scholars Ronald Bayer and Gerald Oppenheimer. Medical professionals documented the first footfalls of what came to be known as HIV/AIDS in the summer of 1981 when mysterious maladies were noted among five gay men. The condition soon mushroomed into the greatest public health crisis since World War II. More than 700,000 people have died of AIDS in the U.S., and 1.2 million people (half of them fifty years of age or older) are HIV positive today. Any epidemic of this magnitude would have posed a monumental challenge, but the demographics of HIV raised stark question of rights and inequalities that challenged “the straight state.” The epidemic initially affected primarily gay men, injection drug users, and hemophiliacs. Although women were at risk, gendered assumptions inhibited that recognition for some time. By the 1990s HIV affected, disproportionately, people of color. Today half of all African American men who have sex with men are predicted to become HIV positive. HIV/AIDS broke along major fault lines of American politics: It first affected primarily reviled minorities (gay men and drug users) and came to be embroiled in the maelstrom of racial politics. The methods of transmission – sex and drugs – were topics politicians prefer to avoid, noted Peter Piot, the United Nations under secretary who headed the organization’s HIV effort. For some politicians, the outsider status of the groups most affected sanctioned indifference and even made them inviting targets. The purpose of this session is to analyze some key facets of the politics of AIDS in the first twenty years of the epidemic in the U.S. Presidential leadership was largely absent. Although the Ronald Reagan administration’s indifference, even hostility, is well known, the internal dynamics of administration decision making invite further analysis. Some believe George H.W. Bush wished to take more constructive action, but he yielded to a conservative backlash and was willing to stigmatize people with AIDS (PWAs) for political purposes. Bill Clinton told PWAs “I feel your pain” but shrank from politically risky interventions. Although the politics of AIDS is sometimes framed in a liberal/conservative dichotomy, the reality is more complicated. Most liberal politicians wanted to avoid talking about sex and drugs. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a notable exception. Drawing on his extensive background in welfare politics, he worked to provide support for PWAs through the Social Security system. His approach to HIV politics engaged the enduring debate about the state’s responsibility in the context of the “deserving” and “undeserving.” The ripples of AIDS politics included significant participation by women activists, who mobilized to inform women about their risks of HIV, press the government (and some male-dominated activist groups) to recognize the health care needs of HIV-positive women, and to broaden the struggle to include reproductive rights. AIDS politics moved from the margins to the center of American political discourse.

Papers Presented

The Plague and the Presidents: AIDS Avoidance by Reagan, Bush, and Clinton

This paper has two purposes. First, we will introduce new archival research on three presidents’ responses to HIV/AIDS in the critical first twenty years of the epidemic. For the Ronald Reagan administration, we will extend the pioneering archival research of Jennifer Brier. Archival records for the George H. W. Bush administration have received little historical attention. We are among the first historians to use records related to HIV at the Bill Clinton presidential library. We will use records newly opened in response to our Freedom of Information Act requests. We will use these archival sources for our second purpose—an interpretation of presidential inaction during the first twenty years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The Reagan administration’s indifference—even hostility—is well known, but Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Admiral James Watkins bucked the president’s advisers from the religious Right. The Bush administration reluctantly supported the Ryan White Care Act, the landmark federal support HIV program. Although Clinton promised new focus on HIV, he sidestepped the gnarly political issues. He blocked federal funding for needl-exchange programs, even though they were demonstrated to save lives. The Congressional Black Caucus pushed Clinton toward action on HIV in Africa. The United States enacted “the very best and the very worst” HIV policies, observed public health scholar Ronald Bayer. New research on presidential decision making provides depth to understanding how stigma and a rhetoric of the deserving and undeserving inhibited presidential leadership in the greatest public health crisis of the post–World War II era.

Presented By
Clayton R. Koppes, Oberlin CollegeDavid L. Kelly

Queering the “Welfare Queen”: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Democratic Party, and the HIV/AIDS Crisis in the 1980s

Few federal politicians were willing to take a lead on policy related to the AIDS crisis during the Ronald Reagan era. One who did was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic heavyweight who was no stranger to social policy debates. As author of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965, Moynihan had stirred up considerable controversy on questions of poverty and social justice, and spent a considerable part of his political career working on Social Security and welfare issues. In this paper I analyze his role in forming congressional responses to the AIDS crisis in the light of his broader interest in welfare reform. I begin by examining his work on Social Security reform in the early 1980s, deploying a queer reading of the deserving/undeserving tropes used in the reform debates, before looking at how he brought the assumptions of liberal social policy into his efforts to secure health and welfare coverage for people with AIDS. I argue that liberal policy making often used similar ideological arguments about sexuality that informed their assumptions about race and poverty twenty years earlier.

Presented By
Jonathan William Bell, University College London

Of Childbearing Age: AIDS, Reproduction, and the Reagan Administration, 1981–1989

This paper examines an extensive body of women’s writings, activist records, and direct action protests to show that a driving question that framed women’s organizing in the 1980s was what effect AIDS might have on women’s reproductive rights. Activists understood the unique challenges women faced regarding AIDS both in light of the Reagan administration’s efforts to restrict funding of family-planning services, and in light of the reproductive abuses of the past, when low-income women of color were vulnerable to pressure for institutionally prescribed abortion and sterilization. This paper sets the early response to AIDS among women against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s America and shows how activists learned about the emerging epidemic to inform women of their risk of infection while at the same time petitioning the federal government for equal access to medical care. My wider doctoral dissertation, “Out of the Silence: Women Protesting the AIDS Epidemic, 1980–2018,” examines the effect AIDS has had on women and the central role HIV-positive women have played in the concurrent political debates over abortion, sexual education, and mass incarceration in the United States from the 1980s to the present day. I analyze late twentieth-century U.S. history through the lens of HIV and put women into spaces where they are often narratively excluded. In doing so, I place the AIDS epidemic, and in particular women’s resistance to it, at the center of U.S. politics and society in the 1980s and 1990s and trace its prominence to the present day.

