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.

“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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>