This weekend, The View's Meghan McCain will be awarded The Harvey Milk Foundation Lilla Watson Medal, in part for her advocacy for marriage equality. No doubt, McCain has a long history of standing up for LGBTQ people: She supported the gay community at the Log Cabin Republicans’ national convention, posed for the NOH8 campaign against Prop 8, and was a part of GLAAD’s national board of directors.
But McCain is an unlikely LGBTQ ally for many: She’s a pro-life Republican and "proud NRA member" who was recently having it out on Twitter with Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk over the Green New Deal. While many progressive queer people may be able to overlook these facts, what can't be ignored is McCain's fierce admiration for Ronald Reagan. She's referred to the late president as her “ultimate icon” and referenced him on The View more than once, even though he's widely considered a villain by many LGBTQ folks for his handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
So, can someone like McCain revere Reagan and also be considered a queer ally? Moreover, does the LGBTQ community benefit from receiving support—in whatever form it takes—from conservatives such as McCain?
McCain sees a different Reagan than many queer people. In a 2009 article for The Daily Beast, she urged Republicans to support marriage equality, arguing that it’s in line with the values and self-interest of conservatives. In the piece, she praised Reagan as an LGBTQ hero, citing his opposition of a 1978 ballot initiative that would’ve prevented lesbian and gay people from teaching in public schools. In contrast, McCain railed against President Barack Obama, who didn’t support gay marriage at the time. (He would later become a champion for LGBTQ rights.)
It’s true that Reagan fought against a homophobic legislative proposal, but McCain’s article omits the president’s greatest stain on queer history: It took four years after the first HIV transmission for Reagan to mention AIDS publicly in September 1985. At that point, 5,636 Americans had already died of AIDS-related complications, and the epidemic was receiving nationwide attention from everyone but the leader of the free world.
“He is one of the persons most responsible for allowing the plague of AIDS to grow from 41 cases in 1981 to over 70 million today,” ACT UP founder Larry Kramer wrote in 2007. “He refused to even say the word out loud for the first seven years of his presidency and when he did speak about it, it was with disdain.”
For McCain to so strongly idolize this figure is incongruent with her advocacy for queer rights. The irony may have been best captured in a photo of McCain wearing a “SILENCE = DEATH” t-shirt, an ACT UP slogan that was born out of Reagan’s fierce neglect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I get it, I totally get it,” Mark S. King, HIV/AIDS advocate, writer and creator of the blog, My Fabulous Disease, tells NewNowNext about McCain’s admiration for Reagan. King was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and lived through the Reagan-era. Still, he believes that having the support from “someone who operates within the conservative landscape” is extremely beneficial for the community.
“I think that is tremendously important, and I think that [McCain] has the ability to move the ball for LGBTQ people in a way that no Log Cabin Republican could ever dream of.”
King believes that LGBTQ people limit themselves if they expect allies to tick every box. “I will take allies for my issue, which is LGBTQ rights and HIV,” King says. “I will take allies wherever I might find them.”
And King is not alone.
“Equality is no longer a partisan issue,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement when McCain had joined their national board of directors in 2014. “For years, Meghan McCain has lent her voice and platform to spreading messages of acceptance across party lines. Now, as the American South and our heartland move closer to LGBT equality, it’s critical that we continue to build the bridges that unite us in our common ground—whether you’re Republican or Democrat, gay or straight.”
It is difficult for one to argue against McCain’s consistent support of the LGBTQ community, which has continued into her tenure on The View. On the show, she has expressed support for queer families; stood up for what became a controversial same-sex kiss during last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; and believes in sex-positivity, defending people who choose to be promiscuous—a term hurled at gay men throughout history—and making co-hosts Joy Behar and Sunny Hostin come off prudish.
But a sobering fact remains: Fifty-eight percent of conservative Republicans still oppose same-sex marriage, compared to the national average of 30% who oppose it. Fifty-nine percent of them believe that small businesses should be allowed to refuse services to lesbian and gay people on religious grounds, compared to the national average of 33%. If conservative allies are helping to progress acceptance when it comes to these issues, the LGBTQ community would no doubt be better for it.
“If Meghan McCain was sitting across from me, the first thing I would do is thank her for her support of LGBTQ rights,” King says, “and then have a conversation about Reagan.”