President Reagan’s Children Divided on Marriage Equality
Michael Reagan and Patti Davis, the two eldest siblings of President Ronald Reagan, might share a common upbringing but the similarities end there. These two siblings stand on different ends of the political spectrum, which has caused breaks in the family previously amid arguments about issues ranging from nuclear weapons to our involvement in Iraq.
Patti, 60, the daughter of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, has been outspoken about being pro-choice and pro gay rights. Michael was adopted by Reagan and his first wife, fellow actor Jane Wyman, and has wholly embraced his father’s conservative worldview.
Now the two children of this still very-controversial president are disagreeing once again. This time, it’s about the question of marriage equality.
Patti told The New York Times that her dad was totally used to, and OK with, gay couples from his Hollywood acting career. The way she relates it, he was actually more than OK: He was completely nonchalant about it; as an issue, he considered it a non-starter.
To buttress her argument, she tells about a lesbian couple that cared for her and younger brother Ron while their parents were on vacation, and even slept in the adult Reagans’ bed. The fact that they were a couple was not worth mentioning, she said.
"I grew up in this era where your parents’ friends were all called aunt and uncle," Davis told Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg. "And then I had an aunt and an aunt. We saw them on holidays and other times. We never talked about it, but I just understood that they were a couple."
Once, she said, while watching a movie on TV, she told her father that Rock Hudson looked "weird" kissing an actress. "Her father explained that Mr. Hudson "would rather be kissing a man,’" Stolberg writes, "and conveyed, without using the words homosexual or gay, the idea that ’some men are born wanting to love another man.’"
The most notable political stance toward gay rights in his career came when he was serving as governor of California. Reagan was instrumental in defeating the Briggs Amendment, which would have forbidden homosexuals from teaching in California public schools. When asked, Reagan point black said he didn’t support the referendum.
The state’s most prominent conservative’s simple thumbs down took Briggs’ from statewide support to statewide loser. The film "Milk" made a reference to How instrumental Reagan was in defeating Brigg’s, which, as ridiculous as it may seem now, was riding the wave of Anita Bryant’s successful anti-gay crusade.
A Disastrous Legacy on AIDS
Reagan has another, far more lasting -- and, many would say, far more damning -- legacy, however. For Ronald Reagan presided over the presidency from the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, when the first cases were reported, to the darkest days of the mid-’80s.
Many activists and others have never forgiven him for cutting back funds to the Centers for Disease Control just when the federal disease tracking agency was beginning to connect the dots of an obscure, fatal cancer and an equally obscure -- and equally fatal -- form of pneumonia among the epicenters of the outbreaks: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
That was just the beginning of how inaction, however. His administration treated AIDS as a pariah disease and kept the presidency as far away from it as possible -- in terms of policy, funding, and even basic recognition.
President Reagan didn’t even utter the word "AIDS" until a year after his longtime Hollywood buddy, Rock Hudson, died in 1986. By that time, it was too late to do stem the spread of what was already an epidemic. ACT-UP demonstrations always included placards of the president’s image dripping with blood.
In 2003, a controversial TV fictionalized biography about Reagan revived the debate about this legacy. Originally scheduled for CBS, it was relegated to pay cable after the ex-president’s partisans raised a furor about a scene in which Nancy Reagan privately harangued her husband about the growing scourge. He didn’t answer in the edited version. The original line attributed to him was, "Those who live in sin will die in sin."
Why It Matters
All of this might make any speculation about the dead president moot to most of us. But WWRD is a catchword of the Right in the country. Reagan is revered as the father of the contemporary conservative, anti-government, anti-tax faction in this country. His supporters argue endlessly on right-wing blogs about "What Would Reagan Do."
Whether you like him or loathe him, or consider him a healthy or poisonous influence on the body politic and the economy, it’s impossible to deny his influence. Since the Second World War, perhaps no president no redefined the body politic, which is why people still argue about his intentions.
That’s why Reagan supporters are up in arms over Patti reading her father’s proverbial tea leaves to discern a bent toward approving same-sex marriage. If he was on board, either anti-marriage equality advocates are wrong; or they’d have to disagree with the hero of the Right.
In an op-ed on a site called Churches Time to Fight, Michael Reagan asked where the churches were in the fight against marriage equality. (Note to Michael: They’ve been very active!)
They need to be as forceful on the issue as possible, Michael Reagan thundered, because the fight over marriage equality is "ultimately about changing the culture of the entire country. It inevitably will lead to teaching our public school kids that gay marriage is a perfectly fine alternative and no different than traditional marriage." Then he launched into the usual jump from same-sex marriage "polygamy, bestiality and perhaps even murder" (the last a rather odd way of promoting couplings of any kind).
The Icon of the Right Who Got It Right
For his part, the third Reagan offspring, Ron Reagan, has come down forcefully for marriage equality. As a professional ballet dancer, the young Reagan faced talk from homophobes and gay men alike that he was gay. He always joked about the gay rumors but denied them. He’s been married to wife Dorta for decades now. The couple lives quietly in Seattle.
As far back as 2004, Ron Reagan expressed support for gay marriage. It was one of the reasons why he wouldn’t support George H. Bush’s re-election to the White House in 2008.
Ron’s mother Nancy has joined him in bucking his party about its position on stem-cell research. Citing the results such research could have for helping cure Azlheimer’s , which claimed her husband, she came out strongly in support.
Even though Nancy Reagan is alive (if not active; she rarely appears in public), it’s probably as hard to divine her thoughts as it is her husband’s. Nevertheless, it’s also as inevitable that people will speculate -- at least until she breaks her silence on the subject, if ever.
Nancy Reagan was well known for her friendships with several gay men, some of them quite close. Whether that would have translated into support for marriage equality remains an unanswered question.
At least we know where the other major icon and formulator of the modern gay far right movement in America stood.
Toward the end of his life, Barry Goldwater, who stood farther to the right than Reagan, made it clear that he was in favor of gay rights. Goldwater was a vocal opponent of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and spoke out for openly serving gay military personnel.
He also worked to stop businesses in his own town, Phoenix, Ariz., from discriminating against LGBT employees. He even helped spearhead a drive to push the Employee Non-Discrimination Act through Congress, then as now a lonely task.
In 1994, Goldwater told The Washington Post, "The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay. You don’t have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay. And that’s what brings me into it."