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.”

Level-Headedness

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.

References:

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.

Patrick Cook, 1987. “Not the News”, in the National Times on Sunday, 12 April, p. 2.

Steve Dow, 2003. “AIDS, Fragile Love and Dying”, in The Age, 28 September.

Editorial Opinion, 1987. “The Week of the Big Scare Campaign”, in The Courier (Ballarat), 11 April, p. 4.

Editors, 5 April 1987. “Today the AIDS Menace Hits Home”, in Times on Sunday, p. 10.

Editors, 6 April 1987. “AIDS Campaign”, in The Examiner, p. 6.

John Foster, 1993 (reprinted 1994). Take Me to Paris, Johnny, Port Melbourne: Minerva.

John Foster, 2003. Take Me to Paris, Johnny, Melbourne: Black Inc.

John Foster, 2016. Take Me to Paris, Johnny, Melbourne: Text Publishing.

Barry Hailstone, 1987. “AIDS Campaign Aims to Shock All Australians”, in The Advertiser, 4 April, p. 4.

John Hanrahan, 1993. “Love and Dying”, Australian Book Review, September, reprinted November 2003, p. 68, accessed 27 March 2009.

Charles Happell,1987. “AIDS Campaign Aimed at the Ignorant”, in The Advertiser, 3 April, p. 3.

Derryn Hinch, 1987. AIDS, most of the questions, some of the answers, Bay Street Publishing, Melbourne, pp. 39 & 140.

Libby Lester, 1986. “AIDS Arguments Not Doing Much in Beating Problem”, in The Examiner, 4 April, p. 9.

Mary Rose Liverani, 2004. “To Fame and Fortune Unknown”, in Law Society Journal, Volume 42, March, p. 98; at http://www.lawsociety.com.au/page.asp?PartID=8175, accessed 28 March 2009 [dead link].

George Negus Tonight, episode 17, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 29 May 2003; accessed 28 March 2009.

National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, 1999. ‘Estimated HIV Incidence, observed AIDS Diagnoses and projected AIDS Incidence’ in National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research (ed.), HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and Sexually Transmissible Infections in Australia: Annual Surveillance Report 1999, Figure 2, p. 8.

No Future, 1987. Letter in “Fifty Fifty” column, in The Sun, 21 April, p. 48.

Ron Penny, 2002. “Grim Reaper’s Demonic Impact on Gay Community”, B&T Magazine, 1 October; accessed 28 March 2009.

John Rickard, 1993. Afterword, in John Foster, op cit, p. 203.

Geoffrey Robertson, 1987. Does Dracula Have AIDS? and other Geoffrey Robertson Hypotheticals, North Ryde: Angus & Robertson Publishers.

C B. Rosser, 1988. “Reaping the Grim results” (letter), Medical Journal of Australia, 148, p. 368, cited in John Tulloch & Deborah Lupton, Television, AIDS and Risk, p. 136.

Gabriel Rotello, 1997. “Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men”, Dutton (Penguin), p. 119.

Lee Rudakewych and Walter Bagley (Reuters), 1983. “AIDS puts victims in a class of their own” in The Herald, 25 April, p.8.

Leigh W. Rutledge, 1989. The Gay Fireside Companion, Alyson Publications.

John Schauble & Robyn Dixon, 1987. “Life Firms Look at AIDS Test”, in The Age, 20 April, p. 1.

Deborah Smith, 1987a. “We Face the AIDS Spectre as $2M Campaign Begins”, in the National Times on Sunday, 5 April, p. 3.

Deborah Smith, 1987b “AIDS: Is It All Just Hype?” in the National Times on Sunday, 12 April, p. 6.

Geoff Strong, 1987. “What Australia Is Doing At Easter”, in The Times on Sunday, 19 April, p. 22.

Oscar Tamsen, 1987a. “AIDS Judgment Day Has Arrived”, in The Northern Territory News, 4 April, p. 7.

J. W. Taylor, 1987. “AIDS Education Could Give Children Fearful View of Sex”, in The Age, 21 April, p. 12.

Chris Thomas, 1987a. “Don’t Panic, but Fleas Have AIDS Virus”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, p. 1.

