Grim Reaper

The Grim Reaper, an infamous campaign by NACAIDS in 1987. Phil Carswell told me that he and Lex Watson, the only two gay men on the committee, objected to the advertisement, but were overruled. (Photo supplied by Phil.)

“When you grow up as a faggot,
you learn to accept being treated as a leper.”
– “Stephen”, shortly before his 1987 death from AIDS
(Hinch, 1987.)

Imagine a virus that was maybe one hundred times harder to catch than COVID, but was a hundred times deadlier.* A virus which, when left untreated (as it was in the early days, before modern medicines were discovered) was an automatic death sentence for almost everyone who contracted it. In the era of COVID, some people trivialise the suffering of those afflicted by a virus, and they cast aspersions on medical and political authorities who warn of such dangers. But such a blasé attitude was not common during Australia’s last epidemic. Instead, we endured levels of anxiety, panic, and victim blaming that were arguably unheard of in our lifetime – effectively a double epidemic of disease and stigma. Forty years ago – within living memory – many Australians demanded that those impacted by this earlier virus (HIV, which led to AIDS) be isolated from polite society; there were even calls for permanent quarantine and leaving victims to die. Forget the modern controversy over COVID-era facemasks; HIV/AIDS brought about anxiety and panic over sharing a handshake, a telephone, a cup (including a communion cup) or plates or crockery, a toilet seat, a swimming pool, breathing the same air, or getting a mosquito bite.

The grave of John Foster and his partner, Juan Céspedes.

Easter 1987 plumbed the depths of fear, hysteria and homophobia brought on by the HIV virus. One man who documented this era was John Foster, a Melbourne academic and author who himself died with HIV/AIDS almost thirty years ago to the day. Part of his story is tied irrevocably to Easter 1987 – a terrible time for those living (and dying) with HIV/AIDS, in the days before modern medications made it possible to live a long and productive life with the virus. 1987 will forever remain one of the nadirs of Australian HIV/AIDS history in the story of John Foster and in the wider story of this nation.

These days, we have treatments and preventative strategies/medications to mitigate against HIV and to ensure that those living with the virus should enjoy long and productive lives. Conversely, our more recent era of COVID demonstrates that we still have much to learn from the era of AIDS regarding how we respond to the joint epidemics of disease and social stigma. During the era of COVID, some generally conservative and reactionary peoples sought to blame a particular nation for the outbreak, although such stigma remained on the margins; whereas forty years ago, AIDS caused widespread and mainstream victim-blaming that focused primarily upon sexuality and forced many LGBT+ people (and other presumed ‘at-risk’ groups) back into the closet.

Stigma and Slur

A newspaper headline in 1984 (photo supplied by Phil)

This was the year that AIDS hysteria would possibly reach its heights in Australia. Whereas at the start of the epidemic, AIDS had barely rated a mention in newspapers because it was primarily seen as a “gay plague”; the momentum towards hysteria had built in 1983 with such headlines as “the black plague of the eighties…” (Clark, 1983) and such news copy as: “They are the new lepers…” (Rudakewych & Bagley, 1983). In 1984, the momentum continued with the ‘scandal’ of a gay male blood donor who was the focus of a national outrage. Then in 1985, Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS shook the world, and in 1986 a young child in New South Wales was banned from her pre-school centre and ultimately hounded out of Australia because she had received HIV through a blood transfusion. Such was the shock and fear and attention that stigma and hysteria built quickly. By 1987, it seemed virtually impossible to pick up any newspaper without reading one or more items about AIDS. By the middle of that year, there were hundreds of articles published about AIDS in Australian newspapers each month.

