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New documentary features audio of Reagan Admin and reporters laughing about AIDS

The 1980s were a bad time to be gay. In many states the orientation itself was still illegal. The social stigma of coming out was enormous. The way we joked about homosexuality then would be unacceptable today. Eddie Murphy’s Raw doesn’t hold up for that very reason.

 

Still, it’s chilling to hear what was said behind closed doors about the AIDS epidemic by men who should really know better. Writer and director Scott Calonico’s new documentary short When AIDS Was Funny juxtaposes the callous conversations of Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes and White House press corps reporter Lester Kinsolving with photos and statistics of men dying from the disease.

Kinsolving starts off the meeting in 1982 with a question about AIDS, detailing that “one in three people who get this thing have died and I wonder if the President was aware of this?”

“I don’t have it. Do you?” Speakes quipped back.

Because the White House had “no personal experience” with AIDS, Speakes said they were unaware of the illness. A year later, after several thousand more deaths, Kinsolving brought up the AIDS epidemic again. Another journalist then asked Speakes about a speech Reagan gave. Environmentalists referred to it as a “fairy tale.” Speakes took the opportunity to make a gay joke at Kinsolving’s expense.

Later, Kinsolving asked if the President thought maybe the “gays” cutting down on their “cruising” would help stave off the epidemic.

In a 1984 press briefing, Speakes announced that Reagan had not discussed how they were going to stop the disease from spreading further.

“You mean [the President] has expressed no opinion on the matter?” Kinsolving asked.

“No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it,” Speakes replied, highlighting just how casually they were taking the matter.

As of now almost 700,000 people have died from AIDS. Luckily HIV is not the death sentence it used to be. One can only imagine how much sooner many of these medical advances could have happened if we’d taken the disease more seriously when the first outbreak occurred.

Watch:

Featured image: Scott Stewart/Associated Press

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