On Tuesday, former first lady Barbara Bush died at age 92. She was the first lady of the United States during the sole term of her husband, George H.W. Bush. She was also the mother of the nation’s 43rd president, George W. Bush.
Barbara Bush leaves a complex legacy. As so many headlines have reminded us over the last hours, she was the first White House official willing to speak up for people living with HIV. The image of Bush holding an HIV-positive baby seared itself into the minds of many who lived during the epidemic.
As Jonathan Capehart wrote in the Washington Post, “A grandmother holding an infant isn’t shocking. But when the grandmother was the new first lady and the child was infected with AIDS, the photo spoke volumes.” [Note: please don’t ever use the phrase “infected with AIDS,” the more appropriate language would be “living with AIDS,” though “living with HIV” is even more appropriate if you do not know someone’s diagnosis history.]
The visit to Grandma’s House, a hospice care facility for people with AIDS, happened only two months into her husband’s presidency, which succeeded an administration that barely recognized the virus’s existence and chose a policy of silence rather than say the word AIDS out loud. When it was discussed, members of the administration laughed at the plight of those living with the virus.
The Post wrote of the original visit:
Mrs. Bush cradled an infant, kissed a toddler and hugged an adult AIDS victim to demonstrate a message: “You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus without hurting yourself,” she said. “There is a need for compassion.”
Bush’s call for compassion was an important one. It was the year 1988. Highly effective antiretroviral therapy wouldn’t debut for around another eight years and until then, an AIDS diagnosis was often a terminal one. And we were still about three decades out from the consensus in the scientific community that being on medication and being undetectable meant not being able to pass on the virus.
Still, the stigma-breaking photo-op does seem to privilege a certain type of person living with AIDS over another. Bush chose a photo with a white baby, an “innocent,” someone who, in the media narrative, did nothing wrong to incur infection. However, at this time in the AIDS epidemic, as is still the case, gay and bisexual men and people of color, especially black Americans, bore the brunt of the epidemic. The clinical definition of AIDS even excluded women up until the early 1990s.
While Barbara Bush may have worked to change hearts and minds, in no insignificant way, when it came to the AIDS epidemic, it’s important to note the ways she spoke callously about black and brown bodies in other contexts. When New Orleans residents were forced to seek shelter in the Houston Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina, she infamously said many of the people present were “underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
During a Good Morning America interview about the invasion of Iraq, she said, “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”
A piece in the Atlantic is perhaps the sole one that covers Bush with nuance. It lays bare her extreme privilege and her willingness to evolve, and the way that her compassion could extend when prodded, though only so far. In the piece, Timothy Naftali writes about the time he met Bush in 2015 and educated her on transgender issues.
Bush took umbrage with the White House making a big deal out of hiring the first transgender person to work at the White House, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, as director of outreach and recruitment in the presidential personnel office.
“Well, you know what I think about President Obama,” Bush said to Naftali. “Did you see that he just appointed a transgender person? Do we announce each time the appointment of a heterosexual?”
Of course, in her advanced years, she had mixed up gender identity and sexual orientation. Naftali said he went on to explain how important trans visibility was given how much certain members of the LGBTQ communitythe Gs and the Lstend to take up a lot of space.
Later, Naftali writes, he learned from a friend that Bush had written a note saying she had learned a lot from their lunch.
“I so enjoyed the lunch and Tim won the argument or he changed my mind about so much,” Bush wrote. “Transgenders are born that way Please tell him that at 90 I learned a lot from our lunch ”
Perhaps, with even more time, Barbara Bush could have learned even more about LGBTQ people, specifically transgender people. We don’t really know. What we do know, so far, is that the process of memorializing tends to buck complexity, creating heroes or villains. Whether you feel Bush hugging an HIV-positive baby defines her legacy, or her comment about Hurricane Katrina, the truth is that they are both just two dots on a long, complex lifeline.
Forgiving one or highlighting the other in service of making a memory is a disservice to both the lives she helped and the people she ignored.
Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images