The news from overseas was also problematic in 1987, when, after effectively ignoring the epidemic and the deaths of thousands of Americans for most of his two terms of office, US President Reagan finally significantly addressed AIDS during a speech in which he posed a judgmental and homophobic question: “Don’t medicine and morality teach the same lesson?” (Barker, 1987). He was later booed at an AIDS fund-raising dinner, when he stated his support for widespread mandatory HIV testing during an era when there was no treatment, only stigma and discrimination – potential loss of housing and employment, and family rejection. The US Secretary of State, William Bennett, also publicly suggested that AIDS was a “good thing” if it served to discourage teenagers from having sex. (Rutledge, 1989, p. 42.) It is perhaps no coincidence that coy AIDS advertisements in the USA reached their peak around this time – an era which novelist Andrew Holleran reputedly called The Fear, when gay men abandoned what Rotello calls “the fast lane” and practised safe sex most avidly (Gabriel Rotello, 1997). Australian newspapers also reported this decline in casual sex among gay men in the USA (Author unknown, 4 April 1987a).

1987 marked the year of publication for US author Randy Shilts’ definitive but flawed early study of AIDS, And the Band Played On, which began to lift the lid on the hidden faces and statistics behind the viral epidemic; even while also spreading unwarranted fear and prejudice through its misidentification of “Patient Zero”, allegedly a French Canadian gay flight attendant who was spreading the virus across the USA and beyond through his willful and irresponsible sexual behaviour. In Australia, the response also remained somewhat problematic and potentially hysterical, such as when the Sydney Morning Herald published a front page story which claimed that AIDS had been found in the DNA of a number of African insects, such as fleas and mosquitoes, but reassured readers that this did not appear to represent a threat to humans (Thomas, 1987a).

In April 1987, an fire emergency services team extracted injured passengers from a car crash scene – only to later publicly express their abject fear after learning that one of the wounded was an “AIDS victim” (AAP, 1987a; Author unknown, 6 April 1987a). Meanwhile, an alderman for Launceston City Council was quoted in the media as stating that he did not like homosexuals, but that they did not worry him because “AIDS will take care of them” (Lester, 1987).

The year would also mark a turning point for the epidemic in Australia. Two media events would change forever the way Australians saw the epidemic; both would bring the threat chillingly into lounge rooms around the nation and make every family realise that AIDS could potentially happen to them.

One was the Grim Reaper campaign, a chilling advertisement put out by the National Advisory Council on AIDS (NACAIDS) as a deliberate attempt to confront the stereotype of AIDS as only a disease affecting gay men and drug addicts. It featured a skeletal Grim Reaper using a bowling ball to mow down groups of “average” Australians, and warned that it could kill more Australians than World War Two. Decades later, many people might still recall this advertisement as possibly the singularly most significant AIDS event in Australia’s history.

The second media event was equally significant at the time, and drew an enormous viewer response. It was the telecast of Suzi’s Story, a sensitive, touching and heartbreaking documentary about a young woman, Suzi Lovegrove, and her family, in the last weeks of her life as she slowly died of AIDS. Whereas the Grim Reaper created outraged calls for its removal, Suzi’s Story inspired such a positive response that Channel 10 repeated the documentary within weeks due to popular demand. While the Grim Reaper had taught Australians to fear AIDS and gay men, Suzi’s Story challenged Aussies to extend love and compassion to (heterosexual) people with AIDS rather than fearing or loathing them. Suzi’s Story will be explored in another blog article which I hope will come soon – but for now, let us recreate the atmosphere of homophobic fear and loathing that were commonplace in 1987.

Grimly Reaping

On Sunday 5 April 1987, one week before Palm Sunday, and a fortnight before Easter Sunday, Australia faced a watershed moment – this was the night that the Grim Reaper advertisement stormed onto the nation’s televisions (Author unknown, 5 April 2007). One possibly ominous portent regarding the arrival of Australia’s official AIDS campaign was characterised by a newspaper headline: “AIDS Judgment Day Has Arrived” (Tamsen, 1987a). Also, other editors at the Times on Sunday, declared:

“From today, the deadly epidemic of AIDS is a problem that no Australian household will be able to ignore… No longer can AIDS be conveniently considered as just a problem for a limited group of homosexuals and intravenous drug users… The threat is to the whole community” (Editors, 5 April 1987).

