AIDS sets the clock back for homosexuals

The Age, 3 September 1983:

By Peter Roberts

IN SYDNEY a dental practice refuses to treat homosexuals for fear of catching acquired immune deficiency syndrome — AIDS — and a man is threatened with the sack because his boss fears customers will see he is a homosexual and shop elsewhere.

In Brisbane a hospital employees’ union voices its concern about staff handling bed linen used by an AIDS sufferer, and in Melbourne a young girl asks her schoolteacher, who is a lesbian, whether she will be alive at the end of the year.

Like many homosexuals the teacher, Ms Alison Thorne, is beginning to feel the barbs of the fashionable AIDS jokes and wonder if a decade of acceptance is about to evaporate.

“Of course you will always have the crazies who will use AIDS to further their campaign against gays,” says Ms Thorne, “But it seems to me that a lot of the small-l liberals who support gays are slowly shying away.”

There have been two definite cases of AIDS diagnosed in Australia — both contracted overseas — and one or two possible cases. Yet such is the fascination with the syndrome that it has become the new buzz-word in Australian society.

AIDS has replaced herpes as a talking point; it is the latest and lowest insult in school playgrounds and it has inspired some hysterical media coverage, including repeated references to a “gay plague” and the surely classic tabloid headlined: “Killer Sex Bug Panic”.

This weekend about 650 people meeting at La Trobe University for the ninth National Conference of Lesbians and Homosexual Men are planning strategies to support Australian AIDS sufferers and to counter an anti-gay backlash should it occur. “A real backlash hasn’t developed yet,” says Ms Thorne. “But the groundwork is certainly there for one. Community feeling, which was moving forward, is taking a definite step back.”

So far Australia has not experienced the grosser examples of prejudice that have seen professionals in the United States ranging from health workers to police and undertakers treating all gays as if they are infectious. The AIDS sufferer who died in Prince Henry’s Hospital in July was treated normally by hospital staff.

Reaction has been confined here to a more personal level. One Melbourne man told ‘The Age’ his brother-in-law had refused to drink from a wine glass that he had touched. There are many similar stories but generally they do not go beyond the cutting AIDS joke.

Australia seems to follow the US in many ways; in New York, where half of the 1700 cases have been isolated, the number of new cases being reported has levelled off.

According to Dr David Bradford, the head of the Melbourne Communicable Diseases Clinic, this indicates that the spread of the disease, which had been doubling every six months, has been checked, possibly by a change in the lifestyle of the groups at risk. He says there are reasons for believing that AIDS will not spread in Australia as it did in the US.

“On the present evidence it may be that we are not going to see such a big proportion of cases here as in the United States,” says Dr Bradford. “Even if it has got a very long incubation period, which it has, we should be seeing more home-grown cases by now if that were going to happen.”

Australians probably have had a fairly light-hearted attitude towards sexually transmitted diseases in the past, knowing that they could always be treated. Now in rapid succession herpes and AIDS have arrived to shatter that complacency.

It appears likely that AIDS is caused by a virus, but one that is only a major health problem when it affects an individual whose immune system is already compromised for some other reason. What actually is seen in the body is a profound disturbance in the balance of certain white blood cells called T-cells, which regulate the body’s immune system.

There are two types of T-cells in the body: T-helper cells, which promote the production of antibodies and T-suppressor cells, which hold the system in check preventing it from harmful over-reaction. A normal person will have two helper cells for every suppressor cell but this two-to-one ratio can be easily disturbed … by repeated illnesses, by ultraviolet light, by taking drugs such as cocaine, opiates and marijuana, by regular blood transfusions (but not blood donation) and by drugs used to treat cancer and transplant patients.

Perhaps five per cent of the population has lower than normal T-cell ratios according to recent reports. In an AIDS sufferer the T-cell ratio falls dramatically, so that instead of having two helper cells for every suppressor the ratio is reversed. With the immune system unnaturally suppressed the way is open for a series of opportunistic infections like the pneumonia that claimed the life of a 43-year-old man in Melbourne’s Prince Henry’s Hospital in July.

Whatever its cause, AIDS almost certainly can only be passed by intimate sexual contact or through blood products. There is no evidence of social contact spreading the disease.

Of all the groups at risk — homosexuals, Haitians, haemophiliacs and their sexual partners — gays have borne the brunt of AIDS because their communities are tight-knit, almost ghetto-like. The average number of sexual contacts of homosexual AIDS sufferers is also high — 1160 contacts spread over an average of 15 years’ sexual activity. That is 77 new sexual contacts a year or 1.5 a week. According to Dr Bradford that level would be matched by some heterosexuals, although possibly for a shorter period.

