THE FLAME OF HOPE: UNITING AGAINST AIDS ON WORLD AIDS DAY
In the quiet echoes of a December morning,
A tale unfolds, of lives deeply torn.
On this World AIDS Day, we stand in reflection,
A reflective reminder, a global connection.
Through the years, AIDS has claimed its toll,
Silent whispers of stories, the anguish it stole.
Countless souls, aching in the night,
Lost to the shadows, out of sight.
Yet in the shadow’s grip, a flame remains,
A call to action, where hope sustains.
For in our hearts, a duty we bear,
To raise awareness, to show we care.
Youth, vibrant and full of dreams,
On this battleground, the fight it seems.
A plea to be vigilant, to be aware,
To guard against a silent, lurking snare.
Let education be the shield we wield,
Knowledge a weapon, a formidable field.
Empower the youth with facts so clear,
To conquer ignorance, dispel the fear.
On this World AIDS Day, let’s unite,
Illuminate the darkness, be the light.
To those who suffer, we extend our hand,
Together we stand, a united band.
No room for stigma, no place for shame,
For every victim, we know their name.
Let empathy guide, compassion inspire,
In every heart, let love transpire.
Support the fighters, those who’ve known pain,
In their resilience, a strength to regain.
Break the chains of judgment, let them fall,
For love and understanding conquer all.
So on this December day, let us decree,
A world free from judgment, hate, and plea.
To those who’ve faced AIDS, our hearts entwine,
In unity, let love forever shine.
Composed by: Joseph K (He/Him)
[This poem was written by a Ugandan LGBT refugee now living elsewhere, and he graciously allowed me to print it here. His sentiment reminds me of another activist, Michael Callen, who once wrote (inscribed in a book) that we can HEAL AIDS WITH LOVE.
In 1974, a young man in Uganda named Lukas began to get sick. He exhibited the symptoms that would later become recognisable to many of us who lived through the era of AIDS: swollen glands, skin sores and weight loss. Lukas and his two wives eventually got sick and died, followed by others in Kampala. This local outbreak of what we now call HIV/AIDS is remembered particularly because one of Lukas’ workmates remarked to his own child that “Something Has Happened”.
Thirty years later, that child had grown up and while millions of Africans had now been affected by Slim and other manifestations of this epidemic, this child – now an adult – recalled how something has happened to Swedish author Henning Mankell as he was documenting the Memory Bank, a local African AIDS memorial project, like our AIDS Memorial Quilt or this very AIDS Garden. In the Memory Bank project, parents who were dying wrote their biographies and stories into books with photos and other keepsakes, to leave as an inheritance for their children. Such memorialising was both personal and political: on an individual level they wanted their children to remember the names and keep the love alive; but on a collective level, they signified a universal aspect of this epidemic: the human desire to want to write or record stories that we deem to be most important.
This was a symbolic foreshadowing of my own book, which also aimed to record stories and images on behalf of those who were lost – a literary form of lighting forty candles to acknowledge forty years in stories and images. What I say here tonight is taken from, or is about, this book.
The book came out of my suggestion to the publisher, Gordon Thompson of Clouds of Magellan Press, that someone should write something for World AIDS Day in 2021, because that year marked the fortieth anniversary of the official discovery announced to the world that something has happened. Gordon suggested that I write the book, and he supplemented my photos with images as supplied by others including Dennis Altman – the man who literally wrote the book on gay liberation; Phil Carswell, the first President of the Victorian AIDS Council; and Alison Thorne, the woman whose name features in part within the name Thorne Harbour Health. I want to thank them and also Marcus O’Donnell, Henry von Doussa and Paul Cholewinski for their contributions. I felt honoured that these others wanted to contribute to the book, but I recognise, as they do, the importance of the history it documents – and I acknowledge their ongoing desire to contribute the community activism that this book represents.
