Safety in Numbers

Chapter 5

The voluntary sector

The de-gaying of AIDS was not a phenomenon unique to the statutory sector, nor was it a process entirely imposed by people who did not identify as gay. For reasons discussed earlier, many gay men working in the AIDS field encouraged the view that AIDS was an 'equal opportunities virus' and played down both its disproportionate impact on gay men and the pre-eminent role played by gay men in organised responses to the epidemic. Voluntary agencies, most of them originally founded by and for gay men, were themselves extensively de-gayed.

Eric Rofes, who worked on AIDS issues throughout the 1980s as the head of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance, the executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center and as executive director of the Shanti Project in San Francisco, has documented the broad nature of the changes in very many AIDS service organisations during the latter half of the decade. He argued that in about 1985:


a key decision was made by AIDS leaders to put forward the message that 'AIDS is not a gay disease'. The intent of this strategy apparently was to win increased public support and funding, and to alert all sectors of the population about AIDS prevention. Since that time many AIDS groups have downplayed gay and lesbian participation, denied that they are 'gay organisations', and attempted to appeal to the 'general public' by expunging gay references and sanitizing gay culture. At other times AIDS groups do acknowledge our bases in the gay and lesbian community, particularly when seeking support for fundraising events or trying to draw in new volunteers. This schizophrenia on the part of AIDS organisations sets off movement activists who have struggled for years to bring gay and lesbian issues out of the closet. (120)

Rofes noted that lesbians and gay men involved in the AIDS field have from the start had to contend with homophobic disregard and indifference from the traditional systems and institutions of mainstream society; the de-gaying of AIDS organisations, however, meant that this now had to be confronted in community-based AIDS projects, including those founded by gay men. In response:


AIDS service providers often find these concerns petty or obsessive... Everyone knows gay men get AIDS. Why does the community need recognition and acknowledgement? If our own aim is to serve people with AIDS, aren't we justified if we can win increased funding and provide better services by de-emphasizing our gay participation? When they hear this argument, activists rooted in the gay and lesbian movement wonder whether AIDS workers wear blinders. Have they no memory of years spent meeting with public officials, journalists, religious leaders, educators and lawyers to force them simply to say the words "gay" and "lesbian"? Are they unaware that we still struggle to force publications to allow individuals to be identified as gay, phone directories to include specifically gay and lesbian listings, and obituary writers to name lovers as lovers, rather than as "friends" or "companions"? De-gaying AIDS might bring more funding, but isn't the cost too high? (121)

Rofes described how many community activists have reacted to de-gaying with "a profound sense of betrayal". That betrayal may be felt all the more keenly because of the unique role that community-based organisations (CBOs) are able to play in undertaking HIV prevention activities for marginalised groups. Governments throughout the world have preferred to fund CBOs to produce safer sex campaigns for gay men, rather to do the job directly themselves, due to either the political reason of the sensitivity and often controversial nature of such work, or the pragmatic reason that education works best when it perceived as coming from peers within a community, rather than being imposed by authorities outside that community. A key reason for statutory organisations' neglect of prevention campaigns for gay men appears to have been their perception that this work was already being done by CBOs. (122) Ironically, those CBOs may also be attacked for what prevention work they do undertake for gay men, or simply because they are perceived as homosexual propagandist groups. This leaves gay men in the worst of all possible worlds: on the one hand, gay organisations ignore the epidemic for fear of signalling that it is a 'gay disease', and on the other hand, CBOs, whom everyone assumes to be looking after gay men's interests and needs during the HIV crisis, are in reality more concerned with distancing themselves from gay men.

It should perhaps be stressed that the de-gaying of AIDS organisations did not as a rule extend to their direct client services, such as counselling, buddying and legal and welfare rights advice. Since most of these services are intended for all people with HIV, it is hardly surprising that in countries where the epidemic disproportionately affects gay men, the vast majority of clients are gay men. A better measure of specific concern for the interests of gay men in this area of AIDS organisations' work might instead be the degree to which gay-sensitisation or anti-homophobia training is provided to service providers, whether staff or volunteers, rather than the demographics of the client population. However, although anti-sexism and anti-racism training are - quite properly - often provided to service providers, specific sensitivity training on homosexuality and gay identity, which should be of equal importance, is virtually unheard of. This extraordinary oversight is persisting even as the proportion of the staff of generalist organisations who are themselves gay steadily declines.