Today is April Fools and so we thought it only fitting to cover two of the biggest fools to ever hold office, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Though an ocean separated the two world leaders, their response to Gay Rights and the AIDS crisis during the 1980s would leave a deadly impact on the queer community. Together, the conservatives undermined LGBTQ activism at every turn, while surrounded by the awe and wonder of their adoring followers. But who were Reagan and Thatcher before they became some of the most powerful public officials in the world?
In many ways, the two have very different and yet corresponding lives. Reagan was an American, 14 years older than Thatcher, born on February 6, 1911, in the state of Illinois. He was the son of an Irish Catholic and an English Protestant. In the end, his mother, the protestant and member of the Disciples of Christ, won out in Reagan’s religious upbringing. Thatcher came into this world as Margaret Roberts. And arrived more than a decade later in Lincolnshire, England on October 13, 1925. Her parents were both devout Methodists and raised her in the church from infancy. Though their denominations were different, the protestant influence would play a large part in both the future leader’s lives.
Reagan coasted through school on his good looks and alluring charm. As a C student, he showed little interest in school and cared more about playing sports and acting. Though he did manage to become student body president in college and his position as captain on the swim team only bolstered his popularity. Margaret for her part was a diligent student who won a scholarship to the prestigious Kesteven and Grantham Girls School. During her final year of secondary school (high school), Thatcher was appointed head girl. A position that is somewhat similar to student body president in American high schools. Though head positions are not always elected and they hold a lot more responsibility than their American counterparts. Margaret also enjoyed sports in her free time, competing in field hockey, and swimming.
Interestingly, they both encountered a specific instance of racial discrimination during their young lives. Of course, since they were both white with Anglo roots, the bias was not directed towards them. Instead, they merely responded to the incident. Still, while there’s plenty of reason to roast Reagan and Thatcher, we will give credit when it is due. In Margaret’s experience, her parents housed a young Jewish girl fleeing Nazi Germany just before the outbreak of World War 2. The young teen saved up her pocket money to help the girl escape to a safer location.
Ronald’s incident wasn’t nearly as dramatic, though it was important. When his college football team was slated to stay overnight at a hotel, they ran into an issue when the business refused to serve blacks. Instead, Reagan took his black teammates to his own home which happened to be only 15 miles away. The young men stayed overnight and the next morning they were served a delicious breakfast by Ron’s mother. In point of fact, the Reagan’s were staunch civil rights supporters. And Ronald would spend his life speaking out for civil rights and equality of black Americans.
When college rolled around, Ron and Maggie took different paths. Margaret had earned a scholarship in chemistry for Oxford’s women’s college, Somerville. Ronald attended a small, religious institute known as Eureka College. It’s roots were tied to his mother’s faith, the Disciples of Christ. The school was very small, and in many ways, Reagan was a big fish in a small pond. While Margaret struggled forward in one of the most prominent universities in the world, Ronald flourished in relative obscurity. This is no doubt why he became so popular during his college years, though he still was only moderately invested in his grades.
While Thatcher greatly enjoyed her chemistry studies, and would always be proud of her background in Science, she began to get wrapped up in the world of politics. Her time at university was during the height of World War 2 and one could not avoid the topic of politics. For many women, it was the first time they were able to more easily become involved in public discussions. By 1946, Maggie would become the president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. That same year, Reagan returned from his military duty during World War 2 and was elected to third vice president of the Screen Actors Guild.
During the 1930’s Ronald had made a name for himself as an American heartthrob on television. His first appointment to the screen actors guild came in 1941, but Reagan had his position placed on hold when he was called up from the Army Reserve. After returning to the guild in 1946, Ron would serve for one year before becoming the Screen Actors Guild President in 1947. His election was more of a default as the 7 most senior members were forced to resign due to conflicts of interest. Reagan’s appointment would give him his first chance to openly discriminate and attack the queer community.
If you remember Episode 8 of Your Queer Story when we covered Gay’s in Hollywood, or if you listened to our two-part episode on the Lavender Scare, then you know how the Hollywood Blacklist hurt LGBTQ performers. Like everything in the late 40s and 50s, any time the powerful wanted to put down the oppressed they claimed communism. In reality, though McCarthy and leaders across the country claimed to be vetting patriots, they were really looking for queers and misfits. Ronald Reagan and Hollywood leaders such as Walt Disney were no different. Both men testified before Congress in 1947, warning of “communist like tactics” in Hollywood, and the need to fight subversives.
