Standing on the shoulders of Giants

A timeline of reactions to the HIV epidemic in Australia: Photo: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archive.

While the Mardi Gras season is almost upon us, World AIDS Day made QNews’ youngest contributor Harry Hadley pause to reflect on how LGBTIQA+ young people engage with the history of the HIV epidemic.

For young queer people in 2024, we learn our community’s history from those who lived it: whether they be members of our chosen families, or respected elders who have a platform through which to share their stories.

When it comes to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we are often told of the lives lost globally and the devastating social impact this virus had for the global movement for LGBTQIA+ rights.

Each queer person who lived through that time has their own unique story, which we continue to recognise and commemorate today.

Looking into this dark period for the queer community comes with little relief for a younger person.

As a young queer writer, what stood out for me from the stories I hear from our elders about this period was how an epidemic like this was allowed to fester.

Why was there a significant lack of action from the authorities until the disease was considered a danger to the “wider community”?

In researching these questions, one term struck a nerve for me.

‘Genocidal insouciance’: meaning the casual indifference and lack of action of a state/authority which leads to a significant number of deaths within a minority population.

From when the first cases of what would later be known as AIDS were reported in America in 1981, the conversation diverted from a medical crisis to a socio-political one.

Due to a lack of knowledge and research into the virus, the nature and prevention of AIDS initially remained unknown and was largely the concern of those it affected most: the queer community.

There was a remarkable lack of concern, communication, and cooperation when it came to tackling the threat of HIV by the rest of society.

Even in Australia, it was Mardi Gras that raised the funds for the AIDS Council of NSW’s first work, not the state or federal government.

Until being deemed a threat to the heterosexual population, the HIV virus rampaged through the queer community around the world, substantially neglected by governments and health authorities alike.

The early marriage of the queer community to the epidemic was made inextricable through this process and was solidified in the years of activism to come as we had to organise to fight for our lives.

When I first learnt about the HIV/AIDS epidemic growing up, one of the first things I did was ask my parents about what they remembered about that period, having not lived through it myself.

My mother said, “I just remember those Grim Reaper ads scaring the shit out of me!”

When I googled that advertisement I was lost for words.

“At first, only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS…”

The Grim Reaper advertisement stands as one of the world’s most infamous state-run campaigns, portraying ‘every-day Australians’ as bowling pins being knocked down by the Grim Reaper as a representation of the virus.

For anyone unsure of whether the LGBTQI+ community were isolated during this time, all they need to do is watch this commercial.

“In three years, nearly three thousand of us will be dead!”

It was now heterosexual Australia that was being threatened, with no acknowledgement of the tragedy that had ripped through the queer community for the previous half decade.

The rhetoric surrounding HIV/AIDS in the Australian public eye and queer people had thus shifted; from an insouciance to the disease even existing, to it being the bringer of death to the Australian population. With the “gays and IV drug users” being at the centre of it.

By 1995, one-in-nine gay men had been diagnosed with AIDS in the US, and one-in-fifteen had died.

By this point, there was a significant effort being made to stop the spread of the virus.

But those statistics alone show this effort had come far too late to prevent the detrimental impact this had on the queer community.

Going into the 2000s, HIV/AIDS deaths began to come down significantly in Australia, which gave way to the collective cultural anxiety that we see today in post-AIDS discourse.

At the end of the 20th century and even into the 21st century, post-AIDS discourse was characterised by a bleak and arbitrary gloom, which significantly reduced the desire to immortalise this time period in our collective history.

In the early 2000s, historians observed that due to this collective trauma, such a crucial part of gay history seemingly disappeared from the radar screen.

That seems to be changing, and the past decade has seen a new thirst to tell those stories through the mediums of books, film and television.

But if we look at the political and social struggles the LGBTQIA+ community has fought since the 1960s, the AIDS/HIV fight for survival falls in the middle of three main periods.

In the 1960s continuing through the 1970s, we see a push for recognition in the public eye and the demand for basic civil rights.

After the height of the epidemic in the 21st century, we see a push for queer people to have the right to build a family.

So why was there such a dramatic change from radical queer rights to a push for domestic family values?

If you’d told a queer activist in the 1970s that in 40 years, they’d be able to marry their loved one, they’d say you were mad.

Not because the idea wasn’t fathomable, but because gay marriage simply wasn’t on the agenda.

They had much bigger fish to fry, namely just existing in society without being either arrested or killed.

So why has there been such a big push for the right for queer people to build a family following the turn of the century?

Some have theorised that the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS epidemic altered the aims of the LGBTIQA+ movement to pivot from radicalism to an attempt to fit into broader society.

Queer activism pivoted away from associations with HIV/AIDS to a push for acceptance in the mainstream of society, such as a focus on family values, and the fight for same-sex marriage.

In 2024, though, we young people have the luxury of perspective in viewing the HIV/AIDS crisis, and decades of removal from that trauma.

I live in a world where HIV transmissions are lower than they have ever been, living with HIV is far from a death sentence, HIV prevention is a daily pill and a cure or vaccine is closer to reality than it’s ever been.

The stories from that dark time in our community can now be shared without the immediate jump scare and looming presence of the virus.

Those who lived through the height of the epidemic can celebrate the progress they’ve made, mourn those who we have lost, and most importantly teach future generations the lessons that we will hopefully never have to experience firsthand ourselves.

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Harry Hadley

QNews, Brisbane Gay, App, Gay App, LGBTI, LGBTI News, Gay Australia

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