President Trump has caught flack recently for not acknowledging June as Pride Month, a celebration of all things LGBT. Conversely, Republicans, even ones who have opposed gay marriage, have issued statements in support of the celebration, showing a marked shift toward acceptance of the LGBT community among conservatives. This change is welcome, but it offers an opportunity to evaluate the record of the greatest modern Republican president, Ronald Reagan, on the issue.
Much of the left has vilified Reagan for his perceived opposition to the LGBT community. Several activists flipped off his portrait while visiting the White House to celebrate Pride Month in 2012. However, upon closer examination of his record, Reagan looks less like the religious right homophobe he’s often portrayed as.
As governor of California, Ronald Reagan stood staunchly in opposition to the Save Our Children campaign. Led by singer Anita Bryant during the 1970s, the Save Our Children campaign started as a move to allow anti-gay discrimination in public housing and employment. The movement started in Miami-Dade County in Florida, before spreading in various iterations around the country. In California, this movement took shape in the form of the Briggs Initiative (also known as Proposition 6), which would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools.
At the time in the late 70s, the Briggs Initiative was supported by a 2-1 margin among voters. Nonetheless, Reagan, a conservative stalwart, firmly opposed Proposition 6. Public opinion in California then shifted rapidly against the proposal, leading it to fail. LA Times polling director I.A. Lewis said that he could see “no other reason” for the sudden, massive shift in public opinion on this gay rights issue than Reagan’s anti-discrimination stance. The Log Cabin Republicans organization formed as part of the opposition to this provision.
Certainly, people on the left will point to the Reagan administration’s handling of the AIDS crisis as a major failure—which is legitimate criticism. The administration spent years downplaying the seriousness of the situation, although eventually the government began dramatically increasing research funding. So Reagan’s record is mixed. But liberal commentators monopolize the conversation about Reagan’s record on social issues.
Did Reagan make mistakes? Sure. The aforementioned AIDS crisis, the War on Drugs (perhaps unfairly blamed on Reagan, considering it has been prosecuted by every president since Nixon), and the corresponding “just say no” attitude toward education regarding alcohol, drugs, and sex were all mistakes. Reagan was not a perfect president, and that’s coming from someone who put the quote “freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction” in his yearbook.
But those aren’t the full story. Reagan holds his spot in the pantheon of great presidents thanks to the economic revival of the 1980s and his foreign policy achievements, specifically bringing the Soviet Union to its knees. However, his vision of the United States as the greatest nation on Earth wasn’t solely one of economic vitality and global strength, but one of tolerance, too.
Reagan’s attitude toward immigration, especially, demonstrated his belief in a more open America. His signing of amnesty in 1986 was, contrary to some border hawks’ revisionist history, not a capitulation or compromise with the Democrats but a sincere expression of his own immigration policy views. Reagan supported border security too, however, his message focused more on the importance of the immigrant story, a story seemingly lost in the mix of an increasingly nativist GOP.
While Reagan had his flaws on domestic social policy, he also had many moments of grace and tolerance. And while liberals attack him for said failures, I rarely see conservatives rallying around his successes. Reagan’s vision was ultimately one of unity around common principles, regardless of immutable characteristics. Conservatives of today should try to emulate that message. I don’t think there’s a better way to conclude than to endorse what Reagan said in his final address:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I [pictured]. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city… teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
As we all should.