My first involvement with gay activism was in the late 1970s when I helped to organise the National Homosexual Conference held in 1979 at the Universal Workshop in Fitzroy. To immerse yourself into a bunch of gay men and lesbians with interests as broad as getting homosexual law reform in Victoria to changing society through the overthrow of capitalism – was enormously energising for a twenty-something gay man who had grown up in rural Victoria to conservative parents.
That period was a time of great societal change with the era of “free love” (and the introduction of the “pill”), Women’s Liberation, Stonewall, Gay Liberation and the development of a visible gay scene in many western countries, providing the background for those of us with a political bent to try to change the oppressive social mores we lived under.
There is no forgetting the feelings of shame and stigma that came with being gay for many people at that time. For all the changes that initiatives like the Homosexual Conference might have made, we are still regarded as “on the fringes” of society, prone to police entrapment or harassment at beats (which happened to me more than once) and embarrassment if employers of families were to find out.
That “baby-boomer” generation of activists, like me, still hold those feelings of what it was like to live in a society where it was illegal to have sex between two males, where gay men and lesbians were belittled and defamed constantly in the parliament, the media and in workplaces throughout the country. (Not that it still doesn’t happen, to some degree!)
In some ways I think those feelings of injustice and the learning from activism provided me with some understanding of how to approach the HIV crisis when it appeared in the early 80s. It is often said that the remarkable coming-together of the gay community during that time to respond to the health needs of people with HIV, organising care teams, establishing the Victoria AIDS Action Committee ( later the Victorian AIDS Council) and mobilising prevention messages was unique: few other communities in Victoria could have responded so brilliantly and effectively.
There is no doubt in my mind that part of that ability to respond quickly had its roots in the organisation that had happened around gay law reform (achieved in 1981 in Victoria) and the greater connectedness and visibility of the gay community that sprang from that time.
You only have to look at the involvement of early Presidents of VAC who achieved so much in persuading governments to take HIV/AIDS seriously and to fund the gay community response. People like Phillip Carswell and Adam Carr were previously University “lefties” who understood politics and organising well enough to get their message out there very effectively. Sages like Jamie Gardiner who had developed invaluable contacts with politicians of both sides during his involvement with the law reform achievement were enormously helpful in establishing those necessary political connections.
My own involvement with HIV activism only really started in 1988 when I helped to establish People living With HIV/AIDS Victoria and became an openly HIV-positive member of the Victorian AIDS Council Board. My decision to be open about my HIV status, at a time when it was not easy to do so, was a product of not wanting to live with the secrecy and shame that I had first experienced about being gay in the early seventies. I was lucky to have a supportive workplace and friends and I guess I had a bit of the same desire to fight injustice in me that I had shared with activists from the late seventies, still ready to fire again.
There were concerns expressed by some gay activists at the time that HIV would “swallow” the gay rights agenda and to some degree, that was probably true. You could hardly sit by when hundreds of gay men were dying or at risk of dying or you would be left with a much depleted community to advocate for.
I think HIV helped gay rights in the long run, though. It was quite acceptable for politicians of all persuasions to discuss HIV with a bunch of gay men in leather jackets and long hair (in those days!). It was a public health issue and while some MPs were wary of the radical elements within producing the ACT Up protests for improved access to anti HIV drugs, there was great progress in getting public funding for HIV prevention campaigns.
As these programs have developed in AIDS Councils, broader issues of gay men’s health have necessarily followed. Current thinking with educators is that you have to look at the whole health needs of gay men, the “social determinants of health” to help people get to make good decisions about health prevention, including on drug and alcohol use and of course, safe practices to prevent HIV transmission.
I have continued my work on the Board of the Victorian AIDS Council and with Living Positive Victoria to promote the wellbeing of people living with HIV and gay men in general. In future years I hope VAC will be able to give more services to lesbians and people from the trans communities, and there are already moves to establish partnerships in this direction.
When it comes to broader gay rights, I have spent time on the Gay and Lesbian Policy Committee of a political party and we have worked on doing our bit to promote the awareness of gay marriage amongst local MPs, same sex adoption and removing the criminal records of early sex offences for gay men incurred before law reform.
Through both HIV and gay policy work, I have got to meet many MPs both at a Federal and State level. I would encourage every gay man and lesbian to get to know their local MP, to talk to them on gay rights issues whenever they get the chance. I think most people are amenable to a rational argument, even sometimes MPs with strong religious convictions that might make you think they would never listen to your argument. I also think people should join political parties to try to bring about change but I acknowledge that is not everyone’s cup of tea.
My life has been greatly improved by the advocacy for change in gay rights that has been wrought by leaders in our community. We should never forget the legacy they have provided and must continue to pursue the strong example they have set to get equality and freedom from discrimination in all aspects of society.