The spirit of collective action

By 1988 AIDS was no longer an impending threat, but an all too frightening reality. In spite of the rapid progression of the HIV epidemic, VAC staff and volunteers were responding with remarkable determination and courage. Several working groups, which became known as programs, were busy providing quality care and support to people with HIV/AIDS, developing education campaigns aimed at preventing the spread of HIV, advocating for the rights of those with HIV/AIDS and providing a strong voice for the gay community. The VAC had also seen the establishment of a specialist medical clinic, the Gay Men’s Community Health Centre (GMCHC). However, the organisation was dealing with significant internal tensions, as well as the ever-present external pressures of media hype, discrimination, client and community expectations and funding restrictions. It was a challenging time for all those working in the AIDS and gay men’s health sector, with the HIV epidemic taking its toll. Although annual rates of new HIV infections in Victoria peaked at over 500 cases in 1985 and continued to decrease through the 1990s, the number of HIV positive people developing AIDS rose, peaking from 1992 to 1995.1 With antiretroviral drug treatments for HIV, such as AZT, ddI and ddC, still in development and not yet having an impact on the epidemic, people were dying.

In addition to dealing with overwhelming demand for their services, VAC and GMCHC staff and volunteers were also grieving the loss of friends, family and partners, and many were also forced to confront their own mortality. David Menadue points out that with the number of people dying as a result of AIDS-related illness ever increasing during this period, when people came together for a meeting ‘they’re all in some ways coming from different directions, trying to manage that, and the level of angst, and the grief, it was very difficult. It’s understandable we had some stoushes’.2 However, as can often be seen in times of great adversity, the HIV epidemic also brought out the best in many people, with the gay community continuing to rally to support each other:

you had gay men all over Melbourne cleaning up the vomit of their best friend, and wiping his arse when he’s shat himself, sleeping in the next bed so that you could be alert at night-time when he woke up in trouble … It was a remarkable, remarkable thing. So while it was a dreadful time it was also full of quite extraordinary human examples of quite touching and loving friendships.3


Ceremonial unfolding of AIDS quilt 1
Ceremonial unfolding of AIDS quilt 2

Ceremonial unfolding of the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt during the 7th International AIDS Candlelight Vigil, National Gallery of Victoria, 1991. Attendees gathered at Flinders Street Station beforehand and marched to the gallery for the unfolding in the Great Hall. The quilt is made from cloth panels produced in memory of people who have died from AIDS. It was first launched in Sydney on World AIDS Day, 1 December 1988.

Phil Carswell