40 years – 40 objects and images from the AIDS epidemic, 1981 ~ 2021, by Geoff Allshorn.
ISBN: 978-0-6453531-4-3 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-6453531-5-0 (eBook)
A brief history of AIDS in Australia, expressed through forty objects and images – newspaper clippings, books, films, TV, music, memorials, activism and art. Not to mention badges and milk cartons. Author Geoff Allshorn tenderly recalls his own experiences and struggles. More broadly, he probes the meanings behind the many silences, exclusions and (mis)representation, while at the same time celebrating the work of many ‘heroes of the epidemic’.
extract from the book:
I open the door – the space is now a conference room where once it had been a chapel … I last saw my old friend Alan on display in his coffin in a small side room that now serves as a discussion room…
Entering the main area, I walk to a window curtain and pull it back. There is one small plaque that evidently has not been removed along with all the others that used to decorate this wall, along with all the others once found on nearby external seating. Where have these other plaques gone? Where are these remembrances of past times and past lives? Nobody knows.
I replace the curtain to hide this solitary plaque, like a scientist in the wild replacing a precious endangered animal in its last piece of habitat. I stand in silence and ponder the metaphoric ghosts that fill my mind …
I wonder how many others who were with me that day, celebrating the relaunch of an AIDS garden on the premises, recall that this particular building was once a chapel, paid for by public donations in order to enable those who died with AIDS to have a funeral when their local family churches refused to conduct the rite?
Forty years ago, a worldwide epidemic was unknowingly announced in a newspaper. Unlike COVID-19, this other virus had been unforeseen and undiscovered and was, ultimately, politically stigmatised until it was on track to cause irreparable loss of life. A generation later, it still has no vaccine – although it has treatment options that have transformed the virus into a manageable lifelong condition.
Despite my attempts in recent years to undertake an extensive research project and compile a definitive and all-encompassing history of HIV/AIDS in Australia (or even in Melbourne), the task has proved to be elusive and overwhelming. How does one adequately document the lives and deaths of thousands of people, their tragedies and triumphs, their history and heroism, their pride in the face of prejudice?
Instead, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of AIDS, I present a series of personal memories and researched writings which hopefully demonstrate that the personal is political. One of the first AIDS books to appear in Australia – And the Band Played On by US author Randy Shilts – described the arrival of AIDS as a demarcation point in history that would forever divide those living ‘before’ and ‘after’ our world was transformed by a virus.
These are some of my stories and memories, and a few articles I have written over recent years in tribute. Others will have different but equally poignant recollections of how their lives and world were changed. I’d like to thank Dennis Altman, Phil Carswell, Alison Thorne, Henry von Doussa, Marcus O’Donnell, and Paul Cholewinski for helping to flesh out this project so that we could achieve forty images and objects for the forty years since 1981. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. Some names in these articles have been changed.
Geoff Allshorn, 1 December 2021
It is a sunny day in Adelaide, and the Torrens River sparkles quietly while individuals and small groups meander casually along the manicured pathways and lawns that line its banks.
There is a casual festival atmosphere in the vicinity. Weekends here seem carefree and friendly. Nobody seems to realise the significance and undertone of violence that is represented by a stone plinth in a raised area on the riverside.
The George Duncan memorial stands as a silent sentinel to past times and past crimes that were undertaken with impunity due to homophobic laws and institutions. I wonder if I am the only person today to pause and reflect at this memorial, understanding the symbolic significance of the triangular plaque in the shape of the pink triangle used by the Nazis to identify their homosexual victims.
The murder of law lecturer George Duncan spearheaded legislative change in South Australia under the leadership of Premier Don Dunstan. It ultimately paved the way for homosexual law reform across Australia – coincidentally at around the same time that a certain virus was making its way, unseen, into Australia.
One significant push-back against traditional homophobia came in the form of gay liberation, sparked in part by Australian activist Dennis Altman and his definitive 1971 book, Homosexual Oppression and Liberation. Coming on the back of the UK Wolfenden Report of 1957, and civil rights activism in Australia from Humanists as far as 1966, gay liberation empowered many LGBT people to come out and demand civil rights.
