George H.W. Bush Dead at 94: Here’s How He Responded to the AIDS Crisis, Marriage Equality, and Gay Families

George H.W. Bush, the nation’s 41st president and its longest-lived, died on Friday night at his home in Houston at the age of 94.

CBS News reports: ‘His wife of 73 years, Barbara Bush, died in April and Mr. Bush was hospitalized the day after the funeral to be treated for an infection in his bloodstream. He suffered a number of health issues in his later years, including vascular parkinsonism, a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease, and used a wheelchair to get around. His son, former President George W. Bush, issued a statement calling his father “a man of the highest character and the best dad a son or daughter could ask for. The entire Bush family is deeply grateful for 41’s life and love, for the compassion of those who have cared and prayed for Dad, and for the condolences of our friends and fellow citizens.”‘

Bush left a mixed legacy on AIDS, and he did not advocate for gay rights.

In 1992, ahead of the November election which Bill Clinton would win, he told the New York Times: “I can’t accept as normal life style people of the same sex being parents. I’m very sorry. And I believe in the traditional family values. And the best shot that a kid has is to have a mother and father that love that child, that will educate that child, that will care for that child. . . .But to glamorize life styles that are, in my view, not the normal life style, I don’t approve of that. I don’t want to censor it, but I don’t approve of it.”

Bush never used the word “gay” in any official remarks while in office.

As Ronald Reagan’s vice president, Bush, like Reagan, was silent as the deadly plague of AIDS overtook the U.S. gay population. Reagan didn’t mention AIDS in public until 1985. By then, 5,000 people, mostly gay men, had died. Thousands of lives might have been saved had the Reagan administration acknowledged the crisis and taken action, but that did not happen.

Bush was booed onstage in 1987 at the 3rd International Conference on AIDS in Washington, DC. “He and President Reagan have advocated for the expansion of mandatory HIV testing,” Nature Medicine reported.

Bush’s first address on AIDS was in March 1990, speaking about a bill to protect people with AIDS from discrimination.

Said Bush in the speech: ”Like many of you, Barbara and I have had friends who have died of AIDS. Our love for them when they were sick and when they died was just as great and just as intense as for anyone lost to heart disease or cancer or accidents. There is only one way to deal with an individual who is sick: with dignity, compassion, care, confidentiality and without discrimination….We don’t spurn the accident victim who didn’t wear a seat belt. We don’t reject the cancer patient who didn’t quit smoking cigarettes. We try to love them and care for them and comfort them. We do not fire them. We don’t evict them. We don’t cancel their insurance.”

The NYT reported: “Several leaders of AIDS organizations said they were encouraged that Mr. Bush had addressed the subject but complained that he had not commented on some central issues. They cited immigration rules limiting the travel of people with AIDS who want to attend conferences in the United States, and a bill sponsored by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, that would deliver $600 million in Federal disaster relief to cities hit hard by AIDS. Instead, the President gave his personal support to legislation that would prevent discrimination against disabled people, including those infected with the AIDS virus, chiefly in regard to employment or access to public buildings and services. The Bush Administration has already supported the measure in Congress, where it has passed the Senate and two of four committees in the House.”

Bush was interrupted by protesters four times during the speech and 5 people were arrested.

Robert D. Haas, chairman of Levi Strauss & Company, praised Bush’s speech but said ”even if the private sector helps create ‘a thousand points of light’ across the land, it will be of no avail if there is darkness in the White House.”

Bush was criticized for removing funds for AIDS drugs from his budget as well.

“Jean McGuire, director of the AIDS Action Council, a coalition of AIDS policy groups, said Mr. Bush’s speech ‘was long on compassion, but short on commitments,’” the NYT reported.

Bush eventually signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law later that year.

In September 2013 Bush served as an official witness at the marriage of Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen, the owners of a general store in Kennebunk, Maine, close to where the Bush family has a home.

This experience “mellowed” Bush’s perspectives on it, and he sent his biographer Jon Meacham a note that year to clarify his position.

“While gearing up for his 1988 campaign, Mr. Bush said in his audio diary that Americans ‘don’t want homosexual marriages codified.’ the New York Times reported.

After serving as witness to the lesbian couple’s wedding, Bush wrote, “Personally, I still believe in traditional marriage. But 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.”

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