The darkest hour is the one before dawn

By the mid-1990s, everything that the early founders of the Victorian AIDS Council had feared was coming true. AIDS-related deaths were the highest they had ever been, and nothing seemed to be able to stop them. The development of AZT, which at first had seemed so promising, had quickly proved otherwise. After working as a volunteer carer in the Support Program for ten years, Mary Bodkin recalled sadly in 1994:

I filled in a form which was on one of the pages of the Sydney Star Observer towards the end of last year. They asked us to count up all the people we knew who had died from HIV/AIDS. And I stopped at a hundred. Then I had to write down all the people that I know that were HIV. I stopped at 50 … it’s a numbing process.1

Tony Keenan was President of the VAC/GMHC leading up to this time. He remembers:

People started to die in big numbers. [We were] dealing with an organisation where people on the board, key staff, are dying and dying in numbers. The organisation was so explosive. A lot of my memory of that time is people being very vulnerable, people being very passionate.2

The formation of People Living With AIDS (PLWA) and ACT UP in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave strength and support to HIV positive people, as well as a political outlet for activists and those unsatisfied with existing government actions. David Menadue was heavily involved with the VAC/GMHC and PLWA Victoria during this era and he recalls: ‘That period of time was full of angst … it was because people felt so much passion, people were dying, positive people themselves were angry’.3

The organisations, which included by this time the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), Gay Men’s Health Centre (GMHC) and People Living With AIDS (PLWA) Victoria, were a simmering pot of mixed emotions threatening to boil over at any moment. The National AIDS Conference, ‘Living with HIV – the Next Decade’, held in Sydney in 1992 highlighted the undercurrent of discord running between some HIV positive people, AIDS Councils and other health and HIV/AIDS related organisations. David Menadue was at that conference, and he remembers feeling ‘totally ashamed’ when an HIV positive speaker berated the audience of largely community workers and healthcare professionals for not doing more for HIV positive people and made a point of separating HIV positive people from non-positive people.4 In the VAC/GMHC 1993 Annual Report, President Michael Bartos highlighted the obligation the organisation had to people living with HIV/AIDS and also to the wider gay community. He described the path ahead as ‘a difficult one, with some inbuilt tensions’.5

It was not long before those tensions manifested themselves rather dramatically. Vikki Sinnott first joined the organisation as an AIDS Mate in 1984. A decade later she was Vice President of the VAC/GMHC and remembers the unease of that time:

By 1994 the VAC/GMHC had come of age; ten years of bittersweet development and growth had been celebrated the year before. The eleventh year, the beginning of the next decade’s response to HIV/AIDS, had much to live up to. Unfortunately in the struggle to find ways to work together, communicate, make decisions and step forward, many bad habits were established that set the scene for increasing savagery in the years ahead.6

By 1994, the VAC/GMHC had purchased and moved into its new home in Claremont Street, South Yarra. The search for a suitable building had been long, but finding somewhere that offered the financial security of ownership as opposed to renting, was a welcome move.7 There was a strong feeling in PLWA Victoria that positive people needed to play a more active role in the Victorian AIDS Council, including greater representation on the Board. In September 1994, Bradley Engelmann was the first positive man to stand for election as VAC/GMHC President. Engelmann and PLWA Victoria, backed by the VAC/GMHC Support Program, wanted more HIV positive people on the Board to shift the focus of the organisation towards positive people advocating directly for the needs of positive people. Engelmann won the election, and so began a new era of HIV positive people’s involvement in the VAC/GMHC.8

Bradley Engelmann took up the presidency in late 1994 with James Nagle, another positive man, as his co-Vice President. The new Board headed by Engelmann took a much more hands-on approach to the day-to-day running of the council, where previously the Board had maintained its distance. Many staff members felt uncomfortable with this level of scrutiny, and tensions soon mounted between staff and Board members. What’s more, the Board itself was not functioning coherently. Divisions were forming, split between the positive and non-positive voice. After one weekend planning session, the Board was unable to agree on something as fundamental as the aims of the organisation. Kevin Guiney was elected as a Board member in 1992. He remembers this time as one of great stress and conflict:

It became impossible, to the point where one meeting, I was driving to go to the meeting, I just had to turn around and go home because I was just vomiting in the car. There was so much stress that I resigned from the Board.9

Jim Hyde, who was General Manager at the time, resigned soon after the September 1994 election, not wanting to participate in the tumultuous times of a new and determined leadership.10 Shortly after Hyde’s resignation, James Nagle passed away; a poignant reminder of how quickly and aggressively HIV/AIDS could strike.

