A group of people in 1950s clothing in 'Fellow Travelers.'

‘Fellow Travelers’ Highlights Reagan’s AIDS Crisis Failure

Showtime’s latest historical romance Fellow Travelers examines life for gay men in America from the 1950s to the 1990s. Beyond the expected struggles of that era, the series brings up the horrible way President Ronald Reagan dealt with the AIDS epidemic.

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The first episode of Fellow Travelers takes place in two different time periods with the same characters, opening with the older versions of the characters in the 1990s. Marcus Gaines (Jelani Alladin) visits Hawk Fuller (Matt Bomer) to discuss their mutual friend Tim (Jonathan Bailey), who is sick with AIDS. Hawk, who pretends he is straight and happily married to a woman, is removed from the ravages of the disease. Marcus, on the other hand, lives in San Francisco and sees exactly what AIDS is doing to people. He laments that he’s “tired of going to funerals.”

Later, Hawk calls an old friend Congresswoman Mary Johnson (Erin Neufer) who also knows the ailing Tim. When he asks about how Tim is faring, Mary admits that there is no getting better for Tim. Not holding back, Mary blames the current president, Ronald Reagan, for the deaths of many with AIDS. “Our government is letting people die,” she says.

Reagan and the AIDS crisis

The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s was devastating. Just between 1981 and 1990, over 100,000 Americans died of AIDS-related causes. The actual toll may be even higher, considering how the stigma around the disease could cause under-reporting. Although anyone can contract the disease, most of those deaths were in the gay community. Many during that time thought of HIV and AIDS as something only gay men could have, so everyone else shouldn’t worry about it. That’s exactly the stance Reagan and the United States government took on it.

The year 1981 marks the first year of the AIDS epidemic and Reagan’s first year as president. Even though Reagan knew about the disease for years, he remained silent on the issue. The actor Rock Hudson, a close friend of Reagan and his wife, begged for them to talk to the nation about AIDS. Hudson himself had AIDS and wasted away in front of the Reagans, yet they did nothing. Reagan wouldn’t talk about the disease publicly until 1985, the same year as Hudson’s death.

Reagan may have eventually acknowledged AIDS as a problem in our country, but he still didn’t do much to solve the problem. Many in his administration jokingly referred to it as the “gay plague.” In 1986, Reagan cut funding to the CDC and AIDS funds, which greatly limited the government’s ability to help people with HIV and AIDS. To put this in perspective, the city of San Francisco had a larger budget to combat the AIDS crisis than the entire federal government did. Reagan let people die because he didn’t want to consider the humanity of the gay community, and Fellow Travelers doesn’t shy away from pointing that out.

(featured image: Showtime)

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D.R. Medlen
D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a pop culture staff writer at The Mary Sue. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer in 2019. She expertly fangirls over Marvel, Star Wars, and historical fantasy novels (the spicier the better). When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse, offspring, and animal familiars.