Scroll To Top

Barbara's Legacy: LGBT Ally Who Fought HIV Stigma? Or Another Bush Enabler?

Barbara Bush LGBT Ally Who Fought HIV Stigma? Or Public Enemy #1?

Gauging the reactions to the former first lady's death on social media — the reality is probably somewhere in between.


It would have been a baffling and odd proposition to a young (er) me to conceive of regarding former Barbara Bush as an LGBT ally — let alone an HIV stigma busting one — when George H.W. Bush occupied the White House.

Yet here we are.

I feel like Bush was the genuine article (unlike her pearls).  But it doesn't absolve her of her sins.

It'd be easy to write off the many sincere and warm remembrances about Bush since her death Monday by suggesting that she is the current cipher for a nostalgia of a "big tent" Republican party — that never really existed — but it’s also just as easy, and more accurate, to posit her as someone more noblesse oblige and less oligarchical dictator.

In a Facebook post, writer and Sessum’s Magazinefounder,  Kevin Sessums, talks about the dissonance and contradictory impulses he feels about her being "the head of the Bush crime family" that seem quaint in contrast in the age of Trump: 

"Just because someone dies does not erase their actions or words while they were alive — especially when they existed in the political sphere. I posted an enlightened quote from her about a future first spouse being a man. I posted a balanced and beautifully written profile of her by Majorie Williams in Vanity Fair. I posted an excerpt from News One and the African-American perspective of her sliming Anita Hill in her memoir and her standing with Clarence Thomas. I posted George Hodgman's moving, mostly positive, assessment of her place in America's cultural and political narrative. I do not think the woman was evil — far from it — but I do think she had a mean streak I did not like, but it gave rise to a mean sense of humor which I admit I appreciated. I still think she was a combination of Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate and George Washington."

Dan Avery of NewNowNext posted: "It’s almost unfathomable to realize there was a time a stalwart Republican could hug people with HIV/AIDS, write a letter of support to PFLAG and attend a same-sex wedding (where her husband was the official witness)." 

Alternately, HIV activist and fashion PR guru Hal Rubenstein posted:

"How adorable that with her advanced age and long and happy marriage (which is nice, for her) it is not just the subject who’s had a blurring of memory. Thanks to the hair getting whiter, the body getting frailer, charming granddaughters getting jobs on TV, and a current president so dumb and venal everyone looks better in comparison, way too many have conveniently forgotten that the woman’s indomitable nature was also directed with startling callousness towards a community suffering though a devastating plague. Her voice was firm, chilling, and dismissive. She couldn’t have cared less. Nor did her husband’s administration. Cradling an AIDS baby is sweet, photogenic, and safe. Attending your gay relatives wedding is great for your family. But as someone who is HIV-positive, who cradled dying friends while the Bush administration did zero to assist with funding, education or reducing stigma, I won’t miss the sight of her fake pearls for a second."

Rubenstein is referring to Bush's 1989 visit to Grandma's House, a Washington D.C. area hospice for children living with HIV.

The Washington Bladesaid of Bush, "At a time when having HIV was a death sentence, [Bush]  was seen hugging children and adults with HIV to help dispel stigma and fears the disease could be transferred simply through touch."

So there's that.

Often one’s perspective is framed by the era in which they lived — something that can be said for both Bush and her detractors — so in the interest of posterity, for now, I’ll simply say rest in peace and thank you for your public service, Mrs. Bush.

Hopefully no one will be writing so glowingly about the current administration in twenty years.


30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Savas Abadsidis