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©2024 Geoff Allshorn.

Stop the Genocide

An appeal to the Prime Minister and Parliament of Australia

PLEASE DO WHAT YOU CAN TO STOP THE GENOCIDE IN GAZA.

As of 8 May 2024, over 36,000 people (34,844 Palestinian and 1,410 Israeli) have been reported as killed… including 97 journalists (92 Palestinian, 2 Israeli and 3 Lebanese) and over 224 humanitarian aid workers, including 179 employees of UNRWA.

“Love lights this place up. Without love it would be dark and cold here.”
– Holocaust Survivor Halina Strnad.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

As a constituent and a human being who cares about the value of human life, I am calling on you to advocate for an end to the violence in Gaza.

Since the UN Security Council called for an immediate ceasefire on 25 March 2024, that demand has been ignored and unenforced. Now, over 200 days into the conflict, there seems to be no end in sight. Of those killed in the last six-and-a-half months, approximately 70% have been women and children. According to UN Women, 10,000 women in Gaza have been killed – 6,000 of them mothers – and over 700,000 women and girls face possible death or injury in Rafah. This is not a measured military response to the attacks of 7 October 2023, nor is it the actions of a responsible modern western democracy in defence of its citizens or human rights. It is downright slaughter.

I’m grateful for Australia’s support for a ‘sustainable ceasefire’ and for restoring funding to UNRWA, the largest humanitarian actor in Gaza. Our Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, has stated: “I am here to add our voice, Australia’s voice, to advancing the cause of peace.” But this alone is not enough. The harrowing situation in Gaza underscores the urgent need for governments worldwide to STOP THE SUPPLY OF ARMS, AMMUNITION, AND AIRLINE PARTS USED IN THESE ATROCITIES.

AUSTRALIANS WANT TO SEE YOUR GOVERNMENT DO MORE. Polling released on 27 February 2024 revealed that over 80% of Australians want a ceasefire, and that one-third of voters would consider this issue when they decide who to vote for at the next election.

In the name of humanity I respectfully urge you to please do the following:

1) ENSURE AUSTRALIA’S IMMEDIATE SUSPENSION OF MILITARY AID ASSISTANCE AND COOPERATION WITH ISRAEL. Nothing manufactured in Australia should contribute to death and destruction in Gaza. The government should halt all transfers of weapons parts and ammunition where the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Force are the end users.

2) TAKE URGENT ACTION TO ENSURE THAT ISRAEL COMPLIES WITH THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE RULINGS and acts in accordance with International Humanitarian Law, using all diplomatic means available. This includes abiding by ICJ rulings that Israel must prevent genocide and take measures to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

3) APPLY AND IMPLEMENT TARGETED SANCTIONS ON ISRAELI OFFICIALS who have called for the denial of aid, and military and civil servants denying essential food and materials to civilians of Gaza. Your government has stated that: “The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. More than 1.7 million people have been displaced, many several times over, and half of Gaza is experiencing catastrophic food insecurity with famine projected to occur imminently.”

4) CONTINUE TO CALL FOR AN IMMEDIATE PERMANENT AND UNCONDITIONAL HUMANITARIAN CEASEFIRE IN GAZA, and also use all diplomatic means available to achieve this. If the Israeli government refuses to a ceasefire, there are options to expel its diplomats.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

5) CALL FOR A THE COMMENCEMENT OF COMPENSATION FOR PALESTINE, AS WELL AS LONG TERM SOLUTIONS INCLUDING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE. This latter could be commenced via ‘an ancient Semitic custom known as sulha’ wherein communities begin to heal by letting those most affected talk things through, just like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the Truth Telling involving Australia’s reconciliation with its own history. Furthermore, anyone on either side (IDF or Hamas) who is guilty of war crimes must face justice. Any long-term ceasefire must guarantee ongoing peace, justice and equality for all people in Palestine and Israel, and also work to heal divisions within Australia and other societies as a result of the current genocide.