The book is called “Always Remember”, a title that is inspired by a photograph that the publisher chose for the front cover. The photo features a plaque from another, much smaller AIDS Memorial Garden here in Melbourne, one which had been neglected somewhat over the years. The plaque itself originally read, “Always Remembered”. Unfortunately, due to weather and erosion and neglect, half the letters on that plaque have fallen off. Perhaps this unintentionally symbolises the memory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to many people in Australia today: somewhat forgotten, overlooked and disregarded. Even those of us who lived through those times, will find it hard to remember the exact details, because memory can fade or become imperfect, and societal changes since then make ‘the new normal’ our standard perspective and it then becomes easier to forget the old normal. The homophobic and AIDSphobic stigma and discrimination and fear and outright hate that was preached from pulpit to Parliament in those days, has faded with time and memory. But we do recall that this was a stigmatised epidemic forty years ago, and maybe the fact that it is largely forgotten today suggests that it remains somewhat stigmatised. But the title of my book, as chosen by Gordon, “Always Remember”, is a call to us today to always remember, and tonight, we here have heard that call. Thank you for doing so.
We could pause to acknowledge the universal nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and reflect on Lukas in Uganda in 1974; or 16 year-old Haitian teenager Robert Rayford of Florida in the USA, who likely died of AIDS in 1969 while the world was busy watching the first Moon landings, or while the US queer community was rioting at Stonewall. We could pause to remember Grethe Rask, the Danish surgeon who was infected while living in Africa in the 1970s and returned home to die in 1977 – and whom US author Randy Shilts asserts that as one of the earliest identified people known to lose their lives in what became commonly known as a “gay male plague” may herself have been a lesbian. Other early cases included families, women, babies, gay men, people from Norway and Belgium and Denmark and Portugal and France, and scores of school children and others across parts of Africa. In New York city, a local phenomenon arose in the 1970s, known as “Junkie pneumonia”. All of these others were not recognised as forming a part of a syndrome, until, as Dennis Altman notes, it was officially identified within the cohort of affluent white, young gay men in the USA in 1981. This was around the time that a 70+ year old Australian man – whose name will likely never be known – began to get sick and eventually die of a condition that was later retrospectively diagnosed as HIV/AIDS. His death in Sydney in August 1981 suggests that HIV was in Australia before it had even been discovered that something was happening overseas.
Why is all this important? Because in the era of COVID and whatever epidemic or pandemic is likely to come next, we can learn – or fail to learn – from what has gone before. Activism, education, working with medical and political establishments, empowerment of directly affected or disaffected communities, saving lives and changing the law and the world; there are people here at this event who can personally testify that such empowerment and change are possible. I note in my book that Australia led the world in empowerment of AIDS communities, taking ideas onboard and changing them to suit local cultures and conditions. HIV arrived on our shores firstly from the USA, and our activists worked more closely with doctors and politicians here than they were able to in the USA due to differing political climates. We took on board the AIDS Quilt even though we lacked the quilting culture of the USA; we adopted ACT-UP activism with what I would consider to be an Australian ‘larrikin’ flavour that was reminiscent of BUGA-UP, an earlier activist model that challenged and beat another health crisis – the smoking advertising billboard. What can we learn from that?
I have seen how AIDS testimonial is not only important as a matter of documenting history, but also because it influences lives in ongoing ways. At a display of the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt, some years ago, during the height of the epidemic, I saw a young woman weeping as she studied a panel of young man whose parents had created a memorial tribute. We got talking, and I learnt that she had wandered in off the street with her baby in a pusher, after being attracted to the vibrant colours of the Quilt, but she had only come a few metres into the room before this panel had stopped her in her tracks. I asked if she had known this young man whose panel had clearly affected her. She said no, but she had seen his details and photo – his young and cheeky grin, he had been aged in his early 20s like she was, and the loving tributes from his parents on that Quilt panel during an era when homosexuality was still regarded as being evil, sinful, and worthy of family rejection. Of all the panels on the AIDS Quilt, this particular story had touched her life and she told me that it had changed forever her perspective on homosexuality and tolerance and respect and diversity and love. I knew this young man’s parents, and later, at a World AIDS Day candlelight memorial service at the Positive Living Centre, I told them how his panel had changed her life. His father burst into tears and thanked me for letting them know that even after death, their son had continued to touch and change lives after everything he had endured from the illness. I could see that these parents had shared their story – like Lukas’ story in Uganda, they wanted to share how “something had happened” – and in doing so, their truth telling had affected not only their own lives but that of this young woman and probably the baby she was going to raise in a mindset of tolerance and compassion and respect for diversity during an era when “poofter bashing” was still common.