History records the tragedy that their collective mobilisation and sexual liberation coincided with the arrival of a virus that created, for gay men and many others from varied cohorts, the most devastating epidemic (before COVID) in living memory. The activist strength that was forged during the gay lib era would be put to its most challenging test in a fiery crucible of epidemic.Homophobic violence, similar to that endured by George Duncan, was not uncommon across Australia before and after the arrival of AIDS. Possibly the most famous ongoing cases of anti-gay violence took place at Bondi and other locales in Sydney, and many of these crimes remain unsolved even today. Some of those Bondi crimes, and others around Australia, may have been encouraged by AIDS phobia during the epidemic years.
SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED
The era of AIDS is recalled often as a time of double epidemic – one of stigma as well as disease. I am reminded of stories about young gay men who were forced by their sexuality to leave home and seek life in Sydney or Melbourne or San Francisco or New York (or some other metropolis) only to have to return home with double whammy news: ‘Mum, Dad, I need to tell you something. 1. I am gay and 2. I have AIDS.’
Or the triple whammy ‘And 3. I am dying.’
What leaves me breathless is the reported response attributed to a few parents at that time: ‘We are more upset that you are gay than the fact that you are dying.’
I told this story to a few younger adults recently and their response was puzzlement: ‘I can understand being upset about someone being sick, but why was there a problem with someone being gay?’
We live in clearly different cultural times in Australia these days (ask a LGBT person elsewhere if times have really changed) but I worry that our communal stories are being forgotten in our desire to leave behind the painful days of AIDS.
His name is not recorded in Australia’s history books. He was just an average Australian bloke, but he became possibly the first casualty – the proverbial Unknown Soldier – in one of Australia’s most frightening wars.
He was born in Australia in 1909, when our nation had barely reached Federation. He spent his infancy during harsh drought, in an era of horse and cart, electric trams and the telegraph. As a young boy, he would have seen older lads – possibly his father and older brothers – go off to the Great War. Later, he would have witnessed those who survived the war returning home to live with possible shell shock or disfigurement – and to face the worldwide pandemic wrongly named Spanish Influenza (not the first or last time that a disease or epidemic would be attributed to a geographic, national or cohort origin).
As a young adult, he saw the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, survived the polio era, lived through the Great Depression, and he may have served in World War Two. As an older adult, he saw many changes and challenges: television and antibiotics, automobiles and aircraft. He witnessed the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Apollo Moon landings, US assassinations and civil rights demonstrations.
His world was shaped by the Cold War and his lifestyle may have been oppressed by McCarthyism. He lived through the early days of Gay Liberation and he may have marched in the original street protest which led to the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
According to sparse newspaper reports published over a decade later (Davies 1993, Carter 1994), he began to get sick around February 1981. This was around the same time that millions of Australians were becoming distracted by the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana. By the time of the Royal wedding in July, our friend’s prolonged illness had developed into a persistent cough and he had pronounced difficulty with breathing.
The illness which struck him was testimony to the international travel that had become a ubiquitous aspect of our modern jet-setting lifestyle, despite the fact that he had personally never travelled overseas. He was afflicted with what was then called Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (or PCP, now known as Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia), a fungal affliction that had first been identified in 1909 – ironically the year of his own birth. It was only after World War Two that PCP began to appear in malnourished children who lived in overcrowded orphanages of post-War Europe – and a link was established between and humans whose immune systems had been damaged or compromised (Shilts, 1987, 34). A symbolic link had also been established between PCP and the concept of war or deprivation – a metaphor which would not be forgotten in the coming years, including in Australia.
All this background probably meant little to our friend, who battled his chronic breathing problem without being aware that others around the world had also recently puzzled their doctors with similar or related medical difficulties. There were many such unknown soldiers in this unknown war, including families, a female Danish surgeon, babies, gay men; people from Norway and Belgium and Denmark and Portugal and France. Although white gay men got most of the media attention, they were merely the tip of a metaphoric iceberg of infection and stigma: the late 1970s also saw a rise of what was colloquially called ‘junkie pneumonia’ in New York (Maurer, 1992, 1); while early stories included women, sex workers, injecting drug abusers, low income ethnic minority women, African Americans and Hispanics.