In fact, Reagan’s work went much deeper. Decades later it was revealed that Ron, under the code name T-10, was a government spy. He and his wife, Jane Wyman, turned in countless supposed “communist sympathizers”. In reality, anyone labeled a homosexual (or a homophile) during this time was immediately considered a communist and vice versus. The two words were intertwined and officials were taught to look for feminine expression in men and masculine expression in women to help determine if the person was a subversive. Reagan’s aggressiveness in uncovering communists no doubt began to form his bias against the queer community.
Like McCarthy, he saw a group of people who were dishonest, disloyal, and unworthy of care. Ronald did not care if actors and performers were out of work. He did not care if they died in poverty, if they were arrested, or if they were locked in an asylum. In his mind, the LGBTQ were a threat to be eliminated. By the end of his blacklist campaign, Reagan had even started turning in many of his own friends and co-workers. We must remember that his ascension in Hollywood began in the 1930s, a notoriously queer time for the silver screen. It would be naive to assume that Ronald had not made many gay friends, who were open about their orientation, and worked with dozens upon dozens of LGBTQ people. It would also be reckless to believe Reagan had no clue of the deep impact LGBTQ writers, actors, choreographers, set designers, and more had on film making.
Years later people tried to pass off Reagan’s work for the SAG as a burden he shouldered and not something he actually cared to do. But we challenge that claim with his 12 years of service, 6 re-elections, and the incredible increase in the blacklist length during his tenure. In fact, though the blacklist began before Reagan’s election, the Hollywood Blacklist Era was defined by Ron’s leadership. And in truth, he was so committed to his work in fighting so-called communist actors, that he and Jane Wyman divorced. She claimed during the proceedings that he was, “too distracted with the SAG”. It doesn’t sound like the actions of a man torn about the burden of chasing homos.
While Reagan was fighting imaginary communists overseas, Margaret continued her work as a scientist and became more involved in local politics. In 1948 she joined the Vermin Club, a grassroots political organization that took their name from a liberal slight. When Labor Party politician Nye Bevan called Conservatives “lower than vermin”, young Tories took the name and created a movement. It is similar to the way American Conservatives adopted Hillary Clinton’s slight when she called them “a basket of deplorables”. Or the way American liberals took Trump’s “nasty woman” comment and made it a feminist catchphrase. While in the movement, Maggie would eventually rise to the position of “Chief Rat”.
At a Conservative Party dinner in 1949, Margaret would meet the man who changed her last name from Roberts to Thatcher. He was a wealthy divorce about 10 years older than Margaret and it doesn’t seem like any sparks were flying. The bride to be once described her future husband as “not a very attractive creature – very reserved but quite nice”. Yet as Margaret pursued her political career, Denis Thatcher pursued her. And though 1951 brought a second, crushing election defeat to Margaret, it also brought wedding bells. In mid-December of 1951, Margaret and Denis Thatcher were wed. Some saw it as a marriage of convenience on her part. Denis had funder her campaigns and her studies for the English Bar Exam. Perhaps it was true, as a woman in politics the new Mrs. Thatcher had few options. If she didn’t’ marry, especially as a conservative in the 1950s, her career would stagnate. Rumors might swirl about her “sexual leanings”, and a girl could do worse than to marry a millionaire who adored and supported her.
In America, a very different love story was forming. A young actress was accused of being a communist and arrived at the SAG to confront a divorce about her being blacklisted. According to Nacy Davis, when she met Ronald Reagan “I don’t know if it was exactly love at first sight, but it was pretty close”. The couple wed in early March of 1952, just a few months after Margaret and Denis’ wedding in England. While the Thatcher’s would always have a very reserved marriage that was often strained by Margaret’s political career, the Reagan’s would have what was hailed as an “All-American Love Story”. It was because of their genuine love for each other that allowed Ron to later become the first divorce to ever win the presidency.
For Margaret’s part, we should point out the sexism that accompanied her role as a wife. In truth, for the most part, she and Denis seemed happy. Each couple had two children and worked hard to build and love their families. But while Reagan’s drive for success was seen as admirable and inspirational, Thatcher’s drive for the same was seen as cold and aloof. In fact, in 1964 after a particularly brutal election for Maggie, Denis had a breakdown and left the country for a few months. This was cast as a source of shame as if Margaret was responsible for focusing on her career and not her husband. Eventually, Denis returned and seemed to handle her work much better later in life. Yet here we point out the burdens of each of these leaders. Reagan faced the world as a divorce which was quite a shame for his era. Margaret faced the world as a woman in politics, which continues to be an uphill battle. And while neither of their situations compares to the oppression of queer people, we must wonder how their experiences did not make them more sympathetic to the outcasts and the rejects. Yet it did not.