It is such memories that inspired me to document the histories of our community, and to write this book. It also gave me the idea of writing a patchwork of sample stories, like the AIDS Quilt, rather than a straight narrative, because the fuller and definitive narrative of AIDS in Australia is yet to be written.
The collective power of such storytelling became evident to me a few years ago, during part of the process of research and documenting that led to the writing of this book. With the help of some people here, and others, I wrote an Honours thesis on the social history of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the 1980s. I quickly discovered that those who read my thesis had shared it with others and suggested they read it too. I know this because, one by one, individually and privately, these people each came to me to thank me for recording this important history. Instead of wanting to analyse the academic aspects of my thesis, they all wanted to recount how this history had touched them personally by reminding them of someone they knew – a brother, a workmate, a cousin, a best friend – someone who had been lost to AIDS. Everyone had a story and wanted to share it, just like the people here who have spoken tonight, and like many others of us with our own stories and our memories.
Truth telling can change lives, and our world. I note that we all rejoiced six years ago when Marriage Equality became Australian law after the postal plebiscite, but how many Australians paused to remember how the fight for marriage equality had been inspired in no small part by the era of AIDS, when same-sex couples had been split apart by the virus, and while one partner was dying, the other partner may have been denied legal or family recognition, hospital visitation rights, next of kin rights, inheritance rights, or even the right to know where his loved one would be buried? Activists set out to change that – and they did. There are many other ways that AIDS activism changed our lives. The old chapel here on these grounds, was such testimony, built after crowdfunding by the LGBT community, so that our AIDS people would have a venue for funerals after being denied such common courtesy at some other churches. The way that we can nowadays purchase condoms off supermarket shelves when, in those days, condoms were usually only available by request from beneath chemist counters – if the chemist did not have an ethical objection to selling them. Dying with Dignity laws that are now becoming commonplace across Australia, needle exchange programs and venues, community empowerment programs that enable affected communities to have a say on how their social issues are addressed, even fundraising ribbons or memorial quilts for other afflictions… so many things…
Perhaps for me, one of the most significant contributions made by AIDS activism to Australia came out of my background research. In.those days, homosexuality and wider LGBT rights were opposed by the majority of Australians and the stigma of AIDS drove many families to deny the medical diagnosis of those with HIV because of its association with homosexuality. Yet after a care team began to visit regularly in order to care for their dying son or brother or father or other family member, it may be conjectured that families began to realise that LGBT+ people were not all evil and degenerate as per the common perception. After their dying family members were tended and cared for by a care team or medical staff comprising the first LGBT+ people that their family had ever met, straight people began to challenge the homophobia that they encountered in the workplace or church or pub. I cannot help but wonder if current mainstream Australian acceptance of LGBT people is, in no small part, due to this grassroots upswelling of support by straight people who had encountered queer people for the first time in their lives and had come to respect them for their compassion and humanity.
Overall, young Australians today need to learn that their world of Anti-Discrimination and anti-bullying and pro-diversity, was not always like this, but came about because people fought a virus and a stigma, and many suffered and died, but that these activists and ordinary people and heroes helped to change our world. Books and personal testimony such as yours and mine can help to remember the names and keep the love alive. People who survived are here tonight because we feel honoured to not only pay our respects to those we have loved and lost, but because we are still contributing to their story. We are living testimony to the face that something has happened – both in terms of a terrible epidemic, and in terms of community activism that saved lives and changed the world.
