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How Nancy Reagan Finally Started a Conversation About AIDS -- 35 Years Later

(Original Caption) Washington: First lady Nancy Reagan cast a pensive glance as President Reagan addresses a group of high sc
(Original Caption) Washington: First lady Nancy Reagan cast a pensive glance as President Reagan addresses a group of high school students from 'Direct Connection' at the White House. The students recently held a mini-summit of U.S. and Soviet students in Helsinki then met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It went up on his campaign website over the weekend, shortly after he attacked Hillary Clinton for her bewildering comments on Friday about Nancy Reagan in which Clinton claimed the now-deceased former first lady was a "low-key advocate" for people with AIDS during the Reagan administration, who, along with her husband, "started a national conversation" about AIDS.

Sanders now calls for establishing "a multibillion-dollar Prize Fund to incentivize drug development" that would "provide virtually universal access to lower-cost life-saving medicines for HIV/AIDS as soon as they are approved for sale." He doesn't address expanding access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), the drug combination approved to prevent HIV infection among HIV-negative people at risk, nor many other issues, but his "Prize Fund" is a start.

On CNN on Sunday morning, Sanders said, "I just don't know what she was talking about," regarding Clinton, though he was "glad she apologized." Clinton in fact apologized twice. The Clinton campaign had tweeted a statement from Clinton, a terse apology --"I misspoke...I'm sorry" -- sent on her feed on the day of Reagan's funeral, within hours of Clinton's comments, after a quick backlash had ensued.

Then on Saturday Clinton posted a fuller response online that lauded AIDS activists as those who truly started the conversation, talked about what she'd done as first lady on AIDS (and it should be noted that it was Bill Clinton's administration that turned things around after the horrific Reagan/Bush years), as a U.S. senator and as secretary of state. In her online post, Clinton took on the harsh HIV criminalization laws that stigmatize and criminalize people with HIV, and she discussed some plans if elected president, including making sure there's access to drug treatments, including PrEP for HIV negative people at risk.

It was a terrific statement, got a lot of media attention, and had the Sunday talk shows discussing the terrible, callous record of the Reagan administration on AIDS, when, during a period of years, thousands died as the president stayed silent, bowing to religious zealots while Nancy wouldn't even help her dying friend Rock Hudson when he reached out.

All of this, honestly, is a great thing to see. But there needs to be much more. Whatever caused Clinton to make such a strange gaffe, is, at this point, less important than the discussion itself: It got her to put out some details reminding us of her commitment in the past and offering some ideas moving forward, and it moved Sanders to rush out a policy statement with ideas as well.

But statements aren't enough. We want to hear from the candidates directly and in more detail. Clinton spoke in a live broadcast (on MSNBC) about Nancy Reagan when she made the regrettable comments. Judging from social media, many believe she should now speak directly about her plans and engage in dialogue. I've invited her to come on my radio program on SiriusXM Progress to discuss the issue, and to talk about many other issues affecting LGBT people, and I've invited Senator Sanders on as well. And I'll continue to do so.

We've seen no discussion of LGBT issues in the Democratic debates at a time when a furious backlash against LGBT equality has erupted across the country, as states push forward with "religious freedom" bills meant to enshrine discrimination in law after last year's marriage equality ruling from the Supreme Court. Both candidates have tweeted condemnation of these laws, but there's been little to no discussion among them in the media.

While that ignorance during the debates could be laid at the feet of the media and moderators, it's also true that neither candidate has spoken with a gay journalist or interviewer specifically about issues LGBT voters care about. Many believe that's because the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest gay group, endorsed early (backing Clinton), and thus there's no incentive for the candidates to compete on the issues. In 2008, HRC endorsed Barack Obama only after Obama won the nomination, in June. As veteran lesbian journalist Kerry Eleveld notes, at this point in time in 2008, both Clinton and Obama had given several interviews to LGBT publications and gay interviewers specifically focused on the issues, and both gave more as the campaign went on.

This election cycle, it took Nancy Reagan 's death, ironically, to get a discussion going among the candidates about an issue important to LGBT people. But there's more to talk about on that issue -- actually talk, beyond the position papers -- and there are more issues affecting LGBT people to have a dialogue about.

The campaigns surely know that the LGBT electorate plays an outsized role in elections, raising money, working in the campaigns, getting the vote out, inspiring younger voters around issues of equality. In the past few days, gay voters -- and their allies -- were jarred by Clinton's Reagan comments, which have them asking questions and wanting to hear more from her on issues concerning them, even after her sincere apology. And they want to hear from Sanders, too, on the whole range of issues, not just a mention of "gay rights" from a podium or a position paper on a website.

With the brutal campaign of Donald Trump unleashed and barreling forward, it's important to get every group, every Democratic voter, energized. We've seen an entire Democratic debate rightly focused on concerns of Latino voters, and an important one which took place in racially-polarized Flint, Michigan. Both debates were meant to discuss issues vital to constituencies in the party's base. But again, there's been no focus in the campaigns on issues important to LGBT voters.

So, come on Bernie and Hillary, let's hear from you -- not in a tweet, or a statement, or in a brief mention in a speech -- but in a real discussion of issues that these committed voters really care about. In the current climate, there's no time to lose, nor any voters to take for granted.