Book review: Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism and HIV/AIDS in Australia

Book review: Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism and HIV/AIDS in Australia

HIV Australia | Vol. 10 No. 2 | October 2012

Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism and HIV-AIDS in Australia. By Jennfier Power. Australian National University (NU) E Press.

Australia’s public health response to HIV is often cited as one of the world’s most successful. This history of this response is also well-documented, with Neal Blewett, Minister for Health in the Hawke government, usually credited with introducing the innovative approach of involving communities affected by HIV. Harm minimisation and the ‘partnership’ approach to public health prevented what could have been many more deaths.

In her history of gay activism and HIV, Jennifer Power traces the development of the ‘AIDS movement’ and its influence on public policy in Australia.

Power’s book began as a doctoral thesis, and her analysis is clearly grounded in social movement theory and the sociology of emotions. Social movement theory theorises the relationship between collective social action and the state, and there can be few more obvious examples of this than the AIDS movement, which was explicitly aimed at influencing government policy.

This approach serves Power well, providing a unifying theme to her account of the epidemic through the 80s and early 90s, examining ‘how the actions of the movement contributed to changing public knowledge about, and attitudes towards, homosexuality, and how activists were able to inject a new perspective about the role of community into the Australian medical and public health system’ (p. 53).

This familiar history becomes surprisingly engaging as Power weaves theoretical insights with contemporary media coverage and reflections from some of the gay men who were involved in the response to HIV.

And it is very much about gay men, as it was they who made their response to AIDS into a social movement. Power emphasises the intimate relationship between homophobia and the fear of AIDS and conversely, between gay pride and community action.

The narrative is at its best when it addresses the emotions that drove the gay community’s response to HIV.

Many of the names that appear in the book will be familiar to those who have worked in the HIV sector in Australia: Bill Bowtell, David Plummer, Dennis Altman, Don Baxter, Bill Whittaker, David Menadue. I found myself involuntarily seeking out their reflections, which sit beside the main text.

Those with more detailed knowledge of the history of the epidemic will no doubt find holes in this account, but it certainly evokes the emotions of thetime.

It’s easy now to forget the level of ignorance and hysteria that surrounded AIDS in the 1980s. One can’t help but feel admiration for those gay men who stood up in the midst of so much fear, uncertainty and grief. Their pride and far-sightedness shaped the response to HIV.

Unfortunately Movement, Knowledge, Emotion rather trails off as the shape of the Australian response to HIV is solidified in the early 90s. The story of HIV did not end with the quilt project, and there are so many other questions that the maturing of the AIDS movement gives rise to.

What happens to a social movement when it does become a legitimate voice? What problems does that present, and how are those to be addressed? Power provides a cursory analysis of ‘bug chasers’ and ‘gift givers’ in the context of the Michael Neal case in Victoria, arguing that media coverage of that case was also imbued with homophobia but that it did not ‘have the same ‘bite’ that it would have had in the 1980s’ (p. 417).

But what happens when the media – or indeed, government – loses interest in the story? What happens to a social movement then? It may be a sign of the book’s strengths, but I found myself left wanting more of this story.

Available in e-book format as free download. Also available in hard copy, on request from ANU Publishing.