As I state in my book’s Afterword, perhaps most of all, we can learn from history to ensure that we don’t repeat it. HIV is still a problem in many places around the world, and homophobia and AIDSphobia still threaten lives. I began this talk by referring to Uganda as an early location of HIV, but it remains a problematic place today. As you will be aware, earlier this year, the Ugandan government criminalised homosexuality and now threatens the lives and liberty of millions of its own people, including their access to sexual health education and medical assistance, effectively revisiting some attitudes and laws that Australians experienced a generation ago around the time that HIV arrived. What do we need to learn from those people and those times a generation ago? The gay liberation activists, and the AIDS activists who succeeded them, would, I imagine, be among the first to passionately argue that our silence today still equals death.
We should be proud that the Australian model of self-empowerment became a model which has been upheld around the world as a leading model of community response to an existential threat. By contrast, the community response to a later threat was to question the wearing of face masks and to stock up on toilet paper. Ours was a more noble and constructive agency. Let us remember those who were lost, but also the army of activists and carers, doctors and nurses, agitators and administrators, the treatment action groups, the AIDSline counsellors, those who held hands with the dying, or who marched in the streets, or who attended candlelight vigils or sewed quilt panels to memorialise and to educate others, and those who lobbied for public reform. My own book is a small but humble attempt to not only document these community activities, but to add to them. Today, we are a part of that continuing activism. With my book, and this Garden to grow new life in a more openly tolerant nation, and everything else that has been remembered and acknowledged here tonight, I hope that we can continue to use our voices to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
[POSTSCRIPT: Today I have also received a World AIDS Day poem from a Ugandan LGBT refugee, and I have published it here in honour of the hope it can give us for the future of Uganda.]
The Kampala Syndrome: Why Have We Failed to Learn From History?
On a significant AIDS anniversary, a young lesbian refugee reminds me of how we forged nobility in the tragic past, but ignore those lessons today.
Forty years ago today, Australia began its fightback against an epidemic. No, not COVID, nor monkeypox, not SARS nor flu – but a virus that was much harder to catch than any of these others, and many times more lethal.
This virus had attacked the world by stealth, first appearing in impoverished nations and then in disempowered or marginalised communities in the western nations: gay and bisexual men, women and related paediatric cases, trans people, CALD communities, injecting drug users, blood or organ donor recipients, and haemophiliacs. Australian activist Dennis Altman later summarised the problem:
“That AIDS was first diagnosed and named among homosexual men in coastal American cities and not in central African villages, where it probably originated, is hardly surprising, and is due to the dominance of western biomedicine. Dying villagers in Zaire or Uganda were unlikely to be seen by oncologists or dermatologists who could draw the necessary conclusions to conceptualise a collapse of the immune system due to an unknown infection.” (Altman, 1997, p. 182.)
By the time this virus was discovered within the relatively affluent gay male communities of New York City and San Francisco, it had infected and affected many people – and its mortality rate was close to 100%. In March 1983, gay activist Larry Kramer wrote an article for the New York Native about the mounting AIDS crisis. Entitled, 1,112 and counting, the article challenged gay men to rise out of their complacency:
“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” (Kramer, 1989, p. 33.)
The US government was conducting its own campaign of “malignant neglect” concerning AIDS (Stryker & Buskirk, 1993, p. 93), but the gay community was rising to the challenge. The gay community began to publish and distribute its own health information, and AIDS Awareness campaigns and Candlelight Vigils commenced. Although gay men were the dominant cohort of those affected, lesbians in also became involved in AIDS activism: some women donated blood in order to assist gay men who might need blood transfusions. Others, who were nurses or social workers by profession, helped to run the first Kaposi’s sarcoma clinic and the Shanti Project.
The Australian Situation
“I know that prejudices will surface. At times, although I hope not, there will be sounds of ‘poofter bashing’, if you’ll excuse the expression. I guess we will hear from people who think it is God’s revenge for some sort of abomination.” – Journalist Derryn Hinch, 1987, p. 3.