In 1959 Margaret Thatcher won an election and would spend the next 11 years as a member of the British Parliament. Reagan was only beginning to really wet his feet in politics. Before the Blacklist campaign, Ronald Reagan had identified as a Democrat and a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. But by 1950 he had switched parties and now openly endorsed Dwight Eisenhower. It was Eisenhower who implemented executive order 10450, which was responsible for causing over 5,000 queer federal employees to lose their jobs. It also put the spotlight on the LGBTQ community and drove up arrests, violence, evictions, unemployment, and institutionalization of queer Americans. While we certainly had anti-LGBTQ presidents before Eisenhower, he was the first to truly come after the queer community in the form of McCarthyism or the Red Scare. And he was Reagan’s new hero and mentor for the future president.
Though Ronald was not yet a politician, he used his platform as an actor to advocate against so-called “socialist programs” such as Medicare, Food-Stamps, a rise in the minimum wage, and the Peace Core. In a broadcast about the evils of Medicare Reagan told listeners, “we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this, and if I don’t do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free”. He also became a life long member of the NRA during this time and spoke of the dangers of giving the government too much freedom through federal programs.
Margaret was fighting the same battle overseas. She warned of the dangers of tax increases, supported capital punishment, and refused to ease divorce laws (despite being the wife of a former divorce). She claimed the liberal labor party was taking steps, “not only towards Socialism but towards Communism”. However, in what some may find surprising, Thatcher was one of the few Conservatives to vote for the decriminalization of homosexuality in England in 1967. Yet this type of behavior is not uncommon among conservatives and anti-LGBTQ people. Many folks don’t care if a person has freedoms in their own home. They care about witnessing equality and equity in their streets and businesses and governments. So while it may seem that Maggie was being progressive in reality she was being practical. Attempting to monitor what a person does in their own home would encourage more government oversight and could be used as a weapon on conservatives later on.
The 1970’s were quite a pivotal time for both Reagan and Thatcher in their political careers. Reagan quit acting in 1965 and made a bid for the 1967 governorship of California. He won in a landslide and would oversee the state for the next 8 years. A former student protester himself, he now flipped roles and sent out the national guard to put out the student revolts of the late 60s and early 70s. The same year Maggie supported abortion rights in England, Ron did the same in California. Later Reagan would admit he regretted his pro-choice stance and came out as anti-abortion. Thatcher would remain pro-choice, but again, it seemed more personally motivated than morally directed.
In 1970 Maggie was elected as Education Secretary and served for four years before her party was ousted. She then led the Conservative party, or opposition party, until 1979 when she was formally elected as Prime Minister of England. Reagan would make a bid for the 1967 presidential election but lose out to the incumbent Republican President, Gerald Ford. Ford lost the race to Jimmy Carter and in 1980 Ronald Reagan ran again, this time as the Republican nominee. He won in a 68% landslide victory. Over the next decade, Ron and Maggie would lead two of the most powerful nations on earth.
Reagan had run on an evangelical platform just like his hero, Dwight Eisenhower. It was Eisenhower who had given religion such a stranglehold on American politics. Before his presidency, there was a definite separation between church and state in Washington politics. This isn’t to say that Christianity didn’t influence American democracy, we were colonized by Christians and that played heavily into our early laws. However, there had also been a reverence and acknowledgment for the need of a secular government. Eisenhower changed all of that and Reagan cemented the fact. In England, a country with nearly 1,000 years more history and countless religious wars, the separation of the two entities was more intact. Still, religion certainly played a role as well in Thatcher’s dismissal of LGBTQ rights.
In late 1979 the chief medical advisor in England warned about the growing AIDS epidemic which had claimed 110 British lives at that point. The surgeon wrote: “The results of the infection are potentially fatal and there is no effective treatment for it. A vaccine is unlikely to be developed in the foreseeable future.” Two years later the first government report broke on the growing AIDS epidemic in America. By 1983 the epidemic was running wild and neither world leader was uttering a word on the matter. There had been 2,807 cases reported in the U.S. with 2,118 deaths. The CDC was begging for funding and a government acknowledgment of the crisis, Reagan said nothing. In the queer community, the only information was that there was a gay cancer or a gay virus. It was especially deadly in America. Overseas, gay Brits warned against having sex with Americans.
