How do we mourn a president with a mixed record on civil rights?
President George H. W. Bush passed away at the age of ninety-four, seven months after his wife, Barbara Bush. And as the nation comes to mourn the passing of a president, one seen by many as a stark contrast to President Trump, many are also shining a spotlight on President Bush’s record on human and civil rights.
Bush’s inaction exacerbated HIV/AIDs epidemic.
As it pertains to LGBTQ rights and the HIV/AIDs epidemi, many, including myself, are left with mixed reactions.
When protesters criticized him for not doing enough to solve the HIV/AIDs crisis, he told reporters at a news conference that, "Here's a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior. You can't do that in cancer."
This reflects the thinking at the time that homosexuality was a choice and that gay people could choose not to be gay.
His views on the issue and his inaction contributed to the exacerbation of the epidemic.
Bush’s views on homosexuality in general.
When asked how he would respond if one of his grandchildren came out as gay, Bush reportedly said that:
“I would put my arm around him and I would hope he wouldn’t go out and try to convince people that this was the normal lifestyle, that this was an appropriate lifestyle, that this was the way to be,… But I would say, ‘I hope you wouldn’t become an advocate for a lifestyle that in my view is not normal, and propose marriages, same-sex marriages as a normal way of life. I don’t favor that.”
Even the National Log Cabin Republicans refused to endorse Bush in 1992 because of his refusal to condemn Pat Buchanan’s homophobic rhetoric at the Republican National Convention. In that speech, Buchanan referred to Bill Clinton as “a militant leader of the homosexual rights movement,” and railed against the “amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women.”
Baby or Bathwater?
However, two pro-LGBT laws, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act and the 1990 Immigration Act, were also signed into law by President Bush.
The Hate Crimes Statistics Act was important because it required the Department of Justice to collect data of hate crimes committed because of a victim’s race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
The fact that it included “sexual orientation” was a huge step forward for LGBTQ rights. Gays and lesbians, especially, would no longer be invisible when it comes to data on hate crimes. Bush even invited gay activists to the bill signing, where he spoke out against hate:
“Bigotry and hate regrettably still exist in this country, and hate breeds violence, threatening the security of our entire society… We must rid our communities of the poison we call prejudice, bias and discrimination and that’s why I’m signing into law today the a measure to require the attorney general to collect as much information as we can on crimes motivated by religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”
The 1990 Immigration Act was significant for LGBTQ rights in that it repealed a provision barring LGBT people from entering the US. Bush also signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But signing a bill into law… is it enough? Many legislators toiled and toiled to draft and write those laws, like Former U.S. Congressman Barney Frank.
How do we mourn, if at all?
Bush’s views on LGBTQ equality has, like much of the nation, changed over the past few decades. In 2013, he witnessed a Lesbian wedding between two Bush family friends.
In his 2015 memoir, Bush wrote that he stilled believed in “traditional marriage,” but went on to say that “People should be able to do what they want to do, without discrimination. People have a right to be happy. I guess you could say I have mellowed.”
So how do we mourn the passing of a president with such a mixed record on civil rights? Can we separate the man from his presidency? When it comes to art and music, some have suggested that you can “separate the work from the artist,” if the artist is embroiled in a sex scandal, etc.
Can we look at the man and mourn his passing while at the same time condemning his actions (or inaction) during his presidency?
In all truth, I don’t know the answer. Viewing his life in its totality and entirety, I see a man who held traditional beliefs about marriage and sexuality. But I also see a man who evolved and changed with the times.
At the same time, I cannot ignore the countless deaths from HIV/AIDs that were a result of his inaction on the epidemic.
How should we mourn? Leave a comment and let me know what your thoughts are.