The opening words of the advertisement contained a shocking warning:

“At first, only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS…
But now we know every one of us could be devastated by it…”

The unintended result of these words was an implication reminiscent of some media reports from the United States – such as the doctor who suggested on television’s Good Morning America in 1983 that AIDS had the potential to spread beyond gays, Haitians and haemophiliacs, so that “normal people” were at risk of getting it (Rutledge, 1989, p. 21).

The Grim Reaper thereby reinforced a social stigma against gay men – they were evidently responsible for introducing this deadly affliction into Australia and now the rest of us were going to have to suffer as a result of their self indulgent and hedonistic lifestyle. Dr. Ron Penny, an early AIDS medical expert, later admitted that the advertisement “demonised” gay men: “The downside was that the Grim Reaper became identified with gay men rather than as the Reaper” (Penny, 2002).

Announcing the campaign was Federal Health Minister, Dr. Neal Blewett, who had recently stated in Federal Parliament that he believed AIDS to be, “the most serious public health problem this country has faced since Federation” (Editors, 6 April 1987). Alongside him was NACAIDS media spokeswoman, Ita Buttrose, who arguably sounded like a publicist for a conservative reactionary church:

“Casual sex is out, one night stands are gone, multiple sex partners are downright dangerous, and so is sharing needles and syringes… The sexual revolution is over (AAP, 1987a)… Abstinence is the best way to stop AIDS. Fidelity in marriage is vital – so are one-to-one relationships” (Thomas, 1987b).

Image from Pixabay

This campaign was the end result of research which had indicated that many Australians were woefully ignorant about AIDS. In a survey of 1700 people, 36 per cent thought AIDS could be transmitted by shaking hands (Happell, 1987).

Media commentators John Tulloch & Deborah Lupton explained the full scope of the advertising drive:

“The campaign was planned by the NACAIDS over some months and launched in April 1987. It was expected that 80 per cent of the Australian population, over a period of two weeks, would see the ‘Grim Reaper’ television advertisement at least five times. The same advertisement was also to be shown in cinemas and the campaign included radio and print advertisements and brochures explaining the risk factors for HIV/AIDS and how to use a condom” (Tulloch & Lupton, 1997).

Steeped in the religious atmosphere of Easter that year, the Grim Reaper imagery was evocative of medieval religious motifs: death incarnate as a skeletal Grim Reaper, outfitted with a scythe and ragged cowl, silent but devastating in its grim work. For sport, it was in a bowling alley, knocking down pins comprised of fearful, grief-stricken people – not a mixed, multicultural mob, but people who were “all dressed to represent white, respectable and healthy ‘middle Australia’” (ibid). This included a weeping girl and a young mother sheltering her baby in her arms – the innocent, virginal, and maternal stereotypes of women (ibid, p. 41) which had long etched itself into our national consciousness.

The Grim Reaper advertisement advised people to practice monogamy – or use condoms every time. It closed with a scene showing a legion of grim reapers spreading their death and destruction, while the closing words of the advertisement warned: “AIDS. Prevention is the Only Cure We’ve Got” (ibid, p. 40).

A screenshot from the Grim Reaper campaign, which terrified Australia in 1987.

A deliberate and primary emotion used within this advertisement was fear – the fear of AIDS and the fear of death. Federal Health Minister, Dr. Neal Blewett, reported that the campaign was intended to shock people into understanding that everyone was at risk – not just gay men and other high risk groups (Hailstone, 1987). Advertising executive Siimon Reynolds, the young man who devised the Grim Reaper advertisement, later acknowledged that it was intended to inspire fear in order to compel people to use condoms (George Negus, 2003; AAP, 1987a). This caused some people – including Western Australian Premier, Brian Burke – to immediately criticise the advertisements as having too much shock value and not providing enough information (Author unknown, 7 April 1987b)

The advertisement certainly scared the bejeesus out of people and raised the spectre of AIDS into our national consciousness. The first day of the campaign resulted in 1250 telephone calls being made to the AIDS Hotline, and over 3500 calls within three days. Many of these callers expressed concern that they might have been exposed to the virus (Author unknown, 9 April 1987). The Federal Opposition Health Spokesman, James Porter, quickly called for the advertisement to be banned before 8.30pm each night because it was scaring children (AAP, 1987b). One newspaper editorial christened that week, “The Week of the Big Scare Campaign” (Editorial Opinion, 1987). I recall my then-partner’s comment after seeing the Grim Reaper advertisement for the first time: “It’s enough to put you off having sex for the rest of your life.”


