Was Ronald Reagan anti-gay?

Context: Tea party successes make the movement attractive to GOP politicians because of the energy of the members in opposition to the sitting President. To define the movement, conservatives are fussing over whether or not social issues (read: abortion, gay marriage, sex education) should be a part of the agenda. Some say yes (e.g., Bryan Fischer and the Values Voters group) and others say not so much (e.g., Dick Armey).

Tomorrow night, Ann Coulter is speaking to GOProud, a gay GOP group and this has caused some social conservatives to blast her decision as selling out. On Wednesday, she wrote a column (a pre-GOProud shout out?) contrasting Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater on abortion and homosexuality and urged readers to follow Reagan and not Goldwater. Goldwater wanted government to stay out of personal choices and, according to Coulter, Reagan believed government should resist giving legitimacy to gays. Then yesterday, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, chimed in with his revisions and extentions.

About gay issues, Coulter provided an unsourced quote attributed to Reagan:  

“Society has always regarded marital love as a sacred expression of the bond between a man and a woman. It is the means by which families are created and society itself is extended into the future. … We will resist the efforts of some to obtain government endorsement of homosexuality.”

Looking for a source, all references to the quote I can find point to a 1984 edition of Presidential Biblical Scorecard, a publication from the Biblical News Service. I can’t find any current website for this publication, but have contacted some people for leads about the accuracy of the quote. It may be that the quote is a paraphrase of Reagan’s perceived position.

One reason I wonder if the quote reflects what Reagan’s views were at the time is because he was instrumental in helping to defeat a California anti-gay ballot measure in 1978. Proposition 6, also called the Briggs Initiative after GOP state Senator John Briggs, would have forbidden schools from hiring gay teachers and allowed schools to dismiss teachers who promoted homosexuality.

Despite his desires to run for President on a conservative agenda, Reagan met with David Mixner and Peter Scott to discuss the merits of the initiative. Opposing the tidal wave of Anita Bryant inspired anti-gay legislation might have caused some conservatives to think twice. However, Reagan agreed to a secret meeting. In his book, Stranger Among Friends, Mixner describes the occasion:

Peter and I were escorted into a bright office with windows overlooking West Los Angeles. Reagan rose from his desk, gave us his famous smile, extended his hand, and said, “How nice of you boys to come over to chat with me about this issue.”

He made us feel more at home than most Democrats did. He directed us to chairs and offered us soda. It was hard to believe that this smiling gentle man was the same person who had sent in three thousand bayoneted National Guardsmen to ‘protect’ People’s Park in Berkeley.

He opened the discussion, “I understand you boys have a case you want to make to me,” he said.

Mixner and Scott made a libertarian case against Proposition 6 and Reagan agreed. Reagan made a public statement opposing the ballot initiative and then wrote an op-ed detailing his views. Writing in National Review, Deroy Murdock describes the op-ed and the outcome of the statewide vote:

Reagan used both a September 24, 1978, statement and a syndicated newspaper column to campaign against the initiative.

“Whatever else it is,” Reagan wrote, “homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” He also argued: “Since the measure does not restrict itself to the classroom, every aspect of a teacher’s personal life could presumably come under suspicion. What constitutes ‘advocacy’ of homosexuality? Would public opposition to Proposition 6 by a teacher — should it pass — be considered advocacy?”

That November 7, Proposition 6 lost, 41.6 percent in favor to 58.4 percent against. Reagan’s opposition is considered instrumental to its defeat.

As Aaron Goldstein noted in the American Spectator, Reagan had nothing to gain by intervening in the Prop 6 fight in 1978 and a lot to lose.

Reagan stood absolutely nothing to gain by getting involved in this fight. After all, he did want to take one more stab at becoming the GOP standard bearer for the White House in 1980. In opposing Proposition 6, Reagan ran the risk of alienating a conservative base that had been the bedrock of his support in two terms as Governor of California. This would be especially true in Orange County, the cradle of California conservatism. It was also the home base of State Senator Briggs, who had ambitions to follow in Reagan’s footsteps to Sacramento.

According to journalist Kenneth Walsh, Reagan’s attitude toward gays were more consistent with his Prop 6 stance than the quote attributed to him by Coulter.

“Despite the urging of some of his conservative supporters, he never made fighting homosexuality a cause,” wrote Kenneth T. Walsh, former U.S. News and World Report White House correspondent, in his 1997 biography, Ronald Reagan. “In the final analysis, Reagan felt that what people do in private is their own business, not the government’s.”

Coulter correctly cites Reagan’s consistent opposition to abortion in her article and about that, there can be no debate. Reagan’s 1984 book, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation, provided a passionate defense of the pro-life position. There is nothing comparable from Reagan on gay issues.

Some might argue that Reagan demonstrated his views on homosexuality  via his AIDS policy. However, National Review’s Murdock makes a compelling case that Reagan’s record on AIDS has been seriously distorted, noting that AIDS funding increased substantially every year from 1982 to 1989.

In any event, those seeking the mantle of Reagan need to deal with all of what he did and said.