Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday night at age 92 from an unspecified cause, leaves a legacy as both a former first and second lady for encouraging good citizenship and patriotism. But she is unique also for using her position to embrace gay rights and HIV/AIDS at a time when they were unpopular issues, especially among conservatives.
The standout moment for Bush on gay rights was in 1990 when she was first lady under the administration of her husband former President George H.W. Bush and responded to a letter from PFLAG president Paulette Goodman, who led the group for parents and friends of gay people and sought support for the then-fledgling organization.
In the letter, Bush called Goodman, whose daughter was a lesbian and who helped co-found the D.C. chapter of PFLAG, a “caring parent and compassionate citizen.”
“I firmly believe we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups in our country,” Bush said. “Such treatment always brings with it pain and perpetuates intolerance.”
Bush concluded, “Your words speak eloquently of your love for your child and your compassion for all gay Americans and their families.”
The letter, which may have been the first gay-positive comments to come from the White House, was reported by the Associated Press and reportedly ignited a firestorm among social conservatives, who were pushing for the U.S. government to condemn gay people at a time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was at its height.
In a statement to the Washington Blade, Goodman said Bush’s letter to PFLAG “put us on the national scene” and in the aftermath “our letters were picked up by press, and PFLAG National began getting calls.”
“What first attracted me to Mrs. Bush, to write this letter, was that I saw her on TV, visiting a home with babies and children affected by HIV and AIDS, and I thought, ‘This is a woman I could write to,'” Goodman said. “And she was, indeed, a most wonderful person. We had further correspondence after that first letter, and she was a most down-to-earth person. Mrs. Bush, with her correspondence, really put PFLAG on the national map.”
Indeed, the letter from Bush was consistent with her work on HIV/AIDS as first lady. In 1989, Bush visited Grandma’s House, a D.C.-area hospice for children with HIV/AIDS. At time when HIV infection was a death sentence, she was seen hugging children and adults with HIV/AIDS to help dispel stigma and fears the disease could be transferred simply through touch.
When Bush’s death seemed imminent this week, West Wing Reports distributed on Twitter a photo of her at Grandma’s House hugging a small child as she smiled at another.
In 1992, when her husband sought re-election, Bush distanced herself from the Republican Party’s anti-gay rhetoric at a time when Pat Buchanan stoked fears over gays at the Republican National Convention as attendees chanted, “Family Rights Forever/Gay Rights Never.” Bush told the media being gay — as well as the choice to have an abortion — was a “personal thing” and they “should be left out of, in my opinion, out of platforms and conventions.”
President George H.W. Bush lost re-election to President Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush gave up the position of first lady to Hillary Clinton. Their son, George W. Bush, on the other hand had two terms as president, winning re-election in 2004 after a campaign stoking fears about same-sex marriage and in support of a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned it nationwide.
One action Barbara Bush took as she left her role as first lady echoes the sentiments she previously expressed on gay rights. In 2013, she attended the same-sex wedding in Kennebunkport, Maine, of her friends Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalsen. George H.W. Bush served as a witness at the ceremony.
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, said Barbara Bush leaves an important legacy on gay rights, which he said she approached in a manner consistent with her actions as first lady.
“Barbara Bush was a prime example of a Republican who was willing to engage with gay Americans, and didn’t shy away from doing so,” Angelo said. “Hers was a more demure brand of allyship, but she demonstrated a bold compassion for others — not just LGBT Americans, but all Americans.”
— Chris Johnson, Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.