Gay Men’s Community Health Centre

One of the major submissions presented to the government by the VAC was a proposal for the establishment of a health and resource centre for gay men, modelled closely on the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organisation in New York. An office space with consulting rooms and funding for five staff was proposed at an estimated cost of $200,000. There was one problem, however. The money allocated by the federal government for state-based HIV/AIDS organisations offering counselling, support and education, did not extend to a community-based clinic under the auspices of a gay activist organisation – which is what the VAC was considered to be. The Victorian government responded to the VAC’s request by suggesting that, instead, a community health resource program for gay men in Victoria be established.52 Bruce Parnell recalls:

It was a clever move, I think, from our State Health Department to say ‘we can’t just give money to a gay organisation, but if you set up a community health centre we can fund that’.53

The VAC submitted its proposal for the establishment of a Gay Men’s Community Health Centre (GMCHC) in January 1985. Initially the centre would operate under the wing of the existing Fitzroy Community Health Centre, until it could become incorporated and registered as an independent community health centre.54 Funding was granted and the GMCHC (later known as the GMHC) was established. The centre was initially proposed in response to the AIDS crisis, and would have a primary focus on HIV/AIDS. However, it was also to provide clinical services and specialist programs to deal with the other health issues and needs of the gay community.

Doctor David Plummer was the first President of the Gay Men’s Community Health Centre at a time when few doctors were willing to take on prominent roles in the gay community. The first staff appointed to work in the centre were Bill O’Loughlin as counsellor, Monica Morcos program manager, Tony Collins community welfare officer and Maureen O’Brien community nurse.

Bruce Parnell was employed as the first health education officer at the GMHC and he remembers:

[The GMHC] came from the very strong community activist background of a lot of the volunteers … we understood health promotion even as simple as … a sticker that … just says ‘AIDS is real. Use condoms.’ So the very early messages were as simple as that … There weren’t schools teaching health promotion back in those days, we were learning it as we were going.55

The statement of purpose, aims and philosophies of the GMHC were established with the help and support of the gay community. Community consultation and a public meeting in May 1986 helped ensure that the GMHC would ‘enhance the health and well-being of gay men in Victoria’.56 A range of aims and philosophies as well as a detailed statement of purpose were agreed upon. While the GMHC first operated under the auspices of the Fitzroy Community Health Centre before becoming incorporated, it worked under the Victorian AIDS Council’s programs. Initially funded to undertake educational, clinical and community development work, the GMHC needed to work closely with the VAC so as not to overlap activities and resources. One of its stated aims was ‘to work in close co-operation with the Victorian AIDS Council in recognition of its particular role in the major health problem affecting gay men’.57

While the GMHC was legally independent from the VAC, there was substantial overlap between the two organisations and considerable intersection among the two management groups. David Rogers, Secretary of the VAC in 1985, wrote in his annual report that:

All concerned with the VAC and GMHRP [Gay Men’s Health Resources Program, an early name given to the GMHC] know that it is vital that the two of them work together without friction or duplication of effort (especially in areas such as Education and Support where their responsibilities clearly overlap). Procedures to ensure this are being worked out progressively with full co-operation between the VAC Committee and Working Groups and GMHRP Board and staff.58

Despite an awareness of areas of possible friction from the outset, Bruce Parnell remembers, ‘there were tensions by having the two organisations straight from the beginning’.59 It wouldn’t take long for these to manifest themselves and cause major problems for the two groups.

Nevertheless it was important that the two organisations work closely together and with the community. ‘The reason why that’s important’, stresses Bill O’Loughlin, ‘is because the philosophy of community health was to work within the community and get the community empowered to be able to determine what are their health priorities, and what’s to be done about it’.60

Maureen O’Brien was the Community Health Nurse at the time and her job was to set up the Gay Men’s Health Centre clinic, which has got a lovely story. In the beginning it was – I think it was about two evenings a week and Saturday mornings at the old VD clinic in Little Lonsdale Street, and our clinic consisted of a couple of shoebox type filing systems that she’d take in the back of the work car and set up this clinic. It was also interesting that when we advertised for a doctor originally we couldn’t get anybody to come as a doctor. Again now we take it for granted that there’s a whole number of openly gay and lesbian doctors all over the place; back then there were two, maybe three, general practices around Melbourne with maybe a total of five or six doctors that were openly gay – and we couldn’t get any doctors in the beginning. Eventually we got Tim Hunt and Chris Carmody who worked as our doctors for a long time. We also set up a counselling service attached to the clinic, and with that was also a broader program working with gay men around broader community health issues, so we ran groups for gay men … it was a small team but we did quite a broad range of work there.
Bill O’Loughlin, former Counsellor GMHC and Support Volunteer