A future without HIV

In 2013, as the VAC/GMHC celebrates 30 years of operation, staff, volunteers and clients all look toward a future when HIV/AIDS is cured and the Victorian AIDS Council in its current form is no longer necessary. Brendon Cameron became actively involved in the organisation when he tested HIV positive in 1988. When asked about his hopes for the future of the VAC/GMHC, he writes ‘Hopefully, one day, it won’t be needed, but as long as people are living with the virus I hope the VAC will be here to help out’.1 It is rare that the closure of an organisation is something that everyone closely involved with it hopes for. However, the eventual closure of the VAC/GMHC will mean that a cure for HIV has finally been found. ‘At many times throughout the history of the epidemic, hope appeared that the end of HIV was in sight and the organisation may not need to continue’, comments Executive Director Matt Dixon in 2013.2 Yet while HIV/AIDS endures, so too will the VAC/GMHC.

While research continues to progress ever closer to this possibility, the work of the VAC/GMHC is far from over. ‘At the coalface’, wrote Dixon in the 2012 Annual Report, ‘while we completely welcome advances toward an end to HIV, we recognise that we are running a marathon, not a sprint’.3 Staff and volunteers no longer face the demands of the aggressively relentless epidemic that HIV/AIDS was just two decades ago, but there are a number of new demands on the horizon for the organisation.

As the epidemic grew increasingly complex through its second and third decades, with the support of government and partner organisations and the dedication of volunteers, the VAC/GMHC established a strong position to deal with new challenges. It battled fiercely against a seemingly overwhelming epidemic and fought hard to establish appropriate medical and support services, and develop effective education campaigns to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS among the gay community and beyond.

As treatments improved and the epidemic lost visibility, VAC/GMHC programs worked to maintain the relevance and effectiveness of their activities within communities for which HIV seemed a problem of the past, rather than a present reality. In addition to the emerging challenge of caring for an ageing HIV positive community, the number of new HIV notifications each year remains an ongoing concern. Through pioneering prevention campaigns and innovative support services, the VAC/GMHC continues to evolve with the epidemic, remaining at the forefront of the response to HIV/AIDS. Many of the Health Promotion Program’s campaigns capture international attention. Past President Kevin Guiney comments:

The education/health promotion messages … put out by the Victorian AIDS Council stand head and shoulders above a lot across the world. Wherever the VAC presents at an international conference … there is always a queue for people to get in.4

In addition to these core activities, the VAC/GMHC remains an important advocate for the rights of PLWHAs and the gay community. Throughout its history, the organisation has worked hard lobbying governments to rectify anti-discrimination legislation and address the fear and prejudice surrounding HIV/AIDS. While many battles were won, the fight for equal rights and acceptance of GBLTI communities in Victoria, and nationwide, continues.

Today, the VAC/GMHC is continuing to develop and expand relationships with a variety of community groups and organisations to address HIV in the broader social context. ‘In the work that we do’, writes Matt Dixon, ‘relationships are extremely important. HIV is determined by many things, including education, social exclusion, poverty, stigma and discrimination and mental health issues’.5 In light of this, for the latest strategic review the organisation sought community consultation to help best determine its future direction. Two clear messages came out of these discussions. The first was not to lose sight of HIV, and the second was to examine how the VAC/GMHC’s resources could be used to help wider GBLTI communities. ‘The VAC/GMHC has some valuable resources’, the Board reported in 2012, ‘and these could be put to good use to ensure that we are looking beyond HIV – to some of the important health issues prevalent for gay, bisexual, lesbian and trans people’.6

Although there is already a lot of work being done in these areas by other organisations, there are many ways in which the VAC/GMHC can work with sexually and gender diverse communities to improve health outcomes, including HIV issues.7 Bill O’Loughlin believes that refocusing on the community is the next step forward for the VAC/GMHC:

The challenge for the organisation is to be able to recapture this sense of community development … To not be an organisation that does things for the community, but an organisation of the community working according to what the community wants to do, and is seen to be their organisation. It’s much more difficult to do now because back then we were impelled by the crisis so there was an urgency and a never to be repeated set of circumstances.8

Colin Batrouney, Manager of the Health Promotion Program, agrees that the strong community involvement in the organisation is what makes it such a unique and rewarding place to work:

It is the best place to work at because it’s about my community. And I really do believe that – and I sincerely believe this otherwise I wouldn’t still be here – it provides me with an opportunity to do things for my community in a really direct way, and in the best instances have the idea that I’m actually changing things for the better.9

While broadening its activities and responding to the needs of the communities it serves, the VAC/GMHC is not losing sight of HIV. ‘As we worked through our strategic planning process’, wrote President Kirsten Machon in 2012, ‘there was never a doubt that even with all these developments, HIV would remain the focus of our work’.10

Despite the fear, heartbreak, tension and sorrow endured in the darkest days of the epidemic, the VAC/GMHC has remained a community of hardworking, compassionate and loving people with an unfailing dedication to the organisation, to the hope of the eradication of HIV and most of all, to supporting each other. In 2013 the VAC/GMHC can look back with enormous pride on its many ground-breaking achievements in the battle against HIV. The fight is not over, but the VAC/GMHC looks determinedly towards a future without HIV that no longer seems out of reach.


John Hall umbrellas

HIV Services Manager John Hall.