BGF 30 Years: Bobby Goldsmith Foundation and 30 years of support
For thirty years, the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation has been supporting the community’s health and wellbeing, providing people living with HIV emotional, financial and practical assistance. On its 30th anniversary, Cec Busby charts the evolution of Australia’s oldest HIV charity.
When Bobby Goldsmith passed away on June 18, 1984, at the age of 38, he was one of the first Australians to succumb to an AIDS-related illness. But unlike many young gay men diagnosed with HIV that were shunned and stigmatised for having what was then known as ‘the gay plague’, Bobby died peacefully at home, cared for by friends and his loving partner Ken Bryan. It was Ken and these same friends who joined together to form the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Australia’s oldest HIV charity, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary of assisting people living with HIV/AIDS.
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Goldsmith was diagnosed with HIV in 1982, less than a year into his relationship with Bryan. It was an uncertain time for people living with HIV – little was known about virus – and Australia was in the grip of AIDS paranoia. By March 1984 Goldsmith’s health had deteriorated markedly. Despite the care he received at St Vincent’s Hospital, little could be done other than to alleviate the pain, so the decision was made to take Goldsmith home to live out his remaining weeks.
Above: Bobby Goldsmith
In those days organisations such as ACON, the Community Support Network and Ankali didn’t exist to provide home-based care for people living with HIV, so when Goldsmith came home, it was up to his friends and partner to provide all aspects of his care.
“When Bob came home for the last time, we needed a TVand a video recorder to keep him company while I was at work,” Bryan recalls. “In those days they were not cheap.” So with the help of a few mates – “John G, John P, Terry P, Jimmie T, Kenny S, Jenny M” – Bryan organised a benefit.
The fundraiser, held at the Midnight Shift on Oxford Street on May 13, 1984 and billed simply as ‘A Party’, was auspiced by the Gays Counselling Service for the ‘AIDS Benefit Fund’ as the group of friends had begun to call itself. “The event raised over $6,000 which was far more than Bob’s needs,” Bryan says.
The friends decided to continue the group’s work to assist the growing number of people affected by AIDS. “When Bob finally succumbed, we used this money to form the BGF Committee and thus the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation,” says Bryan.
BGF: THE EARLY YEARS
The early years of BGF was a labour of love for its originating members, who raised funds in their spare time to assist other gay men living with HIV.
“Once a week on a Saturday, we would all gather upstairs at the Shift – I was the treasurer,” Bryan says. “We were not paid but donated our time. We would discuss ways of raising money on that night. We created ‘The Boys Own Bake Off’ with the help of Allan Goodchild and it was held at The Oxford Hotel, which Peter Whittle let us use without charge.”
Other activities included fundraisers at the now defunct lesbian venue, Jools, with the assistance of Dawn O’Donnell. Bryan says in those early days they had to learn how to run BGF on the fly.
“I was treasurer for two years but eventually stopped due to other commitments and a little burnout. I remember handing over the books to the accountant who was taking over from me. My accounting methods were rudimentary and to the accountant’s surprise, the books were accurate to the dollar, even though the receipts were in a shoebox, all two years of them! I laugh now but it was just the way it was back then.”
Thirty years on Bryan says he’s proud of all that BGF has achieved in the ensuing years. “I see how far things have come and how much it has changed. I am so proud to see how BGF has developed into a strong charity caring for others. I know that Bobby would also be proud of this great organisation.”
GALLERY: Check out BGF's campaigns over the years
ON THE FRONTLINE
As well as fundraising, the BGF also took the lead in helping to spread the word about safe sex as a means of HIV prevention, publishing 10,000 copies of a brochure titled G’day which was distributed to gay organisations throughout the country and to public hospitals in every state bar Queensland. It was the first of its kind to be published in Australia and was paid for entirely with money raised by BGF from the gay community in Sydney.
Following a meeting with the late gay rights activist Lex Watson in December 1984, BGF also called and sponsored a major public meeting on AIDS held at the Teachers Federation Auditorium on February 7, 1985. The meeting was an opportunity to learn what was being done about HIV, what plans were in place and what can people do. That meeting resulted in the formation of the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON).
AIDS education continued to be a priority for BGF, and when in February 1985 the NSW Health Department decided not to fund a campaign promoting the use of condoms, BGF stepped in to meet the cost. The campaign’s ‘Rubba Me’ slogan was also used for a benefit party later that month.
