Why won't George W. Bush talk about AIDS?

Texas gays say their governor's "compassionate conservatism" doesn't include them.

Topics: George W. Bush, AIDS, Healthcare Reform, LGBT, Texas,

Since George W. Bush took office as Texas governor, 9,921 Texans have died of AIDS and 19,532 new cases have been diagnosed. Texas ranks fourth in the country — behind only New York, California and Florida — for reported AIDS cases.

In those 60 months, Bush has never said the word AIDS publicly in either a health, social or policy statement, according to leading AIDS organization leaders on a city, county and state level, reporters covering the governor’s office, and gay community leaders.

“To the best of my knowledge he has never even said the word AIDS, in any form,” says Rep. Glen Maxey, the state’s only openly gay legislator. Echoes Don Maison, executive director of AIDS Services of Dallas: “Through the context of funding on AIDS and HIV and through two legislative sessions that we’ve been through with him, there’s no AIDS record.”

“AIDS? He’s never mentioned the word,” says Harry Livesay, the former director of advocacy and public policy for Bering Community Service Foundation, an AIDS service organization in Houston. Livesay founded the HIV policy group that brings together the state’s agencies to work on HIV and AIDS policy.

Technically, Bush has in fact said the word “AIDS,” Livesay admits, but only in “letters of commendation to organizations on anniversaries, or things like, ‘Laura and I join you in praying for recovery from AIDS,’” Livesay says.

A senior Texas official, who oversees and sets policy in the AIDS and HIV field, and who spoke only under the cover of anonymity, said that “in my … years [in this position], I have not heard AIDS addressed publicly” by Bush.

AIDS is off Bush’s radar screen, period. Bush is the only governor in the country who ignored an urgent letter in September from Children Uniting Nations chairwoman Daphna Ziman for feedback or resources regarding the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

“Forty nine governors responded, including his brother,” says Ziman, who just received the global peace and tolerance lifetime achievement award from the Friends of the U.N., along with Mikhail Gorbachev. “I mean, it’s a crisis for everyone. Ten million children with AIDS, can you imagine? One governor helped to arrange the shipment of 100,000 basketballs. Gray Davis offered me the support from the medical facilities at UCLA. We sent Bush the letter twice. A letter and a fax. We didn’t want to take a chance.”

Ziman says flatly: “When it comes to AIDS, I just think he doesn’t care.”

POZ magazine reported this summer that a request to Bush spokeswoman Linda Edwards for transcripts of Bush’s statements addressing AIDS yielded nothing beyond congratulations and condolences sentiments. A request last week by Salon News was fielded by Bush campaign spokesman Scott McLellan, who said he would respond. No transcripts were sent, and the Bush campaign offered no comment on the governor’s AIDS record.

While the national media has painted Bush in lavender-friendly hues, at least partly because he doesn’t engage in the gay-baiting rhetoric of a Pat Buchanan, gay, lesbian and gay-friendly Texans are alienated across the board.

AIDS is only one of several hot-button gay and lesbian issues Bush has at best ignored and at worst opposed since he took office in January 1995. He vehemently opposes both same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian child adoption. The latter has raised the ire even of gay Republican Log Cabin leader Rich Tafel, who thus far has maintained a measured response to Bush. Tafel hopes Bush is still open to being convinced.

“If he doesn’t think gays are fit to be parents, that would be a serious issue for an organization like ours,” Tafel says. “That’s an issue our members are asking about.”

It is common knowledge in political circles as well as among gay leaders that Bush scuttled the Texas hate-crimes bill that would have protected gays from discrimination based on sexual orientation. “Everyone knew that all he had to do was give the signal and the hate crimes bill would have sailed through,” says Maxey.

During his first-term election campaign, Bush allowed his strategists to use gay rights as a wedge issue, baiting then-Gov. Ann Richards for her support of repealing anti-sodomy laws. Once elected, Bush appointed a health commissioner unpopular with the gay community for his support of mandatory AIDS testing.

You Might Also Like

“He has been totally ineffective in dealing with HIV and AIDS issues as well as issues that are important to the gay and lesbian community, especially the hate-crime bill,” says Francisco Sanchez, the openly gay secretary of the Harris County Democratic Party.

Tim Thetford, a legislative aide to Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, thinks Texas gays need to alert gays around the country to Bush’s policies.

“I think we need to make a statement that we have a do-nothing governor on gay and lesbian issues who is paternalistic and will avoid any confrontational issue,” says Thetford. “I think it’s more dangerous to have a president who ignores our concerns than it is to have one who opposed them. At least we can dialogue with someone who opposes us.”

Bush’s blind eye toward the gay community has also been apparent to the local press. “He has never been that sympathetic to gay issues,” notes Wendy Benjaminson, the political editor of the Houston Chronicle. “He is not sympathetic on hate crimes, on gay adoption or gay marriage.”

Bush’s attitude toward gays was reported in an exclusive story by political reporter Polly Hughes on the cover of the Houston Chronicle on Aug. 19. Maxey disclosed to Hughes what had been whispered about since the spring: a private conversation between the governor and Maxey, an openly gay legislator, after a particularly grueling legislative battle. According to Maxey, Bush pulled him aside and confided, out of earshot: “I value you as a human being, Glen, and I want you to know that what I say publicly about gay people is not directed at you personally.”

Though the Bush camp dismissed Maxey’s story as partisan spin, rumors had been circulating for months because Maxey had immediately after the exchange repeated the story verbatim to colleagues sitting nearby. “Do you believe what Bush just said to me?” is how a fellow legislator, who requested anonymity, described the interaction. Maxey also reported the story to several colleagues within days, and to another newspaper reporter, who confirmed the alleged Bush-Maxey exchange, but had not reported it because at the time Maxey had revealed if off the record.

But the cover story raising the issue of Bush’s two faces toward the gay community barely made a ripple outside of Texas, because it collided with the late-summer firestorm that consumed the national media at the time: the did-he-or-didn’t-he cocaine story. “We got the Maxey story the same day that the cocaine story broke, and it got overshadowed,” Benjaminson says.

Another Bush trait that has dogged him on the campaign trail — his unpreparedness on issues that don’t personally interest him — has been a longstanding irritation to Texas’ gay community.

“There was a major demonstration in March, 6,000-8,000 marching to protest anti-gay-and-lesbian foster care and adoption legislation. The next day he’s asked, ‘Where do you stand?’” Maxey recalls. “He has no answer. None … That kind of demonstration, and the very next day he’s totally unprepared to respond.”

Sanchez admits he is watching the Bush campaign with concern. “Over the past seven years [of the Clinton administration] we’ve seen tremendous progress at the executive level in how gays and lesbians are treated in the federal workplace and in the provision of health-care services and in the funding of HIV and AIDS issues. Those have been large-scale executive initiatives,” says Sanchez. “If you put a person in that office who has exhibited no leadership in those areas, then we either don’t move forward or we fall back, very far back.”

Cliff Rothman writes about politics and culture for Vanity Fair, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>