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
— Elie Wiesel

This is not a question of anti-Semitism, as the human rights of all people – including Palestinians as semitic peoples – must be acknowledged, respected and protected equally, alongside those of Jews or other communities. Miriam Margoyles and the Jewish Council of Australia have joined the call for a ceasefire, as have 700 Australian Jews. On the global stage, the so-called “two state solution” must prevent the continuation of the colonial-style occupation of Palestine, a system riven by apartheid and other divisions, and recognise that all people of the region have equal rights to life, liberty, and self determination. The current system is unfair to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Nor should anyone suggest that the Jewish communities within Israel do not have a right to defend themselves. The attacks of 7 October 2023 were terrible, and every reasonable and responsible action should be taken to find and hold those behind the attacks to account for their actions – but the current response (the indiscriminate and extrajudicial killing of alleged Hamas personnel – without any regard for legal processes or collateral damage – the bombing of cities, apartment blocks, hospitals, universities, schools and refugee camps, etc, and the displacement of millions of people) is a disproportionate response that makes no attempt to minimise civilian casualties nor to serve as a model template for civilised behaviour. As a modern western nation, Israel is already well-armed and it does not need to be provided with provocative armaments which encourage zealous military actions that are now recognised as being potential war crimes and genocide.

The current situation dishonours all those who died in the Holocaust – and the survivors – because “Never again” should mean forever. It also dishonours those Israelis who are commemorated in Yom HaZikaron 2024 / יוֹם הַזִּכָּרוֹן 5784, plus the nearly 100,000 Palestinians now killed since 1948. These terrible losses should not be in vain.

I finally make this call in memory of a friend and Holocaust survivor, the aforementioned Halina Strnad, who used her experiences to fuel her desire to drive positive reform in the world rather than hold onto hatreds and hurts. She has passed away in recent years, but I trust I am not misrepresenting her views or philosophies by recalling that her credo was “Don’t remain a victim” and this inspired her to never call for revenge or harm on others regardless of provocation. I feel that the current Israeli government could learn something from her.

I am calling on you to help forge a path to real and lasting peace for the people of Gaza and related communities.

Thank you for your action on this matter of life and death, and I look forward to your kind response to hearing of what you personally have done to end this genocide.

Yours most respectfully,

Geoff Allshorn

___________________________

This is based upon an email that was sent on my behalf via the DoGooder website.

Permission is given to use this as a basis for your own email, provided you add appropriate changes to suit your own views and perspectives.

All rights of their material returned to author at DoGooder. My own material herein ©2024 Geoff Allshorn

Women Who Inspire Inclusion

“We have heard enough about a paradise behind the moon. We want something now. We are tired of hearing about the golden streets of the hereafter. What we want is good paved and drained streets in this world.”

Although it is over a century since Lucy Parsons uttered the above words in 1889 Chicago, women humanists have contributed to the fight to shape the modern world with a commitment to reason, compassion, and social change.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we aim to #InspireInclusion, and work towards a world that’s free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, and where difference is valued and celebrated. We do this by highlighting a diverse range of women who have made recent strides in the promotion of Humanism and advancement of human rights in the Humanist community.

Sonja Albertine Jeannine Eggerickx (born 8 February 1947) is a Belgian secular Humanist who was president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), now Humanists International, a position she held for nine years until stepping down in 2015. In 2016 she was awarded the Distinguished Services to Humanism Award 2016 for her ground-breaking work in secular education and ethics.

(Video: PATASCON2015: Sonja Eggerickx, IHEU President (Opening Remarks) (youtube.com)

Marissa Torres Langseth is a Board Member of Humanist Alliance Philippines, International (HAPI), having founded the organisation in 2013, after previously founding the Philippine Atheist and Agnostic Society (or PATAS, which stands for “equality” in Tagalog) in 2011.