Death and the Miser, c. 1485/1490 (Hieronymus Bosch)

Disputing the medieval hype was one reporter from the Times on Sunday, who conceded that AIDS had the potential to possibly spread to 100,000 Australian cases by the end of the century, but who nevertheless tried to reposit the threat of AIDS within a calmer perspective:

“Since the first AIDS death in 1982, cardiovascular disease has killed roughly 260,000 Australians, cancer about 110,000 people, and road accidents about 14,000 more. Two hundred and thirty-eight people have died of AIDS, and while 442 people have the disease, only four contracted it through heterosexual sex” (Smith, 1987).

Another commentator from the same newspaper had a more succinct criticism:

“The Grim Reaper has been an enduring logo, to be sure, but advertising has moved on since the 14th century” (Cook, 1987).

Such a calm view on AIDS seemed rare in the Australian media at that time – and ran contrary to the NACAIDS campaign, which was intended to shock people.

Another calm media approach to HIV/AIDS at the time was an episode of the Geoffrey Robertson Hypotheticals program that was telecast on ABC television in 1987. Filmed in August 1986 (Robertson, 1987, p. vii), it actually pre-dated the Grim Reaper, but it was nevertheless a level-headed concurrent approach to the issue of HIV/AIDS. Including a varied panel of medical, religious, political, and community representatives, it confronted the prevailing societal homophobia via an exchange between Rev Fred Nile, Professor John Dwyer, and the program’s host, Geoffrey Robertson:

NILE: There’s no doubt that the AIDS epidemic is definitely related to homosexual practices; there’s no doubt about that.

MODERATOR: Not originally. It seems to have come from the Green Monkey in Central Africa. It spread through heterosexual contact in Africa, then to Haiti, and then, via visiting homosexuals, to the United States.

NILE: That’s one of the gay liberation myths they’ve stirred up.

MODERATOR: What is the origin of AIDS, Professor Dwyer?

DWYER: There is an abundance of evidence that is [sic] probably did enter the human population from an animal reservoir. The virus is clearly being spread with frightening rapidity in Africa through heterosexual activities. (ibid, p. 51).

Other Responses

Following the Grim Reaper, AIDS and sexual health clinics around the country were initially swamped with requests for HIV tests and information (Tulloch & Lupton, pp. 135 & 136). For example:

“The number of women attending one clinic for HIV tests increased by 127 per cent and the number of heterosexual men was 154 per cent. During the two weeks that the television advertisement was screened, approximately 40,000 telephone calls were received by the [AIDS] hotline…” (ibid, p. 136).

However, behind the self-congratulatory back-slapping by health bureaucrats lay some murky truths:

“The majority of people seeking testing and information, however, were judged to be at very low risk of infection and appeared to be demonstrating unfounded anxiety. Indeed, it has been claimed that those individuals most at risk from HIV infection were discouraged from seeking an HIV test in the months following the ‘Grim Reaper’ because of the stigmatization they felt the campaign had engendered…” (Rosser, 1988).

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Barely one week into the campaign, it was announced that the Grim Reaper television advertisements would be ended early because of the overwhelming response (although it would reappear on movie theatre screens and TV during subsequent times). Over 12,000 phone calls had been received by the overloaded AIDS hotline in the first few days of that Easter campaign (Thomas, op cit; Author unknown, 13 April 1987). The Head of NACAIDS, Professor David Penington, reportedly stated that the campaign had actually caused an “inappropriate response” because thousands of enquiries had been received from people in low-risk groups; and he also believed that the content of the advertisement was “inappropriate” to be shown in a timeslot when young children might be watching (Schauble & Dixon, 1987). Another newspaper letter-writer also bemoaned the possibility that AIDS education might frighten children (Taylor 1987). One parent even complained to a newspaper that his 12-year-old daughter had suggested that, “There is no future because we’re all going to die of AIDS anyway” (No Future, 1987).

