Facing discrimination

 

‘Working against homophobia since 1983’: VAC/GMHC staff on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), 2009.

‘Working against homophobia since 1983’: VAC/GMHC staff on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), 2009.

 

From its very foundation, the Victorian AIDS Council was keenly aware of the potential discrimination faced by people with HIV/AIDS. The AIDS crisis began just when gay men in Australia were starting to be granted the legal freedoms they deserved with regard to their sexual orientation. Many of the men and women who fought for these rights and freedoms were active during the gay rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. These same people became instrumental in the establishment of the Victorian AIDS Council.

By 1980, homosexuality was decriminalised in Victoria. While long overdue, this legislation did little to combat the fear and discrimination the gay community would begin to face with the advent of HIV/AIDS. From the very beginning the VAC/GMHC worked hard to combat prejudice and discrimination through advocacy, education and representation. Outlined in the purposes of the organisation when it was first incorporated in 1985 was the objective:

To take any action and do any thing necessary for or conductive or incidental to, the preservation or extension of the rights and liberties of gay men and women, especially in the context of social reaction to AIDS and related illnesses.1

The organisation encompassed a variety of working groups and programs that advocated for and protected the rights and freedoms of gay and HIV positive people. As early as 1985 the unions and workplace group campaigned on a variety of industrial problems relating to HIV/AIDS. As a result of the work of the organisation, the ACTU became the first national trade union council to adopt a policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation and physical impairment, as well as actively encouraging all unions to educate members about AIDS.2 In 1987, in light of fears of HIV positive people becoming scapegoats, the VAC actively opposed mandatory antibody testing.

In 1988, the VAC/GMHC participated in the discussion on new infectious diseases legislation. As a result of this review, the Victorian government amended the Equal Opportunity Act to make discrimination on the basis of HIV status illegal. Victoria was, at the time, the only state in Australia to do this. It was not until five years later that the Federal Disability Discrimination Act made it unlawful to discriminate against people on the basis of their HIV status. It was around this time that positive men and women were taking a stand and speaking out in public about their lives and the conditions of people living with HIV/AIDS.

A two million dollar federal government campaign against AIDS and HIV discrimination was launched in Melbourne in January 1993.

The campaign included television and print media advertisements encouraging HIV positive people to speak out and take action against discrimination. Geoffrey Harrison spoke at the launch about the discrimination he had faced since being diagnosed as HIV positive in 1988, including having been refused life insurance and entry to gay bars. ‘I think the legislation will give individuals the confidence to fight decisions and situations which they would not have in the past.’ 3

In 1998, the VAC/GMHC became involved in the case of Matthew Hall, who had been diagnosed HIV positive in 1996. In 1998 Hall applied for registration with the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA). After discovering his HIV status the VAFA denied his registration, arguing the ban was justified as a necessary precaution in protecting the health and safety of players and officials. Hall took his case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) citing discrimination against him by the VAFA on the grounds of his HIV status. The VAC/GMHC became involved, advocating for Hall and concerned about the wider implications should VCAT rule in favour of the VAFA.

In April 1999, VCAT found that the VAFA was unjustified in banning one openly HIV positive player and ruled that his registration be reinstated. Following this the VAC/GMHC Executive Director Mike Kennedy spoke to a group of VAFA clubs to educate them about HIV/AIDS, particularly in relation to a sporting situation. The Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care funded a comprehensive training program about blood-borne diseases and sporting practices, which the VAFA agreed to implement.4 Matthew Hall’s case was a victory not just for him but for the HIV positive community.

 

Footballer Matthew Hall, whose case drew attention to the issue of discrimination against HIV positive people playing contact sports. Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Footballer Matthew Hall, whose case drew attention to the issue of discrimination against HIV positive people playing contact sports. Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

 

Despite changes to legislation, however, HIV positive people as well as the gay community continue to face discrimination on a daily basis. The VAC/GMHC continues to advocate for the rights of HIV positive people. In 2000, it played a supportive role in the case of an HIV positive woman attempting to gain access to IVF.5 Since the urgency of the AIDS epidemic has receded, the VAC/GMHC has been able to direct some of its energies towards advocacy and support for the wider LGBTI communities, particularly in relation to health and wellbeing.


References