How we saved our lives: the gay community and the Australian response to AIDS

How we saved our lives: the gay community and the Australian response to AIDS

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Graham Willett

The Australian response to AIDS has been widely hailed as the best in the world and it provided a model that was adopted and adapted in a variety of countries and societies.

Central to its success was the fact that it was a threefold project: the gay community, the medical profession and the governments were all partners and each played their own unique role in changing the way that people felt and thought and acted.

Here I want to focus on the gay community, without whom none of the rest could have operated as effectively as they did.

AIDS exploded as a public issue in November 1984 when the Queensland government intervened in the federal election to announce that four babies had died as a result of receiving blood transfusions from HIV-infected blood.

The mainstream press ran with the story, with varying degrees of irresponsibility, whipping up fear and anger. From that point on, AIDS was never far from public consciousness and was a nerve waiting to be tapped by politically-motivated, as well as in some cases genuine, fear.

Right from the start, the gays at the table knew more than almost anyone else, and unlike anyone else they had a direct line to the gay community and were trusted enough that they would be listened to.

As Adam Carr, one of the founders of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee (later the Victorian AIDS Council) put it:

‘We [gay men] are the only people with the power to stop AIDS, and this is our one great strength, our one ace. The doctors cannot stop it, the government cannot stop it, the scientists cannot stop it, except by helping us to stop it.’1

And – supported by the government, the doctors, the scientists – stop it we did.

Indeed, even before these more powerful actors stepped up, gay men were changing their sexual practices sufficiently that infection rates started to drop dramatically. In the opening years of the epidemic (in 1982 and 1983) there were 2,500–3,000 new infections a year.

In 1985, this plunged to 1,500. By 1987, infection rates had dropped to 500 per year, and this remained roughly the annual figure thereafter. By reversing the expected rate of increase, gay men and their allies were saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

The policy adopted involved, as historian Paul Sendziuk has put it, trust. Above all, the government and doctors came to trust the gay community leadership’s view of what would work, and how the messages should be delivered.

Money went to the AIDS Councils in each state and to the national Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations who, in turn, crafted messages that were right for affected communities (chiefly gay men, sex workers and people who used injecting drugs) and expressed in ways that they would understand, believe, and act on.

Setting aside all questions of legality (sex between men, sex work and drug use was still illegal in many states during the 1980s), and all questions of social disapproval, safe sex education and education about safe drug use (‘harm minimisation’) was remarkably explicit.

People were told what to do in order to save their lives, how to engage in illegal sex safely, how to use illegal drugs safely. The existence of a gay community with its own media, social venues and sex venues meant that it was easy to reach large numbers of sexually-active men without broadcasting the message to a still-hostile world.

The campaigns relied upon an ethic of care – for yourself, for your sexual partners, for your communities; and an ethic of respect. The campaigns eschewed judgement and finger-wagging in favour of advice.

Audiences were addressed in their own language; as one educator said, when it came to safe-sex messages for gay men, ‘an arse was an arse and a fuck was a fuck’.2

Imagery was just as strong – nudity, sex acts, an acceptance of promiscuity, anonymity, public sex, experimental sex permeated the educational materials. But what was important was that this material was targeted where gay men, sex workers and drug users would see it – and only they would see it.

Public exposure to the educational materials being produced would certainly have produced public (or at least media) uproar and risked governments getting cold feet and backing way.

Educational materials were produced in many forms, but it is the posters that people remember most.

In the words of the advisory produced by television stations, HIV educational materials contained nudity, strong language, drug references, sex scenes and adult themes.

Safe sex and safe injecting were promoted. People were shown how to use condoms and how to clean fits between use.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities created culturally appropriate health promotion materials to promote and encourage condom use and ensure protection from HIV.

Particular populations were addressed to make the message relevant to their particular circumstance, including women (who were often overlooked in mainstream AIDS health practice), people who spoke languages other than English and came from very different sexual cultures, and young straight men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities (especially those living remotely) were at great risk.

The Condoman campaign (‘don’t be shame, be game’) reached out to Indigenous Australians – and they reached right back, taking Condoman into their hearts and lives. Posters, t-shirts, even a real life Condoman roaming community events handing out safe-sex materials brought the issue of safety vibrantly to life.

Acting Up

Despite the success of the campaigns, there was a feeling in HIV policy circles in the early 1990s that governments were starting to lose interest in the disease. And so it was that in 1990 an organisation called ACT UP was announced – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.