Presented By
Emma Day, University of Oxford

Session Participants

Chair: Ramón Gutiérrez, University of Chicago
Ramon Gutierrez, Preston and Sterling Morton professor of history at the University of Chicago, is a distinguished figure in American history. A MacArthur fellow, he is the well known author of When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away :Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Before teaching at Chicago, he served on the faculties of the University of California at San Diego (where he was also associate chancellor) and Pomona College. His work in the history sexuality and gender makes him particularly suited to participate in this session.

Presenter: Jonathan William Bell, University College London
Jonathan Bell is professor of US History and Head of Department of the Institute of the Americas at University College London. He is the author of The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Liberalism in the Truman Years (Columbia University Press, 2004), California Crucible: The Forging of Modern American Liberalism (Penn Press, 2012), and editor of Making Sense of American Liberalism (U of Illinois Press, 2012) (with Tim Stanley), and Beyond the Politics of the Closet: Gay Rights and the American State since the 1970s (Penn Press, 2019), and numerous articles and chapters. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between LGBT communities and the health and welfare systems in the US.

Presenter: Emma Day, University of Oxford
Emma Day is a DPhil candidate in US History at the University of Oxford, England. Her doctoral dissertation examines the role and treatment of women in the US AIDS epidemic from the 1980s to the present day. She has received a number of awards in support of her research, including fellowships from the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University and from the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. Her article, “Native Women, AIDS Activism, and the Coatlicue Theatre Company in the United States” appears in Theatre Annual: A Journal of Theatre and Performance of the Americas, Vol. 71 (2018). She holds an MSt in US History from the University of Oxford and a BA in History from University College London.

Presenter: David L. Kelly
David Kelly has been involved in AIDS care and advocacy since the early 1990s. He worked with the Upper Room and Harlem United AIDS ministries in New York and, upon moving to Los Angeles, became a member of the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV. He has participated in American and international AIDS conferences and been involved in lobbying and activism with governmental agencies and pharmaceutical companies. Kelly earned several awards for his work in AIDS counseling and advocacy. He is a member of the Community Advisory Boards for the HIV and Aging Research Project in Palm Springs, California, and Case Western Reserve Medical School/University Hospitals HIV Trials group in Cleveland, Ohio.
Kelly earned his B.A. at Yale in 1984, where he was president of the Black Church at Yale and vice chair of the Afro-American Cultural Center board of directors.  He holds an M.B.A. from New York University and a J.D. from Fordham.  Based in Palm Springs, he is active as a writer and performer. He is a member of the board of the California LGBT Arts Alliance and Palm Springs Public Library board of trustees.
Kelly’s perspective unites scholarly research and personal experience. With Clayton Koppes, he presented a paper on the history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. at the Australian History Association annual meeting in July 2018 and anticipates making a related presentation at the New Zealand American Studies meeting in July 2019.

Presenter: Clayton R. Koppes, Oberlin College

Clayton R. Koppes, professor of history at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, has served as faculty member and administrator since 1978. He was Oberlin’s acting president (twice), provost, and academic dean.

His research focuses on the politics and culture of HIV/AIDS in the United States. With David Kelly, he presented a paper on the history of AIDS in American at the Australian History Association’s annual meeting in July 2018. He and Kelly have done research at the Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton presidential libraries, as well as important archival collections related to HIV/AIDS activism. Koppes and Kelly anticipate presenting their research at history conferences in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020 as they prepare scholarly publications.

Koppes is the author of JPL: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the American Space Program, which was published by Yale University Press and won the Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for the best book in the history of technology. With Gregory D. Black, he wrote Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, published by The Free Press and reissued by the University of California Press. He continues to work on the history of movie censorship in the United States and English-speaking world. Koppes has published widely in academic journals, including three articles in the Journal of American History, and presented at many scholarly conferences in the U.S. and other countries. He is an OAH life member.

23 January 2019

Commentator: Jesse Milan Jr., AIDS United
One of the principal current spokespersons for HIV/AIDS issues, JESSE MILAN is president of AIDS United, based in Washington, DC. AIDS United’s goal is to end the HIV epidemic through advocacy, grant making, and capacity building. Operating with a staff of 35 people, AIDS United has disbursed more than $113 million in grants in recent years.
Milan has been a principal figure in HIV/AIDS advocacy, care, and politics since the early 1990s. He has been living with HIV for thirty-five years. Milan is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief). PEPFAR has received $70 billion in appropriations since 2003 and saved millions of lives, principally in Africa. He has undertaken three speaking tours in Africa under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.
Milan also serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council of the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.  He is chair emeritus of the Black AIDS Institute, former head of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, and former AIDS director for the city of Philadelphia.
A native of Kansas, Milan received his BA degree from Princeton University and his JD degree from New York University. He previously served as chief of staff for the president of Temple University and deputy solicitor for the city of Philadelphia.