In 1985 BGF organised the first Boys Own Bake-off with Leo Schofield and Rose Jackson presiding as judges. The inaugural event raised $8000 and started a tradition of annual BGF bake-off’s that carries on to this day.
In just two short years BGF had moved from a group of concerned friends caring for a loved one to an incorporated organisation and charitable foundation that had raised over $150,000.
GALLERY: Check out BGF's community events over the past 30 years
BGF & THE PRACTICALITIES OF HIV
In the height of the 80s and early 90s, people living with HIV AIDS had a very different prognosis to today. The focus was less on medication and treatment and more on the practicalities of living with a life-threatening illness. BGF provided very immediate support to those living with HIV/AIDS including supplying items such as televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and blankets. Between 1984 and 1994, BGF helped more than 1,400 people. Today, they assist that number every year.
“The Bobby Goldsmith Foundation began with acts of care,” says former BGF CEO Bev Lange. “Thirty years on that’s what it’s still doing. Like many community organisations BGF’s beginnings were humble and grassroots, but with great capacity to make the most of little money for the growing number of people needing urgent help.
“Immediate needs such as supplying mattresses, medical equipment, repairing fridges, and keeping people at home for as long as possible was BGF’s focus. It’s been said a number of times, but as the treatment of HIV changed, so did the lives of people living with HIV. A future for many could be imagined and feeling well was possible.”
ACON CEO Nicolas Parkhill says such support from BGF was vital for the health and wellbeing of the community, especially during the early days of the epidemic.
“For some, the care and assistance provided by BGF was the only support they received, due to the harsh impact of stigma and discrimination,” Parkhill says.
GALLERY: Staff, volunteers, friends and supporters of BGF
THE EVOLUTION OF BGF
As the HIV epidemic evolved, so too did BGF’s modus operandi. Support was no longer just about fridges and televisions; by the mid-90s, the organisation began to look at providing assistance through a wider lens and with a more holistic approach.
These days, BGF’s focus has expanded to include advocacy, supported accommodation, medication adherence and early intervention. Counselling, housing, study and employment support are now all part of BGF’s outlook.
“People living with HIV can rely on BGF to help them stay well, plan for their future, build capacity and live with dignity,” says Lange. “BGF have always been there for its community. It has fought tenaciously for people living with HIV and their rights, and chased donations and funding to keep services going. It’s an organisation that has always been true to its purpose.”
Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation Executive Director Rob Lake said the community owes a great debt to BGF for the assistance it has provided to people living with HIV/AIDS over the years.
"In the last ten years, BGF has worked for the longer term needs of its many clients,” Lake says. “As their lives and health changes, BGF has been there. Many, with improved health, are heading back to work or on to new opportunities.
"For those who have not benefited from health improvements or for whom poverty and other health needs remain a strong burden, BGF is there and remains at the forefront of NSW HIV services. “
"BGF's growth has been predicated on compassion and humanity,” Lake says. “Through care and practical help, BGF has been critical in helping so many people over the years. AFAO is proud to congratulate BGF, its staff, volunteers and fundraisers for those many great years of work.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Parkhill. “ACON is extremely grateful to the many BGF staff, volunteers and supporters over the last 30 years for their contribution to NSW’s HIV response and the difference they have made in lives of thousands of people and families affected by HIV.”
For people like Lange and others in the BGF family, past and present, the organisation remains a beacon of generosity, camaraderie and benevolence.
“I’m honoured to have been a small part of BGF’s history and I say thank you to the staff, drag queens, donors, volunteers, bucket shakers, performers, venue owners and everyone who made a fabulous roll call over the past 30 years,” Lange says. “Such an anniversary is a time to remember the many people like Bobby Goldsmith who blessed our lives.”
BGF patron, former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, says it is organisations like BGF that has laid a strong foundation for the community.
“BGF is also an illustration of the way in which communities can grow to respond to HIV and to ensure that no one is left out of the circle of assistance,” Kirby says.
“It is sad to recall that, in part because of the huge challenge of HIV, communities of gay men, in the early frontline of the epidemic, formed themselves to assert their rights and demand respect for the dignity and equality as citizens and human beings.
“This demand is continuing and has spread to the LGBT community in Sydney and Australia.
“This was achieved not as a top-down consequence of legal change alone.
“It was achieved as a grass roots movement, growing out of actual day to day assistance and kindness to those in desperate need.”
VIDEO: Check out Justin Xiao's story as part of a BGF campaign launched in 2013