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As the AIDS crisis was developing in the early '80s, the Reagan administration was not only largely unconcerned, it apparently thought AIDS was kinda funny.

At three separate press conferences in 1982, 1983, and 1984, President Ronald Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes responded not only dismissively to questions about the epidemic, but with thinly veiled gay jokes at the expense of the reporter who asked.

The transcripts have been published before, but the audio had never been made public — until today. Filmmaker Scott Calonico managed to acquire the tapes, which he cut into a short film and provided exclusively to Vanity Fair.


The recordings are infuriating — and highly disturbing. (Key passages transcribed below the video).

At the October 1982 press conference, journalist Lester Kinsolving tried to get spokesman Larry Speakes to answer a question about AIDS.

"It's known as the 'gay plague,'" Kinsolving says. A number of the reporters in the room laugh.

"I don't have it. Do you?" Speakes retorts. More laughter.

Photo by Scott Calonico/Vanity Fair.

Later in the conference, in reference to an unrelated question, Kinsolving jokes, "I love you, Larry."

"Let's don't put it in those terms, Lester," Speakes claps back.

(Translation: Kinsolving — "Hey Larry, what about this terrible disease that's wreaking havoc on hundreds of gay men and spreading rapidly that no one knows how to stop?" Speakes: "#nohomo.")

A year later, Kinsolving was back in the press room asking questions. Over 2,000 people had already died from AIDS.

Photo by Scott Calonico/Vanity Fair.

In response to another journalist who used the phrase "fairy tale," Speakes says of Kinsolving: "Lester's ears perked up when you said 'fairies.' He has an abiding interest in that."

Because, you know, of the earlier conversation. About gay people.

Kinsolving then asks if Reagan plans to issue advice on whether gays should stop "cruising" in light of the epidemic. Speakes responds, "If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we'll make it available to you." (Emphasis mine.) The reporters start laughing.

"Back to fairy tales," another reporter shouts from the crowd. The laughter intensifies.

By 1984, over 4,000 people had fallen victim to AIDS.

Photo by Scott Calonico/Vanity Fair.

Kinsolving asks Speakes if Reagan has expressed any concern.

"I haven't heard him express concern," Speakes responds.

"Have you been checked?" the press secretary later adds. (Yes, even after thousands of confirmed deaths across the United States and no cure in sight, the idea of Kinsolving being gay and having AIDS continues to be, apparently, pretty funny to Speakes.)

All of this is well-documented, but it's critically important we don't forget.

Photo by Scott Calonico/Vanity Fair.

It's not news that the Reagan administration didn't react with perfect clarity to the early years of the AIDS epidemic. And of course, no one knew the scope of the tragedy that was about to unfold (though many were sounding the alarm).

But it demonstrates how dangerous prejudice can be.

Imagine if, when asked about Ebola earlier this year, President Obama's press secretary had replied, "Psh, no, I'm not African. Are you African?" instead of taking it seriously.

How many more people might have become ill or died if his administration had chosen to ignore the crisis as a result?

Too often, when tragedy strikes, we prefer to see it as someone else's problem.

Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images.

Right now, over 4 million refugees from Syria are in desperate need of food, shelter, and a new country to call home.

"But it doesn't affect me, so I don't care," we think.

Right now, climate change is feeding massive storms and terrible droughts, wreaking havoc on coastal areas and low-lying islands, and displacing millions of people.

"But it doesn't affect me, so I don't care," we think.

Right now, transgender Americans are being murdered at historically high rates.

"But it doesn't affect me, so I don't care," we think.

That's the wrong response. The right response? "It doesn't affect me, but I still care. And I'm going to do something about it."

Not only because one day it might affect you, but because others are suffering.

That should be enough.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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