President George H.W. Bush and AIDS, an appalling legacy

The death of former President George Herbert Walker Bush on Friday — the day before World AIDS Day — would have been the perfect opportunity for the media and public officials to remind or tell the nation about Bush’s appalling legacy on AIDS and gay rights.

Alas, most of them didn’t.

Most outlets and public officials ignored Bush’s shameful treatment of people living with AIDS as well as his anti-LGBTQ record and pattern of embracing the Religious Right.


Even Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who is openly gay, failed in his Saturday Twitter feed to mention Bush’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community. Garcia did reTweet that Bush was a “patriot” and a “humble servant.”

Garcia also failed to mention World AIDS Day on social media.

HIV infection rates in Long Beach are among the highest in Los Angeles County and the state. HIV also has disproportionately impacted the Long Beach’s gay community.

President George H W Bush AIDS

The editorial cartoonist on the left was critical of President George H.W. Bush’s indifference to the AIDS epidemic in 1989. The 1990 protest poster on the right is from Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo, an anonymous San Francisco-based cultural activist collective. They created a “Safe/Unsafe” campaign that used images of safer sex acts and elected officials who threatened people living with HIV. Photo display by Michael Bedwell.

On Sunday, Garcia did Tweet his excitement about a new DC Comics movie, but still no acknowledgement about World AIDS Day.


Bush, who was vice president under Ronald Reagan from 1980 to 1988, was president from 1989 to 1993. His disgraceful record almost mirrors Reagan, who only mentioned AIDS once in 1985 — four years after the first diagnosis — and only a few times in 1987.

On Bush’s watch, here are a few dishonorable examples:

  • HIV+ people were banned from entering the United States
  • Abstinence education was made the priority instead of human sexuality education and safer sex practices
  • Bush embraced the bigotry of the Religious Right. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, gay and lesbian people were verbally burned at the stake by numerous speakers, including Pat Buchanan’s infamous “Culture War” speech. Bush could have told convention organizers to squash this vitriol, but he didn’t.

During Bush’s time in office, more than 100,000 people in the United States died from AIDS’ complications.

President George H W Bush AIDS Protest


In 1990, Boy With Arms Akimbo/Girl With Arms Akimbo, an anonymous San Francisco-based cultural activist collective, created a “Safe/Unsafe” campaign that used images of safer sex acts and elected officials who threatened people living with HIV.

A photo of Bush was labeled “Unsafe” and detailed text explained the poster:

“President George Bush offers a ‘kinder, gentler’ rhetoric on AIDS, but his policies continue to promote genocide by neglect. Bush has refused to support national health care, thereby denying proper medical treatment to nearly a third of the population. He has refused to rescind the medically useless ban on travel and immigration to the U.S. by people with HIV infection. He has opposed granting emergency federal funding to cities devastated by the disease. Mouthing platitudes while thousands die is not enough. NO MORE WORDS! WE WANT ACTION.”


On Sept. 1, 1991, more than 1,000 AIDS activists marched on Bush’s vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine to demand leadership and to declare that “The AIDS crisis can end.”

After a die-in on the road to the Bush’s house, activists unrolled a 50-foot  long banner that outlined a 32-point plan to end the AIDS crisis.

The next day the president told reporters that he was more moved the week before by a demonstration about unemployment. “That one hit home,” he said, “because when a family is out of work, that’s one that I care very much about.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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