(Video: Marissa Torres Langseth – Openly Secular – YouTube)

Lola Tinubu is of Nigerian descent and is one of the organisers of Association of Black Humanists formerly known as London Black Atheists. She has a story of losing faith and having to confront the fear and stigma associated with leaving religion. It was only on coming to the UK that she found the freedom to leave religion behind. She muses: “When I became an atheist I discovered science, theatre, music, literature, going to museums, appreciating nature. I’m sure I don’t understand nature like a university professor, but I have a new appreciation of it: landscapes, earthquakes, continental drift, all of that. I’m like a little girl in a candy shop.”

(Video: Celebrating black humanism and freethought – Black History Month | CLH Talks (youtube.com)

Anne-France Ketelaer (Belgium), General Manager of deMens.nu (the umbrella network of Dutch-speaking liberal humanist associations in Flanders and Brussels), former Vice President of Humanists International (2016 to 2023). She has stated: “Humanists disagree on many things. We embrace that diversity, because it is such a big part of freedom of expression.” Upon her retirement from the Board in 2023, she was awarded the 2023 Distinguished Service to Humanism Award, and thanked by Andrew Copson, President of Humanists International: “Through her visionary leadership and unwavering dedication, she has elevated the cause of humanism to new heights.”

Anne-France Ketelaer (photo from Humanists International and demens.nu)

Roslyn Mould (Ghana) is the first African to be elected Vice President of Humanists International. She was Secretary and Chair of the Young Humanists International African Working Group from 2014 to 2019 and a Board Member for Humanists International from 2019 to 2023. She was a member of the Humanist Association of Ghana since it was founded in 2012 and held several positions, including President of the group from 2015 to 2019. She is the Coordinator for the West African Humanist Network, an Advisory Board member of the FoRB Leadership Network (UK), a Board member for LGBT+ Rights Ghana, and President of Accra Atheists. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and Modern Languages. She has once said, “Humanism teaches me to be free from dogma and religious/cultural misogynistic beliefs. Humanism informs my liberation as a person”.

(Video: Roslyn Mould: Pioneer of Freethought (youtube.com)

Nicole Carr (USA) is the Interim Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Editor of the Humanist magazine, and Senior Editor of TheHumanist.com. She recalls: “It wasn’t until I left home for college that I started questioning religion. Slowly, I moved from considering myself religious to “spiritual but not religious,” to an understanding that this life on earth is what we have and we should make the most of it. I came to believe that each person must find ways to make their own lives meaningful and fulfilling and that being and doing good in the world was a big part of instilling that meaning.”

(Video: What’s New at the AHA with Nicole Carr (youtube.com)

Maachelle Farley, President of Humanists Barbados, who in 2023 called upon Barbados to improve its human rights record in a number of areas, including improving the rights of women and LGBTI+ persons, eradicating corporal punishment, and working for the abolition of the death penalty.

(Video: Barbados Challenged to be More Inclusive (youtube.com)

Inga Auðbjörg Straumland (photo from her website)

Inga Auðbjörg K. Straumland (Iceland) is a Humanist Celebrant, (former) President of Icelandic Humanists / Siðmennt. She states that since her deconversion from Christianity as a teenager: “I have been burned for secular society. A society where there is full freedom of religion and people have full personal freedom to choose the path that suits them in life, without having to be constantly in the shadow of state religion, discrimination and facilities.”

(Video: Nordic humanism – its challenges and future (youtube.com)

Eva Quiñones, President of the Secular Humanists de Puerto Rico / Humanists of Puerto Rico. She co-founded the Humanists of Puerto Rico team in 2011, and is one of the few Hispanic women activists who internationally represents the Puerto Rican lay community before various forums and organizations, including Humanists International. Eva states: “Humanism, compassion, rationalism, science, are the proven best ways for nation building”.

(Video: Humanism in Puerto Rico » Understanding Humanism (YouTube)

Kirstine Kærn, Vice-President of the Danish Humanist Society (Humanistisk Samfund) and recently travelled the world to meet and network fellow humanists, and runs a podcast on Babelfish. She speaks of her increased involvement in humanism: “11 years ago I heard about the founding of Humanistisk Samfund and decided to join. I’ve never been religious nor a member of the Danish state church (75% of Danes are members of the protestant state church). Human rights and humanism have always been important to me, but besides sponsoring Amnesty I’d never considered being part of a humanist organization. I was a member for several years before I became active.”

