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AIDS activism in Australia

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and with me today is Dr Jennifer Power, a Research Fellow at La Trobe University's Bouverie Centre. She's here today to talk to me about HIV/AIDS activism in Australia which was the topic of her PhD. Thanks for joining me Jennifer.

Jennifer Power:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

Now, if you could tell me, what is AIDS activism?

Jennifer Power:

I guess broadly it's community-based social and political responses to AIDS, so in my PhD and my book I refer to it really as the AIDS movement so I think in Australia AIDS activism could really be kind of seen as a social movement in that way in that it involves quite a diverse range of organised grass-roots activism, so political lobbying, protest action, media engagement and cultural activism, so kind of street theatre or arts projects like the AIDS Quilt, so I think all of those actions were designed to elicit some sort of political or cultural change to improve things so in that sense, it's organised social action around AIDS.

Matt Smith:

How much organisation was it, was it a heavily organised movement?

Jennifer Power:

Yes, it was. I mean, it started as pockets, but because the issue was so pressing, the gay community, particularly in Australia was very quickly quite organised around AIDS, and you had some very savvy activists in that group, so you had a lot of people who either had a lot of experience in political organising and political action and/or who were lawyers or unionists or people that were quite able to engage on a political level quite quickly. It was highly organised at the time.

Matt Smith:

What was the attitude towards homosexuality in Australia before the activism?

Jennifer Power:

HIV and AIDS first emerged in the early 80s in Australia and it was a time that was quite a different political climate I guess in terms of attitudes towards lesbians and gay men than you'd have today. But things were changing. Obviously attitudes towards sexuality had changed quite a lot in the 60s and the 70s. Homosexuality was still on the criminal code in most states and territories in Australia. You still had some quite negative attitudes, and interestingly even though public opinion had changed quite dramatically, so in the 60s there was this real sense that it was a crime, that it was deviant, that it was immoral behaviour. Gradually through the 70s it changed towards this idea that homosexuality was an illness, a pathology kind of thing. So you had the sort of emergence of more liberal values saying we can't criminalise this behaviour, we can't punish these people, but it wasn't necessarily coming from a more liberal place, it was often coming from churches, who were saying you know, we need to take care of these people, we need to cure them, we need to look after them, because they're sick. So you did have this shift away from attitudes of punish these people towards look after these people. But it didn't necessarily mean there was more acceptance at the time. So there was sort of an emerging gay movement as well. So there was a shift, but certainly a lot of homophobia still.

Matt Smith:

What was the perception of AIDS then, when AIDS cases started to emerge in Australia?

Jennifer Power:

The first diagnosis in Australia was in 1983. People just didn't know what it was, really, and the only thing that doctors could see was that it was this disease that was attacking the immune system, quite dramatically, and that it was affecting young gay men. So the only connection that people saw in those early days was gayness. Originally doctors called it Gay-Related Immune Disease, that was the first official medical term for AIDS, and then there was more derogatory stuff going around such as The Gay Plague.

Matt Smith:

The Gay Cancer as well.

Jennifer Power:

Yeah, the Gay Cancer. In its early days, and you know, to a certain extent AIDS was still very much linked with homophobic attitudes, so people saw AIDS as the result of the gay lifestyle – they saw it as a result of sex, drugs and too much partying, too much hedonism, God's punishment for gay people, and it became very connected to the general homophobic attitudes.

Matt Smith:

How was the attitude towards AIDS within the gay community? Did it have that perception as well?

Jennifer Power:

No, well I think there was a lot of fear in the gay community, and I remember talking to one man who just said it was just really bizarre. There was this illness that came in and was just killing us because we're gay. So it was almost a surreal experience I think for a lot of people. I think the gay community pretty quickly realised the threat that AIDS posed, not only in terms of the disease, but also the potential for it to really entrench homophobic attitudes, so you had in those early days people suggesting things like quarantining all gay people, or very restrictive anti-homosexual policies, that kind of thing. So there was fear about what could happen as a result of AIDS in the gay community.

Matt Smith:

So, when the activism arose, when it first started, what was the aim of it? Was it more of a gradual development?

Jennifer Power:

Yeah, goals in that respect always develop a bit gradually in social movements, but certainly people were responding to – in the early days it was sort of the need to take this seriously, the need for a government response – but also to really, to challenge some of that potential homophobic response. So to actually come out and say, it's not because we're gay we can play a role in this response, listen to us, don't persecute us, that kind of thing, and I think they did that very successfully.

Matt Smith:

How has AIDS activism changed things for gay people?

