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*:
(*The views expressed in this article are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Humanity in Need or any other individual or organisation mentioned herein.)
AFP, 2023. Most extreme anti-gay laws ever passed in Uganda, news.com.au, 3 May.
Author not attributed, “Will We All Die of ‘Gay Cancer’?” in Gay Community News, Vol. 4 No. 1, February 1982, p. 5.
Author unknown, “Meeting to be held on AIDS” in The News (Perth), 11 July 1983.
Dennis Altman, 1997. Defying Gravity: A Political Life, St Leonards NSW: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd.
Dr Alister Brass & Dr Julian Gold, 1985. AIDS And Australia: What Everyone Should Know, Kensington: Bay Books.
Derryn Hinch, 1987. AIDS: Most of the Questions. Some of the Answers., Port Melbourne: Bay Street Publishing.
C. Johnston, 2000. Notes on the ‘life and times’ of the Gay Rights Lobby…1980 – 1988 (version 6, October).
Larry Kramer, 1989. Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Jacob Poushter & Nicholas Kent, 2020. The Global Divide on Homosexuality Persists, Pew Research Center, 25 June.
Bruce Schreiner & AP, 2023. Lawsuit Targets Kentucky Ban on Gender-Affirming Care for Youth, WKU Public Radio, 4 May.
Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, 1996. gay by the bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chronicle Books.
Alison Thorne, June 1983. “Bad Blood and Bad Politics”, in Outrage No. 3.
Alison Thorne, August 1983. “Woman and AIDS” in Outrage No. 5.
©2023 Geoff Allshorn.