Safety in Numbers

Chapter 5

The international phenomenon

While this chapter has focussed mainly on the de-gaying of AIDS in Britain, it is important to recognise that it is a continuing international phenomenon. This was starkly demonstrated at the Second European Conference on Homosexuality and HIV in Amsterdam in February 1992, the follow-up to the 1990 'Re-gaying AIDS' conference in Copenhagen, which is discussed in Chapter 7. Delegates from community-based AIDS groups in Germany and Britain were horrified at the "criminal" neglect of the single most important issue of the second decade of the epidemic - "namely, the utter mismatch between the continuing, demonstrable epidemiological levels of risk facing gay men, and the ludicrously small resources available to us". (160) Simon Watney observed that "In the name of a conference on 'Homosexuality and HIV' it seemed that relations between lesbians and gay men frequently had a higher priority than the AIDS crisis... A powerful and perhaps central strand of northern European post-Gay Liberation lesbian and gay politics is hopelessly unable to acknowledge, let alone confront the true scale of the catastrophe that already surrounds us". (161)

Watney presented a catalogue of "massive homophobia, prejudice and plain stupidity" which was hindering education and prevention work for gay men through out Europe. In Germany, Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe had been a beacon of hope throughout the period of the de-gaying of AIDS service organisations: it identified its role as working on a community level with the major risk groups of gay men, drug users and sex workers. (162) By 1992, however, its pioneering safer sex campaigns for gay men were having to be produced entirely with non-government money due to official disapproval of earlier sexually-explicit materials produced with State funding, and the whole organisation was being threatened with severe financial cuts. Watney described how:


Two planned campaigns from the Stop AIDS organisation in Switzerland have been scrapped as a result of right-wing pressure on the government, and older education material has been censored. The new conservative government in Sweden continues the previous Social Democratic policy of regarding HIV antibody testing as if it were a form of primary HIV prevention rather than a means of access to treatment and care. Moreover, the Swedish government continues to support a new institution, Noah's Ark, which it set up and lavishly supports as a direct rival to the RFSL, the country's main lesbian and gay organisation with long-standing gay-affirmative policies and experience in HIV/AIDS work. Swedish bath-houses have long since been shut down, whilst across the border in Norway they remain open, with lube and condoms and education materials available to all clients. Meanwhile in Holland the bath-houses are also open, but with little evidence of education materials or condoms, largely as a consequence of the Dutch government's HIV education policies, which until [1991] simply told gay men: "Don't Fuck". Hardly a helpful message. (163)

Australia's response to AIDS is rightly praised by many in the field for its sensitive behavioral research on gay men and safer sex and the strong support of government for community-based organising, which have resulted in some of the best gay safer sex campaigns in the world. (164) As in most western countries, the earliest activity came from the gay community. Following a statement from the Australian Red Cross in mid-1983 recommending that gay and bisexual men refrain from donating blood, the AIDS Action Committee in Sydney, which formed the basis of the later AIDS Council of New South Wales (ACON), was established. The Victorian AIDS Action Committee (VAAC) was established in July 1983, following a public meeting called by the ALSO Foundation, Melbourne's main gay welfare organisation,165 and other AIDS Councils also had their roots in existing gay movements. At the same time a Working Party on AIDS was formed within the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Thus "[f]rom the outset community-based groups and sections of the medical professions were established as key interest groups in AIDS policy-making", (166) and gay community organisations secured representation on key policy groups such as the 1985-1988 National Advisory Committee (NACAIDS), and its replacement, the Australian National Council on AIDS (ANCA).

Operating on a federal level, the Australian Commonwealth required state governments to provide funding for community-based organisations and funding. The individual AIDS Councils in each state were represented on a federal level by AFAO - the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. However, the federal system also allowed individual states to adopt different policies; so, for example, homosexuality is covered under anti-discrimination laws in South Australia and New South Wales, but is illegal in Tasmania and only relatively recently decriminalised in Western Australia and Queensland.

Dennis Altman has described how "[t]he strength of the AIDS Councils, as recognised and state-funded providers of services, education and advocacy, reflects three aspects of Australian political culture: federalism, the pre-existence of a gay movement, and support, at least from the Labor Party, for community health initiatives". (167) The Community Health Program laid down the principle that "services should be developed in consultation with, and, where appropriate, with the involvement of the community to be served" (168), allowing state support for the establishment of a Gay Men's Community Health Centre in Victoria. By 1987, Australia's response to the epidemic was described by the World Health Organisation as "a model of how to act aggressively and in a co-ordinated fashion to address the many issues involved". (169)

Pioneering collaborative social science research on the extent and corollaries of gay men=s adoption of safer sex has taken place between Macquarie University, the University of Sydney and ACON; its findings about the importance of attachment to an organised gay community and its safer sex education programmes, discussed in Chapter 3, have been of great international importance. The AIDS Councils have produced pioneering safer sex campaigns, including specific materials addressing the needs of young gay men and men in relationships, and interventions designed to strengthen a gay safer sex culture. (170)

Despite all this, Australia has not entirely avoided the problems associated with de-gaying. The first major government campaign began in April 1987, and since then, observed Martyn Goddard, "the main aim of Federal education campaigns has not been to reduce homosexual transmission ... [but] to convince the population at large that everyone was at risk - which many experts believed then, but which has turned out not to be the case". It was only belatedly recognised that in Australia "HIV remains almost entirely a gay men's epidemic"; in 1992 "Federal authorities finally decided to concentrate their efforts, for the first time, on homosexual and bisexual men". (171) Articles in the gay press have also expressed concern that:


professionalization (which is not the same as professionalism) is a serious danger to the future of AIDS Councils as community-based and community-controlled organizations, whose unique ability to respond to AIDS in the gay community rests in the sense (and reality) of ownership of the organizations by gay community volunteers. (172)

In late 1990, Adam Carr warned that "gay men working in AIDS need to have a good, hard think about our relationship with the rest of the AIDS industry". By arguing that "AIDS is not a gay disease", gay men were perceived as attempting to obscure the reality of the epidemic, in order to "take the political heat off ourselves", while at the same time "simply playing into the hands of those who want to divert AIDS funding away from programs in the gay community and toward their own constituencies". (173)

The Australian example thus illustrates both the achievements of grass-roots safer sex activism, undertaken with the active support of government, as well as the tensions that have emerged as perceptions of and responses to the epidemic have developed and changed over time.