Kirstine Kærn (photo from Humanistisk Samfund)

We aim to make every day a commemoration of a world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We thank these women for their commitment to this same cause.

©2024 by Roslyn Mould (Ghana) and Geoff Allshorn (Australia).

Fighting Ghana’s Anti-LGBT+ Hate Bill

The struggle for freedom continues on Ghana’s Independence Day

It has been a very long and arduous journey in the quest for freedom and justice (the motto of Ghana’s republic) for LGBT+ people in the country.

The LGBT+ community has faced various levels of persecution, abuse and discrimination for decades and today, we’re at a crucial moment in Ghana’s history since Ghana’s parliament ‘unanimously’ approved of the draconian Anti-LGBT bill titled “Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Act 2024”.

The bill threatens to jail LGBT persons and allies for up to 5 years for simply identifying as such, mandates every citizen to have the duty to report any person or persons that violates the Bill, takes away access to housing, healthcare, education, jobs, freedom of association and freedom of speech, etc to anyone deemed to be a person who is “involved in the promotion of, propagation of, advocacy for, support or funding of LGBTTQAP+”.

Despite the opposition of the Bill by LGBT activists who have put their lives on the line, allies and CSOs, the proponents of the Bill have forged ahead with blatant lies, propaganda and far-right, bigoted rhetoric to impose their religious ideas and put fear and intimidation on Members of Parliament.

For years’ influential people such as the former speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Prof. Michael Ocquaye and Lawyer Foh-Amoaning have written articles and spoken in public gatherings advocating for the punishment and continued bashing of LGBT people in Ghana. This was so much so that, Mr. Foh-Amoaning started a coalition with the same name as the original title of the bill, “Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values” and went on a campaign to promote it through the media and in 2019, they hosted the first anti-LGBT conference in partnership with the World Congress of Families, an American Far-Right Christian extremist group tagged as a HATE group. The WCF was added to the list of organizations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-LGBTI+ hate groups in February 2014 for its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law and opposing LGBTI+ rights internationally. The WCF have been notorious for imposing their fundamentalist ideas of patriarchy, misogyny, Islamophobia, white supremacy and homophobia in the United States of America and other parts of the world.

Come January 2020, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, an LGBT advocacy group championing the rights of LGBT persons in Ghana and working to support victims/survivors of physical, social and mental abuse, acquired a space and invited some members of the diplomatic corps to Commission the space. However, upon hearing of the event, The Coalition called for the closure of the LGBT advocacy center but failed to mention how so many other Ghanaians also spoke up about their support for the Center and their disappointment of its closure. The Center, which was the first of its kind was to support the various NGOs and individuals get the much needed help from our education, healthcare and security agencies to curb the constant abuse and discrimination of real and perceived LGBT+ persons against blackmail, stigmatization, lack of employment, high suicidal rates, domestic abuse, sexual assault, mob lynching and emotional abuses, etc. that are prevalent in the country and have been researched and documented by Human Rights Watch. This Bill was therefore borne out of the homophobia and fear of the Coalition without the proper understanding of the event for the Office Opening, the work of LGBTI groups or without engaging with the participants and stakeholders of the LGBT+ Community. The police raided the Center and it was closed down.

A year later, the Anti-LGBT Bill was born and with the support of the current Speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Alban Bagbin, who gave the go ahead for the sponsors of the bill made up of 8 MPs led by Sam George (MP, Ningo-Prampram), alongside Emmanuel Bedzrah (MP, Ho West) Della Adjoa Sowah (MP, Kpando), John Ntim Fordjour (MP, Assin South), Alhassan Sayibu Suhuyini (MP, Tamale North), Helen Adjoa Ntoso (MP, Krachi West), Rita Naa Odoley Sowah (MP, La Dadekotopon) and Rockson Nelson Dafeamekpor (MP, South Dayi).