Any LGBT person in Australia over a certain age will undoubtedly recall incidents and events of that era which hark back to times of stigma, homophobia and discrimination. I recall certain politicians calling for the quarantining of all gay men on an otherwise unoccupied island and leaving them there to die, while others called for homosexuality to be outlawed in order to protect children or ‘normal’ people. I recall workers refusing to work with people they suspected of being gay, and hairdressers or ambulance attendants similarly refusing to attend to such clients. Restaurants smashed crockery that may have been used by gay people, and funeral directors refused to bury those suspected to have died of AIDS. Public walls were decorated with slogans like “GAY = Got AIDS Yet?” or “AIDS = Anally Inserted Death Sentence”; one newspaper targeted a front-page headline to a dying gay man: “Die, You Deviate!” Religions proclaimed that “God hates gays” and that homosexuality was unnatural; and they called for laws to reflect their heterosexist morality because of the presumed superiority of their religious views. Families, schools, churches and communities rejected their LGBT children, teachers, clergy, and community members. Families even lied at funerals and proclaimed that their ‘lifelong bachelor’ son (even those who had been in long-term gay relationships) had actually died of cancer or car accidents.
In the gay community, gay venues emptied as rumours and fear spread. Where was Johnny – had he died in Fairfield Hospital? Could we get AIDS from a drinking glass in a gay venue, or from shaking someone’s hand, or from breathing the same air? Many people stopped going out socially. If they got sick, they simply ‘disappeared’ and died alone and in shame. Gay partners were denied hospital visitation rights, inheritance rights, superannuation rights of deceased partners, or even the right to return to their shared home once the estranged biological family of the deceased claimed legal next-of-kin status.
Gay refugees had fled homophobic families and cultures in country towns and sought safety and a new life in the big cities. Tragically, they found themselves part of a deadly locus of concentrated viral infection. Whole friendship networks died out.
The mainstream press filled with almost daily stories of how many gay or bisexual men were suffering from symptoms that might indicate they had ‘prodrome AIDS’ – a suspected, undiagnosed form of the disease in the days before HIV testing became available. It would not be long before the LGBT community rallied here to form care teams, activist movements, and to use its independent LGBT media to publish accurate and unbiased information that was largely absent from the mainstream media. In response to homophobia and hysteria, gay authors tried to alleviate panic within their community by publishing articles with headlines like “Will We All Die of the Gay Cancer?” while trying to actually address the issue in an informed and calm manner. Finally, following the confirmed case of an overseas visitor being diagnosed in Sydney in March 1983, and a forthcoming July 1983 AIDS death in Melbourne, the times were right for a public groundswell in support and response.
Sydney – The AIDS Action Committee
“Silence equals Death” – Old slogan from ACT-UP.
On 15 May 1983 – two months after the brief but turbulent visit to Sydney of someone who was later known to have died of AIDS, and a few days after the NSW blood bank called for gay men not to donate blood – a public meeting was held at the Sydney Gay Centre at 41 Holt Street, Surry Hills (Brass & Gold, p. 101; The News (Perth), 1983).
Fifty people came together to discuss AIDS. Dr. Harry Mitchell-Moore spoke in defence of the Blood Bank’s position and this reportedly “provoked lively debate”, especially after activist Lex Watson postulated that AIDS was being used as a political weapon against gays (Johnston, 2000, p. 3).
Activist Alison Thorne was the lone lesbian in attendance. Although AIDS was an issue predominantly affecting gay men, she voiced her concern that AIDS was a lesbian issue as well:
“…I know that lesbians have been feeling the effects of the media hysteria and the homophobic jokes. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and say this is a ‘boys’ issue’. An anti-gay backlash will affect us all. As lesbians, we have a lot to contribute to gay community action around the AIDS issue.” (Thorne, June 1983, pp. 3 & 39).
She reported in the gay press that a number of outcomes arose from this meeting. Those present agreed to form a number of working groups to assess the available literature on AIDS, and to provide financial and emotional support to anyone with the condition. They also resolved to call upon the State and Federal Health Ministers to convene a meeting of all relevant groups to help meet the challenge posed by AIDS (Thorne, August 1983, p. 5).
Decades later, the AIDS Action Committee (quickly renamed the AIDS Council of New South Wales, or ACON) has overseen medical, health advocacy, and LGBT rights activism that has helped to save countless lives and change civil rights across the country.