Based on a US model, it adopted a much more confrontational model than had been seen around AIDS in Australia. It protested, it demonstrated, it ‘zapped’, it accused, it defied.

It took the government, the medical profession and the media to task for their failings and accused them of being murderers.

This was a long way from the AIDS politics that had prevailed to that point, and ACT UP was often as critical of AIDS activists working in the corridors of power as they were of the holders of power.

Projects such as the AIDS Memorial Quilt remembered those lost and reminded us all what was at stake.

But the estrangement was somewhat overstated.

ACT UP was founded in part by people who were insiders, who felt they needed outsiders hammering on the doors to offset their increasing marginalisation. (As the disease started to be seen as a manageable health problem rather than an epidemic or crisis attention and resources were shifting elsewhere.)

The AIDS Councils surreptitiously channelled resources to ACT UP and bore their criticism stoically.

Faced with the conventionalisation of most of the political repertoire – who, after all, really took notice of demonstrations anymore? – ACT UP adopted a strong visual style designed to get it noticed by blasé media, politicians and the gay and lesbian community.

Its striking pink, point down triangle logo referenced the pink triangle imposed on homosexual internees in Nazi Germany – an image that had been used (triangle point up) since gay liberation days as an act of defiance.

The ‘Silence=Death’ slogan (imported, as so much of ACT UP’s work was, from the US group) was not at all literal – it was intended to encourage people to ask what it was about, as a way of opening conversations about the AIDS crisis.

ACT UP practised visibility, flamboyance, defiance and confrontation – and no small amount of theatricality.

From fashion shows for fundraisers, to posters and flyers and t-shirts, to kiss-ins, die-ins, zaps, public speaking, self-education and trade union liaison, it drew heavily on the repertoires of the gay and lesbian liberation movement of the 1970s, updated in some ways for new times.

Choking a minister’s fax machine with messages was not something that was available in the 1970s. One of its most memorable campaigns was in June 1991 when it launched its D-Day campaign.

Decrying deaths as a result of delays, especially of drug trials, it set a deadline of 6 June for the Health Minister to respond to its demands for easier access to lifesaving treatments.

As the date approached there were a series of small protests and the on the day itself, as activists took themselves out across the city.

The Minister’s office was sprayed with red paint, there was a die-in outside Flinders Street Station and, most dramatically, as it turned out, the flowers in Melbourne’s much-beloved Floral Clock were torn out and replaced with small white crosses.

Or to take another example: in 1990, the Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre (VAC/GMHC) launched a campaign directed at young men. Like all such campaigns, it started with the lived reality of the audience.

It was simply a fact that many young men had sex with other men – either as part of their coming out, or out of curiosity.

These men needed to know two things: that it was okay to have sex with each other; and that they should do so safely.

The poster designed for the campaign and for use as an ad in print media conveyed its messages in images and words: A photo of two young men kissing, the slogan, ‘when you say yes, say yes to safe sex’ and a description of what was safe.

Reaction was swift. Young gay men loved it. Conservatives were outraged. TV Week refused to publish it. The Advertising Standards Council recommended it not be published anywhere. The Liberals’ Health spokesperson, Marie Tehan, described it as ‘scandalous’.

Kissing as politics: be it in anger or in lust, the erotic was a weapon in the fight against AIDS and homophobia.

The uproar was widely reported – and the poster was used by newspapers, magazines and television to illustrate the story, ensuring very wide publication.


ACT UP staged a public kiss-in on World AIDS Day under the slogan ‘Kissing Doesn’t Kill – Greed and Indifference Do’ and produced a flyer that suggested that ‘When you say no, say no to Marie Tehan’.

In the end, the Australian response needed all its partners – the government, the medical profession, the gay and HIV-positive communities. Without any one of them, the whole strategy would fall apart.

But the unique contribution of the gay people remained the keystone to the whole edifice. Gay people, supported by the rest of the LGBT community, had indeed saved their lives and the lives of thousands of others.


1 Taken from a speech given by Adam Carr at the Victorian AIDS Council in 1984. Reproduced in: Carr, A. (2013, 12 July). The Courage of our Convictions: lessons from the AIDS panic of the 1980s. A speech delivered by Adam Carr at the Victorian AIDS Council on 12 July 2013. Retrieved from:

2 Paul van Reyk. (1992). Never Turning Back: Gay Men’s Response to AIDS in Sydney. National AIDS Bulletin, July, 12–14.

All posters courtesy of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives,

Graham Willett researches the history of gay and lesbian political activism in Australia. He is the author of Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia, co-editor of Australia’s Homosexual Histories, and an active member of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.