In Victoria, a scheme was proposed to introduce hospital detention for people who deliberately spread AIDS – their detention would be indefinite and “until they die” (Author unknown, 7 April 1987c). The Sun newspaper in Melbourne reported a rise in gay bashings that year (Author unknown, 16 July 1987) while Sydney would later come to be known as the scene for a legion of gay bashings and murders that escalated in the years following the Grim Reaper.

In Queensland, Brisbane tenpin bowling companies reportedly sought legal advice over the Grim Reaper advertisements (Author unknown, 7 April 1987a).

Gravesong for Juan

Cover of the 1993 edition of Foster’s book, featuring Juan practising his ballet.

In his autobiographical novel, Take Me To Paris, Johnny, John Foster recalled the arrival of the Grim Reaper because of its macabre intersection with Foster’s own real-life tragedy. His lover Juan Céspedes had spent his life struggling against an unfair world – and yet such cruelties had pursued him to the bitter end.

The meeting of the Cuban Juan and his namesake, the Australian John, had forged a friendship which grew into a tender love and cemented new hope in the young refugee/émigré. After fleeing homophobic detention in Cuba, living as a gay man in the twilight of a pre/post Stonewall era in the USA, and enduring the loss of his dreams for professional ballet after being struck and injured by a taxi; Juan had finally migrated to Australia in 1986 to be with John and to commence his new life of sanctuary and hope – but in another of life’s cruel twists, Juan was already suffering inexplicable illnesses and increasing debilitation; he was later to be diagnosed with AIDS.

Poor Juan had to struggle to cope with this news and its implications despite his broken English and the inconsistent help of doctors:

“Still lying on the couch where he had been examined, Juan raised himself up on one elbow. It was time for the evasions, the kindnesses, the determined optimism to come to an end.

“’Do I’m dying, doctor?’ he asked. The doctor had not been listening. ‘I’m sorry Juan, what was that?’

“He repeated the question, his voice thick and low. ‘Do I’m dying?’

“Perhaps it was the curious trick of his syntax that distracted the doctor. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said ‘I didn’t catch what you said.’

“And so for a third time he asked. ‘Do I’m dying?’ The words hung in the air, no more than a whisper.

“The reply was slow in coming. Then, simply, ‘I don’t know, Juan. I don’t know’” (Foster, 1993, pp. 144 & 145).

Even when he was hospitalised, life’s injustices continued for Juan – his treatment was complicated with nurses who experienced some initial uncertainties about handling their first AIDS patient; food assistants who had to be chastised about leaving his meal trays on the floor outside his room; and a television rental man who consistently refused to enter the room to collect the rental fees (ibid, pp. 152 – 154). Indeed, one might wonder how and why the ancillary staff even knew about Juan’s medical status in the first place. And a final insult came as Juan lay dying in hospital, facing his own mortality; and John Foster later recalled his anger at this assault upon his friend’s dignity:

“And then, most cruelly, in a way I found unbearable, he was assaulted, battered with the idea of death. Not death in general, not as an abstract principle or a spiritual reality, but death as a victim of AIDS. In the weeks that he had been in hospital, Miss Ita Buttrose and her colleagues at the National Advisory Council on AIDS had been preparing a campaign to alert the general public to the gravity of the epidemic. There were 442 cases of AIDS in the country; 238 deaths were already recorded. They needed an approach that would stop people in their tracks… So they hired an advertising agency and unleashed the Grim Reaper on the television screens of the nation.

“It would run for only two weeks, they said. But what comfort was that if they were the last two weeks you would spend on this earth; and when you were struggling to make sense of what was happening to you they confronted you with this fantastic cowled creature, socket-eyed and scythe-swinging, knocking down its victims in a bowling alley? No mercy, was the message; violent, impersonal, death as a complete wipe-out” (ibid, p. 170).