In Africa, the danger had already been spreading silently for years. Preserved blood samples indicate the presence of HIV antibodies collected from varied African subjects from 1959 onwards. Swedish author Henning Mankell reports anecdotal evidence that mysterious ailments were being noticed among men and women in Uganda as far back as the 1970s. The syndrome became popularly known in Africa as ‘Slim’ due to its associated effects of diarrhoea and weight loss. According to one story documented by Mankell, a young man named Lukas had become afflicted in 1974 with an increasingly-debilitating mystery illness which included swollen glands, weight loss and an outbreak of sores. Lukas, and his two wives, all got sick and died – followed, in subsequent years, by other people in Kampala. One of Lukas’ workmates had explained this mystery to his child through a simple but hauntingly significant truth: ‘Something has happened’ (Mankell, 2004, 52 & 53).
Something was indeed happening – and a killer virus was silently spreading; its first likely identified victim in the USA being an African-American teenage boy who was retrospectively diagnosed some decades after his death in 1969 (Garry et al, 1988), at around the time that the rest of the world was experiencing the scientific and social watersheds of Apollo 11 and the Stonewall riots.
Our anonymous Aussie battler would most likely have been totally oblivious to this community of suffering when he was admitted to a Sydney hospital in August 1981, after six months of deterioration. He died the following month, aged 72. A new pandemic had arrived in Australia and silently claimed its first casualty.
Twelve years later, doctors tested a preserved medical specimen that had been collected from the patient in January 1980. Using a test which had been unavailable and unimaginable back in 1980, they discovered that the patient had died of a condition which we now call AIDS. Yet when this patient died, AIDS had barely even been recognised as a problem overseas; it was still so new and mysterious that it had not yet been accurately identified, nor even have a name (Willis 2020); and its existence in Australia had been unknown at that time. This led Australian doctors to make a worrying declaration in 1994 following their retrospective diagnosis of this patient:
Whether this represents an isolated case in a man who progressed rapidly because of his relatively advanced age, or whether HIV was present earlier in Australia than previously thought, remains unanswered. (Gerrard et. al., 1994)
‘Patient X’ had never had a blood transfusion nor any record of injecting drug use – and yet his blood told a chilling story. Somehow, he had been exposed to the virus here in Australia in late 1979 or possibly earlier (Carter, 1994; Davies, 1993). His actual biographical details are speculative, including whether or not he may have been gay, because – not unlike many LGBT people living in those homophobic times – little is actually known about him:
There is not a lot of detail about his life in case notes, no mention of next of kin or any hospital visitors. We don’t even know his real name. (Willis, 2020)
see pdf on this page for all references
On 3 July 1981, the emerging catastrophe was announced to the world. The New York Times – not the first to publish an article, but the first to publish one that gained widespread public attention – announced that a ‘rare cancer’ had been found in 41 homosexuals (Altman, 1981). It revealed the worrying aspects of an emerging pattern: rare diseases were being caught as an indication of a compromised immune system among young gay men who should not normally be victims to such medical oddities (McKie, 1986, 21 & 22).
On that very same day, on the other side of the world, Sydney’s gay publication, Sydney Star, also published a much smaller news item, entitled, ‘New pneumonia linked to gay lifestyle’ (Author unknown, 1981). History would reveal a tragic irony in the fact that this latter article appeared beneath an advertisement featuring a gay man with an ‘R.I.P.’ tattoo on his arm. These were Australia’s last days of innocence before the arrival of an epidemic that would invoke a great mortality, fear and stigma. Soon, stories and rumours began to circulate regarding strange illnesses among gay men in Melbourne and Sydney hospitals (Allshorn, 2011, 4 & 5).
One of the Australians who read the New York Times that day was John Foster, a Melbourne historian who was on study leave in New York City. He later recalled the day which would forever announce the public arrival of slow-creeping catastrophe into the lives of millions of people around the world:
Doctors in California and New York had diagnosed among homosexual men forty-one cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. The cancer appeared in violet-coloured spots which might be taken for bruises and which often turned brown before they spread throughout the body … This was definitely not serious. Or at least, it did not concern me. I was not in the violet-spot league. (Foster, 1993, 39 & 40).
Three weeks later, on 25 July 1981 (ibid, 41), John Foster was to meet young Juan Cèspedes, and this meeting would change both their lives. They struck up a casual friendship which quickly became a long-term relationship. Since his arrival in New York as a refugee some twelve years earlier, Juan had subsequently been unable to realise his personal ambition of becoming a dancer due to the prejudice of others and following an accident with a New York taxi cab. His relationship with the Australian academic John Foster would provide him with new hopes – and it would provide John Foster with companionship and confidence.