At the same time, renewed threats to Fairfield Hospital were emerging. The Kennett government was proposing to close the hospital and shift HIV/AIDS services to another institution. This was a source of major stress for the entire gay community, especially people living with HIV/AIDS. Debates raged over how to save Fairfield and, if it could not be saved, which hospital should take over HIV services. By the time of the 1995 election, the organisation was divided. Engelmann’s leadership team had alienated a large number of staff and volunteers with an approach that assumed anyone who opposed them was in opposition to all people living with AIDS.11 Two separate tickets ran that year: Engelmann’s Community Team and the Stronger Together team led by Joseph O’Reilly. Tony Keenan supported this second ticket but remembers ‘the whole election period as being particularly vicious’.12

The results were close, but Joseph O’Reilly won the election and became President of the VAC/GMHC. Despite a change in leadership, however, the Board was split evenly across the two camps and things were still tense, as it was announced that Fairfield Hospital would definitely close. The Board was divided on the decision of which hospital should house HIV/AIDS services – St Vincent’s or The Alfred. Looking back a few years later, Tony Keenan wrote that this was a decision ‘a healthy, functioning organisation with a united Board would have found difficult, but the increasingly dysfunctional culture of the organisation meant that when faced with this crisis, the organisation imploded’.13 As a result of the inability of the Board to reach a consensus, several members resigned, starting with President Joseph O’Reilly in late February 1996. The remaining Board members agreed unanimously that the organisation had reached a point at which it was completely dysfunctional and an independent external review was needed. The Board suspended itself, and President Barry Janes with General Manager Bernard Gardiner were left in charge until the review was completed.14

To Fairfield Hospital Vignette


References


Praying for people with HIV AIDS

Praying for people with HIV/AIDS at St Mark’s Church in Fitzroy, 1993.

Photograph by Mathias Heng. State Library of Victoria, H95.190/10

Tony Keenan

Vikki Sinnott

Tony Keenan, President 1991–1993, (top) and Vikki Sinnott, Vice President 1992–1994,(bottom) were both closely involved with the organisation as it came to the end of its first decade, a time of increasing tensions.

VAC/GMHC Annual Report 1998

An AIDS patient resting in his home

A father comforting his son

By the mid-1990s, everything that the early founders of the Victorian AIDS Council had feared was coming true. AIDS-related deaths were the highest they had ever been with no change in sight.

Top: An AIDS patient resting in his home at St Kilda in 1993.

Photograph by Mathias Heng. State Library of Victoria, H95.190/6

Bottom: An AIDS patient is comforted by his father at Fairfield Hospital in 1993.

Photograph by Mathias Heng. State Library of Victoria, H95.190/4

Bradley Helen and Bernard

President Bradley Engelmann with Helen Evans of the AIDS & Communicable Diseases Branch, Department of Human Services and Health, and Bernard Gardiner, General Manager, in 1995.

Bernard Gardiner

JAC 1994-1995

Joint Advisory Committee (JAC), 1995–1996: Barry Janes, Lauren Firestone, Susan Paxton, Ian Gould, Bernard Gardiner, Pam Turnbull, Dean Michael, Sonja Ristov, Darren Donnelly, Peter Davis, Gary Glare.

Bernard Gardiner

JAC 1995-1996

Joint Advisory Committee (JAC), 1995–1996: Barry Janes, Lauren Firestone, Susan Paxton, Ian Gould, Bernard Gardiner, Pam Turnbull, Dean Michael, Sonja Ristov, Darren Donnelly, Peter Davis, Gary Glare.

Bernard Gardiner

Bernard Gardiner and Joseph OReilly

Bernard Gardiner, General Manager, and Joseph O’Reilly, who became President in 1995 after winning a hard-fought election.

Bernard Gardiner