Soon after the introduction of the Bill in Parliament, the Committee on Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs of the Parliament of Ghana requested feedback from the general public, and hearings were heard for days from concerned citizens and the international community, including the then-UN special envoy for Gender Equality and other CSOs such as the ‘Big 18’ made up of renowned Ghanaian scholars and legal practitioners against the bill. Those for the bill were mainly from the religious community.

Prior to and since the inception of the bill, abuse cases against real and perceived LGBT persons have significantly increased such as the arrest and detention of 21 alleged LGBT people, beatings and suicide rates have gone high, most of which are not reported as the police tend to also act as perpetrators of abuse on victims.

It has been a tough back and forth with the media, religious leaders, entertainment icons, politicians and academics debating and arguing to and for the Bill for the last 3 years. In a highly religious country like Ghana, It came as a bit of a surprise to many that the Bill took this long and faced such strong opposition. However, with the Speaker of Parliament declining the request for a secret ballot to be held amongst the MPs, it was unfortunate that last Wednesday, the 28th of February 2024, the Bill was passed supposedly unanimously even though it’s alleged that less than 50% of the quorum voted verbally with seemingly no opposition, leaving the decision on Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo to assent to it or not before it becomes law or is thrown back to Parliament. Incidentally, Parliament has threatened to override the President’s veto decision if he doesn’t assent to it.

Immediately following the passage of the Bill in Parliament, the backlash towards the government soared both locally and internationally with Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the US Department of State, saying in a statement that the United States is “deeply troubled by the Ghanaian Parliament’s passage of legislation, officially called the Human Sexual Rights and Family Values Bill …The bill would also undermine Ghana’s valuable public health, media and civic spaces, and economy. International business coalitions have already stated that such discrimination in Ghana would harm business and economic growth in the country,” Miller said.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said the bill is a barrier to ending AIDS.
“If it becomes law, it will obstruct access to life-saving services, undercut social protection, and jeopardize Ghana’s development success,” she said in a statement.

The International Monetary Fund also voiced its vigilance over the passage of the bill. The IMF said it’s monitoring events in Ghana after lawmakers passed a bill seeking up to three years in jail for people identifying as an LGBTQ person. “Diversity and inclusion are values that the IMF embraces,” the Washington-based lender said in a statement. “Our internal policies prohibit discrimination based on personal characteristics, including but not limited to gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Like institutions, diverse and inclusive economies flourish.”

Soon after these statements, Ghana’s Ministry of Finance pleaded with President Akufo-Addo not to assent to the recently passed anti-LGBTQ bill by Parliament. In a press release on Monday, March 4, the Finance Ministry cautioned that approving the bill could result in significant financial consequences for Ghana. According to the Finance Ministry’s statement, Ghana stands to lose a substantial amount of World Bank financing, estimating a potential loss of USD$3.8 billion over the next five to six years. Specifically, the impact for 2024 includes a loss of USD$600 million in budget support and USD$250 million for the Financial Stability Fund, adversely affecting Ghana’s foreign exchange reserves and exchange rate stability.

On the 4th of March 2024, The President issued a statement speaking for the first time since its passage in Parliament. He said Ghana will not backslide on its human rights record, and added that the bill had been challenged in the Supreme Court. “I have learnt that, today, a challenge has been mounted at the Supreme Court,” Akufo-Addo said in a statement. “In the circumstances, it would be as well for all of us to hold our hands and await the decision of the Court before any action is taken,” he added.

Given that Ghana was the first African country to gain Independence on the 6th of March 1957, there would be protests online and in-person in Ghana, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa, Germany and Denmark to demonstrate against the Anti-LGBT Bill and to plead with the President not to assent to the Bill. The show of love and support from the International community in solidarity with the LGBT Community in Ghana and with the quest to save Ghana’s Democracy and secular constitution has come with much appreciation, admiration and love.

This marks an historic moment and we hope that reason and compassion will win over dogmatic bigotry. Long live Ghana!!!

#queerghanaianlivesmatter
#killthebill
#nanaaddokillthebill
.

Roslyn Mould
Vice President, Humanists International
President, Accra Atheists

This blog ©2024 Geoff Allshorn. All rights for this article returned to writer Roslyn Mould.