Juan’s descent into despair at this time became apparent with his request that his bedside poster of Rudolph Nureyev, his dancing idol, be removed from the hospital wall (ibid p. 167); its presence had become an “odious” reminder of broken dreams. Tragically, although he would never know it, Juan Céspedes would ultimately share the same fate as that of his hero – another refugee who had sought the freedom to dance in the western world. In a twist of cosmic irony, Juan died six years before Nureyev also succumbed to AIDS (Watson, 1994).

As he approached his darkest hours, Juan did appear to find some consolation. His last public appearance was at a local church service on Palm Sunday 1987, where even a child who was present expressed his concern and compassion for “the sick man”. Strangely enough, at a luncheon held after the service, Juan was interviewed by a journalist about why he came to church and what his plans were for the approaching Easter weekend (Foster, 1993, pp. 174 & 175). His answer to the first part of the question was brief but buoyant:

“He goes to Saint Mary’s because his friends go there and people care for him” (Strong, 1987).

This succinct answer hints at Juan’s childlike quality and also how he evidently felt love and support from his friends in his church community – sadly, a support that was offered to far too few gay men by religious communities during this era. The other part of his answer – that he hoped to go to church at Easter – would tragically not come to pass. Juan would be dead by the following weekend, and he would not even live long enough to see his short interview in print.

The Long Goodbye

Juan’s final night of life was also the final night that the Grim Reaper terrorised Australian television. Significantly, Foster’s memoir recounts a heartbreaking conversation the lovers shared in the hospital during this, their final night together:

“… Juan, lying there, fearful yet oddly patient, the tiny tears finding their way down his cheeks.

“Out of the patience came the greatest sadness, a sadness that lodged in me, it seems, for ever. Four short words, neither a moan nor a cry, but a simple clear statement of infinite regret. ‘I have accomplished nothing,’ he said…

“He had accomplished nothing, nothing that people would remember, nothing that would cause them to honour in him the name that had been borne by Cuba’s greatest patriot…

“What I wanted to say to Juan had nothing to do with greatness. It was simply this: that he had loved me…

“‘There has been us,’ I said. And I know he understood, because somewhere in that night, in the fragments of his dying, he said, ‘We made it, Johnny. Didn’t we?’” (Foster, 1993, pp. 186 & 187).

Juan died early the following morning (ibid, pp. 7 & 189), on Good Friday, 17 April 1987 – the day the Grim Reaper was removed from our television screens after its brief but successful assault upon our national consciousness, “at a time when those who feared homosexuals were smiling a secret smile of satisfaction at God’s busyness” (Hanrahan, 1993) Juan was aged thirty-three, the supposed age of Christ when he died – and such religious symbolism may have comforted his partner, John Foster, who was a prominent member of his local church community.

Juan’s passing never appeared in the death notices of Melbourne’s major metropolitan newspapers. To this day, his long-silenced signature remains in the Visitor’s Book of his church from the last Christmas Eve Mass he ever attended. Despite his severe illness at that time, his autograph displays the flowing, looping twirls suggestive of a graceful, soaring dancer. His inscribed home address is Melbourne, indicating that the soul of this Cuban refugee appears to have finally found a residence and an adoptive family during the last months of his life.

Let Freedom Ring

John Foster’s friend, John Rickard, reports that Foster remained troubled by Juan’s deathbed exclamation of despair and regret, and that he became determined to prove that Juan was wrong by ensuring he achieved something – even in death. Foster spent his subsequent years writing a memoir, in which he affectionately recounted Juan’s life, ultimately presenting him as a flesh-and-blood person whom book reviewer John Hanrahan would later describe as a “streetwise innocent” (Hanrahan, 1993). The resulting book, Take Me To Paris, Johnny, was launched in Melbourne on 2 September 1993. Three weeks after finishing his project, John Foster began to deteriorate from his own AIDS related illness (John Rickard, 1993) and he died on 6 May 1994, shortly after turning fifty. Rickard points out the insidious and diverse ways that AIDS had affected both Juan and John:

“Whereas Juan, the dancer, had, in his dying, seen his body wasting away to a skeleton, for John, the historian, there was the sad irony that his mind bore the brunt of AIDS” (ibid, p. 204).

