On Australian shores
While the Victorian government had decriminalised homosexuality in 1980, the idea of some people being anything other than heterosexual was still foreign to sections of the Victorian population at that time. And many of those who were gay kept it a secret, since ‘being gay’ was viewed negatively and even hostilely in many circumstances. In some workplaces, it could get you fired. ‘No one knew a gay person in their workplace, or in their family, or in their neighbourhood’, reflects founding President of the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), Phil Carswell.1 David Menadue, a longstanding active member of the VAC and spokesperson for people living with HIV/AIDS, writes in his autobiography, Positive, ‘I was hiding my sexuality from my family … I was not even prepared to reveal I was gay to my brothers and sisters, who I felt quite close to and I guess wouldn’t have been particularly shocked or upset by the news’.2 In Sydney, home of the now world famous Mardi Gras, things were even worse. Homosexuality remained a crime until 1984.
Despite these challenges, gay activism had been gaining momentum for some time. The 1970s saw the emergence of gay and lesbian movements towards legal reform and social acceptance. CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) was born in Sydney in September 1970 and actively worked at encouraging gay individuals to publically ‘come out’. In 1975 the Australian Union of Students (AUS) adopted a pro-gay policy. The AUS went on to sponsor the first National Conference of Lesbians and Homosexuals, which was held at the University of Melbourne in August 1975. Campaigns were launched to combat homophobia within education and the Melbourne Gay Teachers’ Group was founded. The gay and lesbian press also developed in conjunction with the gay rights movement, providing a forum for the discussion and promotion of legal and social reform. While the 1970s was characterised by politically active gay movements, by the 1980s non-political gay organisations, venues and communities were also starting to be recognised.3 The activism and campaigning of the 1970s seemed to be leading to real change.
But in 1980, while the gay community in Victoria was quietly celebrating its small step towards equality and acceptance, news of a ‘gay cancer’ spreading rapidly in the United States was slowly reaching Australian shores. The first news article published in Australia about this new disease appeared in the Sydney Star, a free gay newspaper that began in 1979. The article, titled ‘New Pneumonia Linked to Gay Lifestyle’, was first published on 3 July 1981. It was about a paragraph in length and made a connection between five healthy American males who all contracted pneumonia and were also all homosexual. The US Public Health Service’s Centre for Disease Control argued that these cases could be linked by ‘some aspect of homosexual lifestyle’.4
While the gay press continued to publish articles about this new illness and links between homosexual lifestyles and the appearance of purplish black lesions on the skin – then known as Kaposi’s cancer, later Kaposi’s sarcoma – the mainstream media was slower on the uptake. It was not until January 1982 that the Sydney Morning Herald first reported on this condition. ‘Fatal Homosexual Disease Linked to Lack of Immunity’ read the headline.5 In September, Australian Women’s Weekly ran a letter from a reader in its ‘Medi-Facts’ column asking ‘Could you tell me what Kaposi’s sarcoma is? How bad is it and is it present in Australia?’6 While the gay press quickly recognised the danger this new disease might pose for Australians, the mainstream press did not begin to report on it with any urgency until 1985.7
The mainstream media might have been slow to react; the gay community, however, was not. Its strong history of political activism from the 1970s meant that by the time news of AIDS reached Australian shores, there was an established gay community familiar with adversity and ready to rally together and fight.8 As Phil Carswell recalls:
Basically we were able to draw together very quickly a nucleus of very intelligent, articulate and committed, passionate people, men and women, who had experience in the law, in health, in social marketing and advertising, political activism, community organisation, psychology and medicine. That nucleus went on to become the AIDS Council in a year or so.9
By 1982, this ‘gay cancer’ became officially known as GRID – Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. In Victoria, the newly established ALSO Foundation (Alternative Lifestyle Organisation) quickly got together a Health Sub-Committee to find out more about this disease and how it might affect the Victorian gay community. There were four people on the initial Sub-Committee who would later go on to play pivotal roles in the VAC: Phil Carswell, Chris Carter, Ian Dunstan and Peter Knight.10 In September 1982, while the Health Sub-Committee was conducting its research, the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta renamed the disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS.11
In October 1982, the first case of AIDS was identified in Australia, in an American tourist, by Professor Ron Penny at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney. Just six months later, in April 1983, the first Australian citizen had been diagnosed with AIDS in Melbourne. The ALSO Foundation’s Health Sub-Committee knew something had to be done, and on 16 June 1983 a public meeting was held at the Royal Dental Hospital in Melbourne. Over 300 people turned up, wanting to know more about AIDS, what it was and how they could keep themselves safe. With no advertising or social media to spread news of the meeting, just word of mouth, the level of anxiety was clearly escalating. Along with members of the gay community, there were also seven doctors present. Phil Carswell remembers the meeting:
We packed out the Dental Hospital auditorium which had 400 people in it, and on that day that was the largest single gathering of gay people I’d ever seen in my life, short of a party.12
David Menadue also attended this first meeting at the Dental Hospital. He was planning a trip to the US with a friend, and wanted to know if there was anything they should be on the lookout for. What they were told alarmed them and encouraged them to ‘put off going until we are totally sure about how this thing is transmitted’.13 Phil Carswell remembers the general reaction was: ‘take less drugs, root less, don’t go to America or fuck with Americans, look after your general health’.14 The advice given at this first meeting was still in embryonic stages, and based more on information GPs and doctors had been able to gather from the people they were dealing with, rather than on scientific fact.