Further action was underway: as one man lay dying in hospital, public meetings were held in Melbourne in June and July 1983 to establish the Victorian AIDS Action Committee (VAAC) – later the Victorian AIDS Council and now known as Thorne Harbour Health.
Other AIDS activist groups were started across Australia, and joined with Sydney and Melbourne to save lives and reshape civil rights to this day. Such organisations – arising from emergency, empowered by activism and anger, helped to change the course of the epidemic, save lives, and introduce new and enlightened attitudes into a homophobic, misogynist and elitist world. They stood alongside the marginalised, the stigmatised, the rejected and those who were dying – and, in doing so, they represented life at its noblest, and humanity at its most vital and vibrant and aspirational. There were many heroes in this epidemic.
Such activists and activist groups deserve a special place in history, and as another generation of LGBT+ and other oppressed peoples face new challenges, we can learn from the accumulated wisdom of these pioneers and the hard lessons of their times.
But are we?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
People today living in lucky countries might be forgiven for thinking that the human rights they enjoy today are the norm. But such gains were only achieved at great expense. We owe those who suffered and died for the relatively good life we enjoy today. Everything from anti-discrimination legislation to marriage equality, from needle exchange programs to the public sale of condoms, from dying with dignity to inheritance laws, have been shaped by HIV/AIDS activism. It look a lot of sacrifice and suffering, but we ultimately learnt a lot from the tragedy of those heroes and those times. It took a worldwide tragedy to help create a better world.
Medically, our world has been transformed by the response to HIV/AIDS. Dr Anthony Fauci, who gained expertise tackling AIDS before he became involved in fighting COVID, acknowledges that government-funding of HIV/AIDS programs probably saved twenty million lives. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, acknowledges the sea-change in medicine wrought by AIDS activism working collaboratively with the medical fraternity: “We now see steady progress in controlling the [Monkeypox] outbreak based on the lessons of HIV and working closely with the most affected communities.”
Even things that went badly during the era of AIDS could ultimately help us to learn today from our mistakes. As activist Bill Bowtell recalls about the Australian experience:
While there were many lapses in judgment, and many unfortunate stories about HIV/AIDS that gave vent to ignorance and prejudice, the Australian mass media’s coverage of HIV/AIDS was a crucial factor in shaping public opinion to support enlightened and effective national HIV/AIDS policy-making.
But sadly, the ugliest aspect from those times – bigotry and religious-based homophobia – lives on in certain unenlightened minds today, across the world from Kentucky to Kampala. Most dangerously, a lingering after-effect of toxic religious cross-cultural contamination can be found in one of the early epicentres of HIV/AIDS, which today remains a locus of another form of unnecessary suffering and death.
The Kampala Syndrome
“Am I really as evil and unnatural as my parents say I am?”
A couple of years ago, a young lesbian woman sought a confidential discussion with me by social media. Rejected by her family and community, and fleeing her nation for fear of her life, she had wound up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where her life and safety remains in danger today. She timidly asked me a painful question: “Am I really as evil and unnatural as my parents say I am?” It’s hard to know how to respond – surely the most unnatural thing on earth is for parents to reject a child.
But the homophobia I remember in Australia when I was this young woman’s age, the stigma, the discrimination, the victim blaming of those being bullied and persecuted, the hatred and violence, the association with disease, the declared sin against man, god and nature, the smug assumed superiority of heterosexuals, and the judgementalism against LGBT+ people as openly proclaimed from pulpit to Parliament – this was her reality today. Kenya and Uganda and Tanzania and aligned (disproportionately Commonwealth) homophobic nations may be geographically far from me, but they are a generation behind the civilised world in terms of political and human rights culture.
While we commemorate the worthy anniversary of local community activism against a biological virus, President Museveni of Uganda and his Parliament seek to spread a lethal mind virus by enacting ‘the most extreme anti-gay laws in history‘ – a deliberate genocide that could potentially kill more than 10% of all Ugandans – greater than the number of Ugandans killed by Idi Amin or AIDS. Encouraged by this bigotry, in neighbouring Kenya (where only 14% of the population accepts homosexuality), the govrernment proposes to institute a similar law. Echoing bigotry from a generation ago, Ugandan and Kenyan churches today proclaim that “God hates gays” and that homosexuality is unnatural; and they call for laws to reflect their heterosexist morality because of the presumed superiority of their religious views. They even call for homosexuality to be outlawed in order to protect children or ‘normal’ people…. and this is in 2023 – not 1983.
