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

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

By Cliff Rothman
Published November 19, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

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

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

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Aids George W. Bush Healthcare Reform Lgbt Texas