At the end of the meeting you can imagine people asking questions and the doctors were able to say very little. There was a real feeling of gloom and desperation and ‘oh my God, what are we going to do?’15
One voice at the meeting stood out amongst many: that of well-known lesbian activist Alison Thorne. Thorne motivated and mobilised the meeting, asking ‘what are we doing about this and how can we do it?’. ‘I think it’s really pivotal’, reflects Carswell, ‘that a lesbian woman got up amongst a bunch of scared queens and said “this is what you’ve got to do, boys”, and they went and did it’.16 As well as stirring everyone into action, Thorne also raised the serious issue of homophobia and harassment against gay and lesbian people, and how the fear surrounding AIDS could jeopardise the newly won rights of the gay community. ‘What are we going to do to protect the gay community from the homophobia as the AIDS hysteria becomes more and more out of control in the wider community?’, she asked.17
It was decided to meet again one month later to form an action group; a unified front to represent the Victorian gay community in all matters relating to AIDS. This second meeting took place on 12 July 1983 at the Laird O’Cockpen Hotel in Collingwood, a favourite venue of the gay community at the time. Once again the meeting was packed out. This time, however, everyone involved knew what they wanted to achieve. A motion was passed and the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, the VAAC, was established. It was decided at this meeting that the VAAC would be ‘the sole representative of the Victorian gay community in all matters relating to AIDS’.18 This was a very important decision, argues Adam Carr, founding member and author of A Dangerous Decade, a history of the first ten years of the VAC. By allowing the VAAC to speak on behalf of the whole gay community in Victoria, ‘it gave the gay community a united voice on AIDS issues, something that was lacking in, for example, NSW’.19
The newly established VAAC adopted a cabinet-type approach to the issues it would need to deal with. Phil Carswell was elected President, David Rogers Secretary, Peter Lademan Treasurer and Adam Carr Media Spokesperson, while Peter Knight was in charge of support services and Lee Visser education. Chris Carter, Jamie Gardiner, Chris Gill, Gary Sauvarin, Alison Thorne and Danny Vadasz all also joined the committee.
Colin Batrouney first came into contact with the organisation when it was just forming. Young and newly out, Batrouney was keen to be part of a gay movement. ‘I was a bit late for Gay Liberation’, he recalls, ‘but I really wanted to be involved in a large social movement to do with gay people, and unfortunately and tragically, AIDS was it in the ’80s’.20 The people involved in the establishment of the VAAC (which later became the VAC) were energetic, articulate and angry. ‘They weren’t afraid to bring the fight to whoever they needed to bring the fight to, to get results.’21 People like Phil Carswell who toured Victoria, actively engaging with communities, generating awareness and support, and Adam Carr, who researched and learnt as much as he could about the medical aspects of AIDS and wrote about it prolifically. It was, said Batrouney, ‘that kind of attitude and that kind of vision, [which] led to the formation of the AIDS Council essentially’.22
Mobilised and organised, the VAAC began preparing. ‘The irony was’, remembers Phil Carswell, ‘that we prepared, and prepared and prepared before we had any cases’.23 At the very first meeting, Peter Knight volunteered to organise support services. He contacted as many medical practitioners and care workers as he could and formed what became an outstanding and essential support network. Volunteers were trained and ready before there were any actual AIDS cases. Indeed, news and information from overseas and interstate about AIDS travelled faster than the actual disease itself, or so it seemed at the time. As David Menadue recalls, ‘All the public meetings I attended, most of the articles I read, and in discussions with friends, the focus was on what to do when the virus eventually came to town. I ignored the possibility that it was already here’.24