Meanwhile, I see LGBT+ communities across the western world today look elsewhere – they are too busy enjoying affluence, narcissism and comfort. Local queer networks are dominated by religious elites who speak for maybe 30% of the LGBT+ communities that they claim to represent, and who respond to human rights abuses (such as those today in Uganda and Kenya) by arguing over whether or not their god really does hate gays. Dennis Altman notes the disparity between affluent nations and the rest of the world, epitomised by a recent LGBT+ walk over Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Australian Prime Minister, even as Uganda enacted a terrible law that promotes hatred and death towards LGBT+ Ugandans, and while countries including Russia, Ghana, Afghanistan and Indonesia all wind back sexual freedoms and diversity.
Seriously, do we care today about our queer family in Africa and elsewhere? Do black lives really matter? Does our compassion for humanity stop at a border?
Silence Still Equals Death
Our response to a pending genocide in Uganda should surely reflect the words of Holocaust survivor Halina Strnad: “Learn of past evils and say NEVER AGAIN. Check your prejudices.” And if you wonder about the rise of homophobic and transphobic prejudice around the world, ask yourself why Ashraf, Sheila or Trinidad Jerry are not as well-known as George Floyd. Perhaps we need to re-read and ponder anew the relevance of gay activist Larry Kramer’s words, which still challenge us from forty years ago:
“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, [LGBT+ people] have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”
Here is one chance to possibly save a life today*:
I was there at the beginning of Pride. Those were the days when being out was still a courageous political act. Like the book title, I felt young, gay and proud (and I carried a placard that showed the book cover), although my pride was somewhat muted.
1996 was the same year that anti retroviral cocktails began to positively impact those living with HIV/AIDS, and their death rate was plunging. After that year, HIV would become a chronic, largely manageable medical condition instead of a death sentence. Coming barely two years after Australia’s greatest annual mortality rate for AIDS, our communal sense of being under threat of death was cautiously evaporating.
But while that battle was waning, others were continuing or becoming heightened. Newly-elected Prime Minister John Howard was opposing gay adoption rights and his government was restricting immigration for same-sex couples (he would later legislate to ban same-sex marriage). Homosexuality was still illegal in Tasmania, and considered immoral across the country. Discrimination and prejudice were widespread.
Hence my hesitation. Although I excitedly marched with my placard as a member of the Queer Archives contingent that year, I was careful to avoid being filmed by the ABC-TV cameras. There was no anti-discrimination protection, and being a school teacher, I faced possible instant sacking from my job just upon the suspicion of being gay.
I marched in many groups over subsequent years: PFLAG, the Archives, the AIDS Quilt, Amnesty International, Spaced Out (a queer sci fi group), the Victorian AIDS Council (now Thorne Harbour Health), and the first school group to join the march (Eltham Secondary College?) But then I decided not to march one time, due to community politics, and I lost the impetus. I did not march again for some years.
I was there at the beginning of Pride – and I was there again this week, at the latest March. I had come home. I was not so young, still gay, and equally proud. This year’s contingent was a mix of LGBT+ and allies in Rainbow Atheists and Humanists Australia. It was the first time that humanists had marched, but curiously humanist LGBT+ activism predated probably every other group in the March. Some pioneer activists were finally getting representation.
There are many differences between the Pride Marches of old, and the Pride March of today: most of my old friends (such as Kate Doolan) are no longer here, and I am now among the older marchers. A fresh generation of community members is now out and proud. But the biggest difference is the celebratory tone of the event. We are no longer under attack. We no longer face almost universal and legalised discrimination. We even have a community centre there (in that same street where we marched) of which we can all be duly proud. It even played Abba for the occasion.
But our fight is far from over. Queer people around the world still face hatred, discrimination, imprisonment, violence or death, and it is up to us to use our voices on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.