Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that rates of suicide have increased 33 percent since 1999 despite massive investment in prevention. This week, the Boston City Council held a hearing on how the issue affects Boston.
Fenway Health offered testimony relating to the LGBTQ community: nearly half of LGBTQ youth report that they’ve thought about suicide and 25 percent have attempted it. This is five times the rate of suicide attempts among straight youth. Nearly one-third of LGBT adults are more likely to have been diagnosed as depressed as straight adults.
There’s a lot of research showing that LGBTQ people and other minority populations, such as Black people, Latinx people, and other racial and religious minorities, suffer disproportionately higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population. The reasons why are nearly always described in meaningless jargon, such as “minority stress” and “stigma.” But mainstream coverage of the death of former President George H.W. Bush, who died on World AIDS Day, provides an example of how minority stress plays out in real life.
No assessment of Bush’s legacy is complete without consideration of the incalculable harm he did as president and vice president in the fight against AIDS. His acquiescence to viciously anti-gay evangelical conservatives reverberates today with the rise of politicians like Vice President Mike Pence. The former Indiana governor came to national prominence in 2015 when he championed a state law that would make it legal to deny service to LGBTQ people if a business owner subscribed to anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs. The seeds of the growing movement to enact such laws, known as “religious refusal” laws, can be found in the Reagan Administration, where Bush served for eight years as Vice President.
In a 2004 interview with Health Affairs, C. Everett Koop, who was Reagan’s Surgeon General, recalled that the lack of a response to the burgeoning AIDS epidemic during its first five years by Reagan, Bush, and other top Administration officials was because they believed that “AIDS was a disease of prostitutes, homosexuals, and drug abusers, and, after all, didn’t they deserve what they got?” There is very little difference between ignoring a public health crisis because you believe the only people affected are sinners, and refusing service (including health care treatment) to LGBTQ people because you believe they are living in sin.
There was no mention of any of this in the mainstream coverage of Bush’s death, which was uniformly hagiographic. This is because, in part, the contrast between Bush’s personal civility and that of the current White House occupant is too great to resist. But Bush was a foundational leader in the anti-LGBTQ policies and politicians the Republican Party has produced over the last 30 years.
He refused requests to lift an Eisenhower-era ban on security clearances for LGBTQ federal employees. When the acting chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) defended criticism of the NEA’s funding of Robert Mapplethorpe (whose graphic images of gay men provoked intense controversy) on free speech grounds, Bush fired him. He then named an interim chair who quickly pulled funding for three gay and lesbian film festivals that had previously received NEA grants. Bush also signed a bill into law that prevented the Washington D.C. Council from offering health care benefits to domestic partners of gay and lesbian city workers.
When reporters, editors, producers, and news talk show hosts ignore this history, they are, in effect, gaslighting LGBTQ Americans. They’re telling them that the suffering they endured during the 1980s wasn’t that big a deal or, worse, they’re pretending that it never even happened.
The cumulative effect of state-sanctioned discrimination and other insults (such be being told that pointing out the monstrous government failure in initially responding to AIDS is a petulant exercise in the “politics of resentment”) results in minority stress.
As part of its testimony before the Boston City Council this week, Fenway offered advice to councilors on how minority stress can be lessened: “Defending the basic right of all people to be treated with respect and dignity is something that you as elected leaders should do frequently.”
Media can do the same by keeping history in mind when reporting on current events. In an essay about coverage of Bush’s death, Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen offered this advice to journalists: “Remembering a leader is remembering how power was wielded — which means it’s ultimately also always a remembrance of how their power affected, ignored, or elevated the powerless.”