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The early history of Queensland's AIDS epidemic through the eyes of a historian

The early history of Queensland's AIDS epidemic through the eyes of a historian

CREATED ON // Friday, 18 July 2014

AIDS activist and historian Phil Carswell looks back at the early history of the Queensland AIDS Council, now in its 30th year.

On June 5, 1981 the first published reports of a new syndrome of diseases amongst a cohort of five gay men in L.A. appeared in the scientific press. By November 1982 the first case was reported in Australia (Sydney), he was an American gay man, a tourist. On July 8, 1983 the death occurred in Melbourne of the first Australian person to be diagnosed with AIDS in Australia.

AIDS had arrived and our lives would never be the same again.

Across the country the gay community mobilised to meet this new threat. Whilst we all knew it was going to be bad because of the rapid increase in cases and the high rate of quick deaths, none of us knew just how bad it was going to get. In most states the community mobilisation was supported by governments and nationally the Commonwealth government under the leadership of Dr Neal Blewett as Federal Health Minister worked hard to encourage a partnership approach between doctors, governments and affected communities.

This partnership flourished in all states except Queensland.



[Image] A poster which circulated in Qld during the AIDS epidemic.

In Queensland the conservative government led by Joh Bjelke-Petersen would not co-operate in relation to education about “a degenerate lifestyle”. The Premier was reported as saying “I am against the dirty and despicable acts these people carry out. You can’t get any beast or animal that is so depraved to carry on the way they do”. Joh used every tactic possible to frustrate and block the work of the fledgling Queensland AIDS Council.

In October 1984, an attempt was made in Brisbane to form a viable AIDS organisation for Queensland. Fourteen members of QuAC met in an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.

Then on November 16, 1984 an announcement was made of the deaths of four Brisbane babies from contaminated blood transfusions and the world all changed again. Suddenly AIDS was front page news and community anger was on the rise. New punitive legislation was rushed through the Queensland Parliament in a couple of hours. There was media outrage – “Die you deviate” was a memorable headline from this time. There were also newspaper reports of office workers refusing to work with homosexuals, taxi drivers refusing fares, abuse of homosexuals on buses and on the streets. A report was also received from a ferry driver that shots had been fired from a passing car at a public toilet reputedly frequented by homosexuals.

QuAC wrote to Health Minister Brian Austin seeking a meeting; however no reply was ever received. This pattern of behaviour continued for years so in reality QuAC had no support but had a huge task in trying to educate a hostile public about the true facts around AIDS. This was a mammoth job and the organisation had to work exceptionally hard to gather friends and supporters in a hostile atmosphere.

QuAC tried to establish a separate legal entity to receive funds from the Commonwealth however the three Trustees appointed were investigated by the Queensland Special Branch. QuAC tried to gain charitable status through the Department of Justice but they refused until QuAC, amongst other things, handed over the names and addresses of all its members, which of course QuAC refused. This requirement was unheard of previously.

The Queensland Health Department says that “no formal relationship can be developed between an illegal activity and a government department”. They further state that “the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as safe sexual practices with someone who has AIDS.”

When antibody testing becomes available dozens of people used the name of “Joh Bjelke-Petersen” when getting tested. There are also threats of violence and death within the gay community when names are passed onto health authorities as part of the contact tracing process.

In November 1985 the Queensland Liquor Act is amended prohibiting drug dealers, sexual perverts or deviants and child molesters from being on or in licensed premises. Significant public uproar occurs and QuAC sees a direct attack on one of the few places they can reach gay men – gay pubs.

On December 22, 1986, controversy erupts when the new state Health Minister, Mike Ahern, and the Premier clash over the installation of condom vending machines in Queensland. The Premier says the introduction of such machines is like “letting everyone set up prostitution parlours so we can all be raped. If you introduce these things it will encourage young people to carry on in this manner. Are you asking that we escalate this immorality?”

As late as November 1987 no funds have been allocated by Queensland Health to QuAC because the government cannot be seen to be supporting homosexuality, which is illegal in Queensland. All Commonwealth funds are laundered through the Sisters of Mercy.

December 2, 1989: Wayne Goss and the ALP defeats Premier Russell Cooper and the LNP. Queensland was out of step with the partnership approach adopted throughout the rest of Australia; in fact, they actively tried to undermine any form of collaborative action by only using a small range of strategies based on harsh, knee-jerk legislation, testing and contact tracing.

The Queensland government tried (unsuccessfully) to use an outdated medical control model which was inadequate to deal with the challenges of HIV/AIDS. It also tried to tie HIV completely to homosexuality, thereby encouraging stigma, discrimination and denial by the rest of the community.

QuAC has a long and proud history of struggle and determination, a heritage that needs to be drawn upon in the face of the current government who seem to be using many similar tactics from their predecessors.

[Top image] AIDS activist and historian Phil Carswell


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