The Australian model

In the early days the gay community was scared and confused and had no idea what AIDS was, what caused it, or how it was transmitted: ‘It might have been caused by sniffing amyl, and it might have been caused by different types of sex, it might have been caused by multiple partners; we just thought, we’ve all done all those things, so we’re in this together from now on’.61 It is this attitude of banding together and supporting one another that has carried the VAC/GMHC forward to this day. The early years of the VAC and GMHC were characterised by very intense connections between people: a community united with a common cause. Colin Batrouney was young and new to the gay scene at the time and eager to get involved.

I was newly out and I wanted to be part of something big and important, but I also wanted to meet people and have sex. It has to be said, a lot of the time you’d go to meetings and stuff, and you would meet people, and you would end up having a relationship with them.62

The VAC and GMHC became part of what was known as a uniquely ‘Australian model’ for dealing with the AIDS crisis.63 The approach adopted by the Australian government, spearheaded by Federal Health Minister Neal Blewett, involved working closely with existing community-run HIV/AIDS organisations that were running education and support programs, while at the same time funding medical research and development and maintaining bipartisan political support. Overseas the US government under the conservative Reagan administration was slow to react to the rapidly developing epidemic. Fear of losing support from more conservative and religious sectors of the community meant that funding was limited and hard to secure for organisations run by the gay community.

While the VAC and GMHC were influenced by the work that was going on overseas, especially in the early days in America, it was still a process of trial and error and ‘see what works’. Bill O’Loughlin remembers:

We didn’t actually know what we were doing in terms of HIV because there was no precedent for what we had to do. There was no-one we could look to for advice, and there was no-one we could look to to see what had happened before and learn from mistakes, so a lot of what we had to do was very experimental and exploratory.64

O’Loughlin attributes the early success of the VAC and GMHC to two things. One was a strong community presence in the organisations and a philosophy of empowering gay men to make informed decisions for themselves, rather than telling them what they should do. The second aspect was characterised by the leadership of the organisations:

The leadership of the early AIDS Council, and the Gay Men’s Community Health movement, brought a very rich history of political and organisational skills to the organisation. They’d be involved in student politics in the ’70s, they’d been involved in the gay movement … they knew how to organise, they knew how to mobilise, they knew how to be politically savvy, they knew how to develop campaigns and they knew how to work the media.65

It was a time of great excitement and emotion and the VAC and GMHC embraced that. ‘There was also this feeling’, recalls Bruce Parnell, ‘you could go to a nightclub and be dancing, and then be crying in the corner ten minutes later talking with someone who was sick and trying to deal with how are we going to survive this’.66

It was also a time that required great activity and energy from the two organisations. In the 1986 VAC Annual Report, President Phil Carswell wrote:

It’s becoming very difficult to identify the gay community apart from AIDS … Half of the battle of beating this virus is putting it in its right context.67

The question of identity was one that the VAC and GMHC would continue to grapple with well beyond these early years.


Phil Carswell and Tom Carter

Phil Carswell and Tom Carter, the founders of the first Australian candlelight vigil, at an early vigil.

Phil Carswell

Candlelight vigil 1986

From the first Australian candlelight vigil in 1985 when two men stood silently with lit candles, candlelight vigils across the country grew to the tens of thousands and became a powerful symbol of the AIDS era. The second candlelight vigil in Melbourne, 1986.

City Rhythm Collection, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Candlelight vigil led by Caroline Hogg and Keith Harbour

Caroline Hogg, Minister for Health, and Keith Harbour, VAC/GMHC President, lead a candlelight vigil, c. 1989/1990.

Phil Carswell / Living Positive Victoria

Adam Carr talking to media

The leadership of the early AIDS Council came from a strong background of politics and community activism.

They were politically savvy; they knew how to develop campaigns and how to work the media. Adam Carr talking to the media in 1985.

Adam Carr