The two lovers – Juan Gualberto Céspedes and John Harvey Foster – are now reunited and buried together in a quiet and overgrown corner of Boroondara General Cemetery in Kew, Melbourne. There, they rest at peace, far removed from the terror, turmoil and tragedy which shattered their lives.

As a testimony to these early days of AIDS and the fading resonance of the Grim Reaper, Foster’s book, Take Me To Paris, Johnny, remains a powerful and timeless love story. The front cover of the original edition of the book contained the subtitle, “A Life Accomplished in the Era of AIDS”, which was a clear reference to the brief, deathbed conversation of despair and regret, which Robert Dessaix later proposed was a concise dialogue filled with a “multitude of fears and anguish” (cited in Dow, 2003). Despite Foster’s loving, highly competent and tender writing, the book remains what Steve Dow calls a “neglected masterpiece” (ibid) and although having been reprinted three times, it has never won its due share of literary accolades. Another reviewer, Mary Rose Liverani, suggests that Foster died too soon after the book’s original publication to enable the literary world to discover his magnum opus (Liverani, 2004).

Or it may be that Australians are simply unwilling to read this affectionate, gay love story because of societal racism or homophobia, or because the stigma that accompanied the epidemic endures in its virtual erasure from our collective memories – or because our collective subconscious still recoils at the same silent echoes of the Grim Reaper which may have haunted Juan on his deathbed.

In the eye of this terrible storm that had engulfed and consumed them, their local church had provided them with sanctuary and shelter. Today, the church’s clock tower that was named in memory of John Foster, remains as a harbinger of better times.

(Photo supplied by Phil)

Pride and Prejudice

In 1991, Department of Community Services and Health literature proclaimed that the Grim Reaper campaign had not only achieved its goals but that every newspaper in the country had agreed that the risk of AIDS was so great that the fear tactic was justified – and the Grim Reaper image became a generic illustration to accompany AIDS news reports (Tulloch & Lupton, op cit, p. 134).

Advertising CEO Siimon Reynolds told a magazine that the Grim Reaper had been widely accepted:

“Virtually no criticism came from the general public. Channel 9 did a nationwide poll and an extraordinary 83% of the population came out in favour of the campaign. I believe it’s very hard to get 83% of Australians to agree on anything” (Author unknown, June-August 1987a).

Homophobia. Prevention is the Only Cure We’ve Got

Health workers also reported that some HIV patients attending their clinic were displaying distress at what they perceived to be the “ostracism” caused by the advertisement (Tulloch & Lupton, p. 1346).

Adam Carr, spokesman from the Victorian AIDS Council, advised gay men not to get tested unless they had access to adequate counselling and support services, particularly given the current lack of protections for such people: “Knowing you are positive is becoming increasingly dangerous for the individual in that it will be more and more difficult to obtain housing, employment and insurance, and to travel” (Smith, 1987a).

According to a Christian magazine, Professor Ian Gust, of NACAIDS, believed any such boycott to be “highly immoral” and that furthermore: “He went on to point out that for too long those in the health services had been bending over backwards to serve the gay community and it was time for them to see more of their responsibility to the wider community” (Author unknown, June-August 1987b).

And yet the reality was something different: the gay community had already been upholding their responsibilities to both themselves and the wider community. Due to the scarcity of reliable, verifiable information about HIV/AIDS in the mass media from the earliest days of the epidemic, the gay community and its gay news media had promoted safe sex and responsible, empowered lifestyle choices since long before the Grim Reaper arrived on the scene. As early as 1984, some three years before the skeleton terrorised our televisions, the number of HIV infections had peaked and begun a slow, steady decline (National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, 1999). The gay community should have been acknowledged and praised for this achievement, not vilified as portents of disease through the invocation of medieval imagery.

