The Uniquely Victorian Red Ribbon

 

Red Ribbon creator Brent Lacey in August 1992. Brother Sister Collection, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Red Ribbon creator Brent Lacey in August 1992. Brother Sister Collection, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

 

In May 1992, Melbourne-based flight attendant Brent Lacey was in New York when he noticed small red ribbons on display in a book store. They were in remembrance of people who had died of AIDS. The previous year a group of artists had created an HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon as a symbol of the fight against the epidemic, to increase public awareness and to demonstrate compassion for people living with AIDS. The colour red was chosen for its ‘connection to blood and the idea of passion’, while the ribbon – with a loop at the top secured by a safety pin – was selected because it was easy to recreate and wear.1

Incorporating a safety pin into the design of the ribbon represented a message of safe sex. Tex McKenzie, Health Educator at the VAC/GMHC, explains the significance:

In the late 1980s, the safety pin had been used in the USA as a subtle tool that identified the wearer as someone who only practiced safe sex. Combining the pin with the red ribbon combined the dual messages of support for people with HIV and a reminder that safe sex was the answer to halt the spread of the virus.2

Returning to Melbourne, where he witnessed the discrimination and ignorance endured by his HIV positive partner, and friends in the airline industry and in the gay community living with AIDS, Lacey felt compelled to do something. ‘Being HIV negative I felt responsible for trying to help the situation’, he says.3 Lacey decided that producing a red ribbon similar to the ones he had seen in New York would serve the dual purpose of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and collecting funds to help with the fight against the disease.

Lacey approached Birch Haberdashery in Richmond, who generously donated 20 rolls of ribbon. With help from his airline colleagues, as well as friends and members of the gay community, the first few thousand ribbons were made. Redesigning the ribbons he had seen in New York, Lacey deleted the loop at the top, enabling an extra 20 or so ribbons to be created from a bulk roll. He retained the safety pin as a safe sex reminder but positioned the pin at the front of the ribbon as a visible symbol. In this way the uniquely Victorian Red Ribbon was created.

In August 1992, Lacey approached the fundraising arm of the Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre with the suggestion that it take on the making and selling of the ribbons. But the organisation was sceptical of the venture’s potential – concerned that no-one would be interested in either making or selling the ribbons – and declined the invitation.

When soprano Joan Carden appeared on national television wearing a Red Ribbon while singing the National Anthem at the 1992 AFL Grand Final, the exposure had a substantial impact and community awareness spread rapidly. But Lacey wanted to expand further.

He approached retail beauty chain, The Body Shop, known for its support of social and environmental campaigns. They agreed to sell Red Ribbons in Body Shop stores nationally, which was a major triumph. Funds raised through the sale of the ribbons were regularly donated to the David Williams Fund.

World Aids Day on 1 December 1992 was another turning point. Melbourne Lord Mayor Desmond Clark agreed to allow Red Ribbons to be tied to lampposts along Collins Street and outside Parliament House, where the candlelight vigil would finish. Birch Haberdashery gave hundreds of rolls of red silk and teams of volunteers adorned Collins and Spring streets, creating a symbolic and moving tribute.

 

The Red Ribbon project receives an initiative award. Tony Keenan, Phil Carswell, Adam Carr, Judith Waller, Neal Blewett, Michael Bartos and Brent Lacey.

The Red Ribbon project receives an initiative award.

 

During 1993, the VAC/GMHC offered to take over management of the project. The campaign had become too big for one person. The VAC/GMHC provided a network of volunteers to make and sell the ribbons and developed a distribution plan. Tex McKenzie played an important role in the changeover. Lacey recalls, ‘if it wasn’t for Tex’s compassionate tenacity and his foresight in trying to marry it all together within VAC, I really don’t think the ribbon project would have evolved the way it did once under management at VAC’.4 Some time later a local designer incorporated the Victorian Red Ribbon into the new logo for the VAC/GMHC.

The Red Ribbon project continued to expand and support grew. Weekend workshops were held at gay venues where volunteers made thousands of ribbons. People from all parts of the community pitched in to help. Later other organisations and causes adopted ribbons in different colours to represent their cause.

In 1994 Brent Lacey received an Order of Australia for his contribution to community health through the Red Ribbon project. Today when he sees people from all parts of the community wearing the Red Ribbon, he is immensely satisfied. ‘Seeing it out there makes me very proud,’ he says. ‘It’s part of life now.’

The unique shape of the Victorian Red Ribbon was a point of difference and a cost saving measure, but it also provides an additional meaning with particular significance. ‘The ribbon is designed as an inverted ‘V’ so that when a cure for HIV is discovered the ribbon can be turned upside down to be a symbolic ‘V’ for victory over HIV.’5 ‘We’re still not there yet’, says Lacey. ’Let’s hope we can turn it up for V for victory.’

 

Red Ribbons


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