Foster’s mistaken belief that he and Juan were not in any danger of belonging to the ‘violet-spot league’ (Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related opportunistic infection) was a continuation of the same confidence which had been experienced by a younger Juan Cèspedes in the days of Gay Lib – and yet they were later to discover that such confidence and dreams would ultimately turn into ashes. Their fate would be shared with thousands of other Australians, and millions of people around the planet.
In 1981, a new epidemic had crept silently into our world, creating a concurrent epidemic of discrimination, stigma and disempowerment, and giving rise to community activism that has never been matched before or since. Ebola, SARS and COVID are not the first epidemics in living memory, but our response to these others has been shaped – rightly or wrongly – by the lessons we have learnt (or failed to learn) from HIV/AIDS.
TIME AND FRIENDSHIP
How many people have a news clipping framed in their house? I do, and maybe that makes me somewhat unusual. It is now an old story from an old newspaper in Melbourne, ‘The Sun’, now long gone, and I read it occasionally because I think it provides a good perspective about our common humanity. We think of news as something that can tell us about the world or about other people – but sometimes news can teach us something about ourselves as well.
The date 8 August 1988 might be one of vague mathematical curiosity (8-8-88) and yet it is etched into my mind as the day of a news report in which a young Sydney man lost his life, and yet his story continues to make me think and learn anew every time I stop to ponder its message.
The young man in question was infected with HIV in the days before modern multi-drug therapies made HIV a long-term medical condition instead of an almost-certain death sentence. His last request was to return home from hospital, and his friends eagerly organised a party for his return.
This was an era when HIV was greatly feared and stigmatised, in no small part due to its popular conflation with newly-decriminalised male homosexuality and imagined contagion through normal social contact. Accordingly, his ambulance attendants wore ‘space suits’ as they delivered him home on a stretcher. His friends fled when they saw this and realised that he had AIDS.
Doctor Julian Gold told the newspaper that the young man, ‘died literally of a broken heart 48 hours later in my hospital’.
I was myself a young man when I read this story, and yet 33 years later, I remember being deeply touched by this tale of abandonment by mates and friends. We all recall the flush of youth and our eagerness to find special friends and share time and companionship with those who share our youthful enthusiasm for living and loving and learning together. This is part of the natural process of maturation, moving beyond close family, in search of our own more individualised, extended family. In his desire to find significance and belonging among his own friends – and in their failure to meet his expectations – this young man’s story touches something primal in us all. (Wherever they are today, I hope that his friends have learnt from their past mistake – we are all only human, after all – and have gone on to redress their error of having been less than their best when the going got tough).
We might also learn something from the yearning for companionship within his story – our common human condition means that we share a bond with others, regardless of their age, gender, culture, sexuality, or any other marker that has traditionally been used to separate and divide us. We share the ability to hope and dream; to yearn for significance and betterment; for living and laughing and crying. Like all sentient beings, we share the potential for suffering or flourishing, for intimacy or loneliness.
Whether they may be runaway or refugee, indigenous or ill, disempowered or discriminated against – our sentience surely compels us to empathise with others in need, and go out of our way to support them whenever we can. Indeed, I suspect that the fullest test of our humanity, ethics and compassion is whether or not we help those with whom we might ordinarily feel that we share the least in common, except for our common humanity.
I am reminded of a Biblical injunction to sacrificially offer help to others: Greater love hath no man than he who gives his life for his friends. I see this saying immortalised on war memorials, building plaques, tomb stones, and used ubiquitously across common literature. However, I see deficiencies in this quote; after all, even serial killers and dictators care about their friends; and its wording suggests an elitism by implying that only friends are worth protecting rather than all humanity. I would respectfully amend and supersede this Biblical quote, emphasising its secular humanist ideal and removing it from any religious context, by expanding it to include everyone instead of just an insulated bubble of our nearest and dearest: Greater love hath no person than they who give their life to help another; turning strangers and enemies and their whole human family into friends.
Thirty-three years ago, that anonymous young man’s story convinced me that awareness of the suffering of others is our choice. His story inspired me towards activism. How many others are like him today, around the world, suffering in silence during modern-day plagues: HIV, COVID, disease, poverty, starvation, injustice, war, violence, discrimination, or the indifference of others? And what are we doing about it?
However we answer those questions reveals more about our own humanity than it does about those whose suffering we are challenged to confront.