Without government funding to support the research needed, the queer community set to work Organizations in San Francisco and New York began to raise money. In England a group of gay men formed a charity and announced news of the virus to their community under the headline ‘US Disease Hits London’. For two years, people on both sides of the Atlantic begged for their governments attention and were met with a wall of silence. Finally in 1984, after 5,596 recorded deaths in the U.S., a grant was given for federal AIDS research. The following year, the U.K. opened a blood screening clinic in Hertfordshire to test for the disease. Though Thatcher’s secretary was opposed to her attending the opening ceremony. Writing to an aquaintance:
“My own feeling is that the prime minister should stay clear of Aids (!), even when it is a question of opening laboratories to help innocent victims…I think this is all something for Norman Folwer[the health secretary]. If she is going to do a medical visit, I should prefer to suggest a hospital, or a home for children with incurable diseases etc.”
In 1985 for Reagan and Thatcher addressed the epidemic. By then, 12,529 deaths had been recorded in the U.S. alone. Ron addressed the crisis in a speech to the public, but as a whole left the subject alone. Rumor has it he initially hoped the “gay virus” would wipe out the unwanted community. He only became concerned when young Ryan White obtained AIDS through a blood transfusion. Now that heterosexuals were in danger, suddenly the president was on board. For her part, Maggie addressed the epidemic as well though she found the whole matter of sexual health ‘distasteful’. One former health worker reported:
‘The department tried to keep her out of it as much as possible…At one point, after she had seen a draft, we got a message from Nigel Wicks [her Principal Private Secretary] which said, “She wants to know if they have to go in the newspapers.” We asked him where else they were supposed to go. He said, “She was wondering about lavatory walls.”
Thatcher also tried to avoid talk of sexual intercourse hoping to strike out terms like “oral sex”, and changing out the words “anal intercourse” for “back passage intercourse” and finally settling on rectal sex. The words condoms were never mentioned and in general, neither the U.S. government or the English government provided guidance on safe sex policy. In fact, it was alluded that avoiding “gay sex” would solve the problem. By the time Reagan left office in 1988, there were over 82,000 AIDS cases in America and 61,816 reported deaths. His silence caused a worldwide pandemic and homophobia is the only source to blame. But Margaret still had one last parting shot at the grieving queer community.
In 1988 as Reagan was ending his term, Thatcher passed Section 28. The bill outlawed schools and local authorities from “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” When Maggie came out against the backlash she told the public: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life”. The law would remain in place for the next 15 years and made it impossible for LGBTQ children in England to have any kind of safe haven in their public lives. However, it also inspired England to have one of the most rapid queer rights campaigns of our time.
Margaret would be forced to resign from her position as Prime Minister in 1990, after serving for 11 years. In 1994, Ronald would announce that he had Alzheimer’s and overtime would withdraw from public view. He passed away from complications of his disease on June 5, 2004. Maggie attended his funeral. During their decade together they had become icons of the Cold War, heralded for their heroism against Communism. The ignorance and pain they projected on the queer community would be ignored until the early 2010s. Nine years after Reagan’s death, Thatcher would pass away on April 8, 2013, due to a stroke. Their negative impact on the LGBTQ still affects our community today.
Your recommended resource is “And The Band Played ON: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” by Randy Shilts. It was later adapted into a 1993 movie. We also recommend the popular movie Philadelphia Story starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington which addresses the AIDS stigma in the 1990s.
- Reagan (life) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Reagan
- Thatcher (life) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Thatcher
- Reagan (Vox) – https://www.vox.com/2015/12/1/9828348/ronald-reagan-hiv-aids
- Thatcher (Section 28 ) – https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/cacc0b40-c3a4-473b-86cc-11863c0b3f30
- Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/27/section-28-protesters-30-years-on-we-were-arrested-and-put-in-a-cell-up-by-big-ben
- Denis Thatcher – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Thatcher
- Order 10450 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_Order_10450
- AIDS in US – https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/lgbtq-history-month-early-days-america-s-aids-crisis-n919701
- AIDS in UK – https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/30/thatcher-tried-to-block-bad-taste-public-health-warnings-about-aids
- AIDS in UK 2 – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jun/03/aids.simongarfield
- Secition 28 –