Indeed, many of the Grim Reaper’s real-life victims would not simply line up and meekly wait to be bowled over like those shown in the advertisement. Out of these depths would arise the Australian HIV/AIDS activist model: the AIDS Quilt to mourn the dead; care teams to sustain the living; self-empowerment programs to work with doctors and others in power to bring about positive, life-affirming change; and activists to raise hell and demand political and social evolution. Modern Australian social realities, including anti-discrimination protections for LGBT+ people, needle exchange programs, empowerment programs for disadvantaged cohorts, dying with dignity, marriage equality, and even the sale of the humble condom on supermarket shelves – all these and more owe their modern existence to the HIV/AIDS era and to the sad, bleak Easter a skeleton frightened all Australians.

Easter is, of course, a religious event that metaphorically commemorates opportunities for new life arising out of the ashes of death. The death, distress and turmoil experienced by Australians that Easter of 1987 – especially for the ostracised, stigmatised, deathfully-fearful gay male community (and other cohorts directly or indirectly impacted) – was a hellish time of fear, suffering and death; but out of these depths would arise a new consciousness for civil rights and compassion and activism to change the country and the world. Lest we forget.

*The author acknowledges that the opening sentence was inspired by a Facebook conversation, with the original comment possibly initiated by Adam Carr.

# # #

This is based upon an uncompleted thesis related to my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.


AAP, 1987a. “Anti-AIDS Campaign Designed to Shock”, in The Courier, 6 April, p. 2; also appeared as “AIDS Under Onslaught” in The Examiner, 6 April 1987, p. 1.

AAP, 1987b. “AIDS Ad ‘Scares Kids’”, in The Courier (Ballarat), 10 April, p. 2.

Author unknown, 4 April 1987a. “AIDS Fear Causes Gays to Change”, in The Courier (Ballarat), p. 20.

Author unknown, 5 April 2007. “20 years after Grim Reaper ad, AIDS fight continues”, ABC News online, accessed 2 February 2009.

Author unknown, 6 April 1987a. “Rescuers Didn’t Know Victim Had AIDS”, in The Advertiser (Adelaide), p. 2.

Author unknown, 7 April 1987a. “Bowlers Up In Arms Over ‘Reaper’ Ad”, in The Advertiser, p. 12.

Author unknown, 7 April 1987b. “Grim Reaper Under Fire”, in The Courier, p. 1.

Author unknown, 7 April 1987c. “Detained Until They Die – AIDS Clampdown Plan”, in The Advertiser, p. 1

Author unknown, 9 April 1987. “AIDS Advert Draws Flood of Callers”, in The Northern Territory News, p. 4.

Author unknown, 13 April 1987. “Grim Reaper AIDS Ad Ends Early”, in The Age, p. 3.

Author unknown, June-August 1987a. “Siimon Reynolds – ‘Eventually We Will Change the Way People Think!’”, in Tell magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fusion Australia, pp. 33 & 34.

Author unknown, June-August 1987 b. “How Dangerous is the Grim Reaper? ‘The Disease You’ve Got to Go Out and Get’ – Tell Talks to Professor Gust About AIDS,” in Tell magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Fusion Australia, p. 33.

Author unknown, 16 July 1987. “Rise in gay bashing – police”, in The Sun.

Geoffrey Barker, 1987. “Reagan Stresses ‘Values’ as Key to AIDS Fight”, in The Advertiser, 3 April, p. 6.

John Clark, 1983. “The black plague of the eighties…” in The Weekend Australian Magazine, 5 & 6 March, p 4.

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©2024 Geoff Allshorn.

2 thoughts on “Grim Reaper”

  1. Epic. Much to learn here about the danger and nastiness of a culture of fear and blame. And yet that culture continues to raise its head whenever disaster strikes. Perhaps education is winning some old battles, but there will always be a new ‘other’ to be found and blamed.
    Just like new methods for rapid development of vaccines, we have new methods for rapid framing and dissemination of factual information. But can we get through the noise?

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