Jennifer Power:

One of the things before AIDS which I always thought was interesting was that you had a lot of people speaking about gay people so whenever a topic related to homosexuality emerged in public debate, there was always doctors or lawyers or psychiatrists or priests or church figures – you know, someone was always the expert on homosexuality. And it was as though they were always talking about people who had no capacity to engage in these conversations, that they weren't adults, that they weren't intelligent, that there was something wrong. And one of the things that AIDS did I think, well, it really galvanised gay community activism and provided this forum around which people organised to make sure they had a presence, in debates, these activists were speaking on behalf of the gay community as well and about attitudes towards homosexuality as they related to AIDS and they were very successful in making sure that the media and that policy-makers and decision-makers considered them experts, if that makes sense. So over time, I think one of the interesting things with HIV/AIDS was that you had this shift whereby gay people were allowed to be experts about gay issues and it's pretty rare today you would hear any gay issues being debated in the media without gay groups or lesbian groups or the community being consulted in some way. You're not going to have a debate between the clergy and psychiatrists in the way you would before AIDS and I think that's been a shift that may have happened anyway with the gay movement, but it's all very linked because of AIDS and then of course other things over time, you know, gay activism over time has come a long way in terms of pushing for gay rights. You've had a lot of law reform that's happened in the last twenty, thirty years, that again may have happened anyway but I think if you look at Australian history, you can't pull out what was AIDS activism and what was gay activism, it's very much linked. Yes, so there's been really quite fundamental shifts I think in attitudes towards homosexuality since the early 80s.

Matt Smith:

How about just with public perception and awareness? Did that change radically as a result of AIDS activism?

Jennifer Power:

I think so. You had suddenly a reason for gay people to be on the TV responding to issues related to AIDS. AIDS also brought more money into the gay community – it was sort of paradoxical in a way that because of AIDS you've had resources for things like gay youth groups and other gay community groups' cultural events and that sort of thing, because that was part of AIDS prevention, to engage the community, and that in a way gave the community a way to achieve a higher profile in the community.

Matt Smith:

And was there tolerance as well with that recognition?

Jennifer Power:

I think there has been, over time. I mean, I think it's too simplistic, almost a bit patronising to say, oh, the gay community obviously responded very positively to AIDS and people could see that and they were responsible, they weren't these hedonistic, sick, irresponsible creatures that they were made out to be when AIDS first emerged. But in a way that did happen. The gay community did respond with this amazing public health action, public health education action and I think people actually could see that, they could see that these people knew what they were talking about, that they knew what they were doing, they had a intelligent and rational and reasonable response and that's played out over time.

Matt Smith:

What was the response in public health? Did AIDS activism improve the public health situation at all?

Jennifer Power:

I think public health in Australia has changed a lot, because of AIDS, but in the way these things happened, AIDS emerged in a particular political and historical context. So in the early 80s, you had a kind of movement towards what they were calling the new public health, so a kind of approach to public health that was much more about the need for cultural change, the need for community engagement, the need for advocacy, rather than just looking at public health as just a vaccine program or a medicalised kind of program. And in Australia, you'd had things like, in the mid 80s Hawke had introduced the Better Health Commission which was about responding to World Health Organisation goals for healthier communities, so there was a health prevention movement in a way, and you'd things like the Women's Health Movement that had introduced this idea into Australia about the democratisation of health and health care. So AIDS kind of emerged in that context where this was this general movement towards making public health more community led, or more community engaged. But AIDS I think was the first real test case for that. It was the first time you had a very organised savvy community group demanding their right to be involved in public health policy and in public health practice. In this case you had an illness where medicine couldn't really do a lot. At first they didn't really know what it was, but even when they did they certainly had no way to treat it, in the 80s, early 90s. So medicine was a little bit hamstrung and it was pretty clear that prevention was the only way to go, at the beginning. The most affected community in Australia was marginalised, stigmatised, pretty mistrustful of government, pretty mistrustful of medicine, but it made sense that the community needed to be involved in this, and luckily at the time, Blewitt who was the Health Minister could see that, and agreed to fund the organisations that had emerged through this community, to take a real lead in responding to AIDS, and you know, you also had a community that was able to make good on that. They could over time actually deliver some really good public health campaigns. And that really played out positively in Australia. Australia is lauded these days as having had one of the best public health responses to HIV and AIDS and it's held up in international forums as this model and the community involvement in that is essential to that model. It's a model that we've looked at for other illnesses subsequently. There's much more awareness about the need to engage communities and the benefits of that.

Matt Smith:

Is the perception of AIDS now the same that it used to be? I imagine it wouldn't be as bad but at the same time I believe there'd still be work to do in some aspects.

Jennifer Power:

Yes, I think so. Over time the nature of the epidemic has changed and I think it's seen much more now as a disease of under-development, of poverty, the worst hit areas in terms of HIV and AIDS are countries that are poor. And certainly for younger people that didn't grow up through the 80s that would be the image of AIDS I imagine, that they'd have more so. But yeah, I think in Australia it's predominantly affected gay men, and I think that context is still quite strong in Australia. But the vitriol isn't there in the same way. It's not quite seen as this disease that's caused by gay men and these horrible gay men are inflicting this on the community. It's not got quite the homophobic bite if you like that it used to. That's largely because activists were really good at making sure those ideas were challenged.

Matt Smith:

OK. So your book is Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism and HIV/AIDS in Australia by Dr Jennifer Power, and it is available from ANU e-Press, so on the Australian National University website. Dr Jennifer Power, thanks for your time today.

Jennifer Power:

Thank you.

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