He says there has been a massive over-diagnosis of AIDS in Australia. Most of the 20 cases mentioned in the Press were not AIDS, but a lesser disturbance of the immune system involving swollen lymph glands and feverishness. It is not known whether this lymph node syndrome is a precursor to AIDS or a weaker form of the disease.

Dr Bradford says the first AIDS cases could be the worst until the population develops resistance to the infective agent. Syphilis was devastating in its effects when it first reached Europe, often killing in the secondary stage in only six to eight weeks.

According to Mr Adam Carr, the spokesman for the Victorian Aids Action Group, it is likely that there will be some home-grown cases of AIDS, given the regular contact between American and Australian gays. However the gay community in a city like Melbourne was not as close as in New York and San Francisco where the syndrome has mainly been found.

“All the evidence is that AIDS is not a highly infectious disease,” Mr Carr says. “If there is a transmissible agent involved then something like 90 per cent of gay men in San Francisco have been in contact with it, yet there have been 300 cases in that city. You are talking about something which a large number of people have been in contact with without developing the infection.”

Mr Carr is one of the organisers of the national AIDS action group formed yesterday in Melbourne. As the organised gay community is preparing itself for a possible backlash there is evidence that ordinary Australian homosexuals already have modified their lifestyles, at least temporarily because of AIDS.

Gay saunas in Melbourne report a drop of patronage of more than 35 per cent since May this year. The drop-off has mainly been in married gays who tend to visit the saunas during the day or on their way home from work.

There has been a 50 per cent drop in the number of heterosexual and homosexual men attending the Melbourne clinic. The clinic, which sees more than 13,000 people a year, has also recorded a halving in the number of isolations of gonorrhoea.

“Many of the clinics in the United States have reported the same sort of thing … a fall in the amount of gonorrhoea and syphilis among gay men,” says Dr Bradford. “This may mean that people have decided to be a bit more careful in their sexual relationships because of AIDS.”

In the United States the apparent reduction in the number of sexual contacts of homosexual men has been accompanied by a bitter debate. One group sees AIDS as a logical end to a decade of unprecedented promiscuity while another sees this as playing into the hands of anti-gay groups. Certainly promiscuity has played a part in making it more likely that the disease will spread.

The debate has not been so vigorous in Australia, where the homosexual community is not as well organised and where commercial interests have not as much to lose from a change to a quieter gay lifestyle. At a recent Melbourne public meeting attended by 300 people there were suggestions that gays cut down on the number of sexual contacts they have and avoid some sexual practices possibly associated with AIDS. It is impossible to say whether many have acted on these suggestions.

Most of the gays who talked to ‘The Age’ say they are careful in their contacts but also that they have not changed their lifestyle because of AIDS. According to Mr Carr only a minority have the really large number of sexual partners or indulge in more risky forms of sex associated with AIDS. However he was careful not to draw a distinction between promiscuous gays and others.

“It is politically a very hot potato in the gay community,” he says. “It is one that has made a lot of people very angry.”

According to Mr Danny Vadaz, the editor of the magazine, ‘Outrage’, the AIDS scare has ended a decade in which it was easier for homosexuals to come out in their places of work. He says the most worrying aspect is its effect on young people in the process of recognising their homosexual identity. In the past homosexuals had to deal with connotations of mental disorder, now this had changed to connotations of deadly disease.

Mr Vadaz says: “A lot of 16 and 17-year-olds growing up are suddenly finding good reason not to come out. I am sure if I was 17 or 18 AIDS would scare me, more because of the misinformation that is around than anything else.”

The upshot, he says, will be to close the closet doors so recently opened.

Throughout the 1970s there was considerable public support for equality under the law for homosexuals, with even Catholic archbishops supporting reform. It is not clear how public opinion has been affected by the AIDS scare but according to some observers, such as Senator Don Chipp of the Australian Democrats, it has.

He feels that most Australians are basically tolerant of homosexuals and have a “live and let live” attitude. But some are making hasty judgments about the gay community on the basis of little evidence of there being a medical problem in Australia.

“And we have to remember that AIDS is a terrific tool for the extremists,” Senator Chipp says. “Most of the comments I get have been the despicable kind, unfortunately; you know, the ‘God has punished them’ kind. They almost blame the homosexuals for it, which I think is hideous.”

According to Mrs Grace Vaughan, a former MP who sponsored an unsuccessful bid to decriminalise the WA laws, AIDS is just the sort of issue that will sway politicians.

Mrs Vaughan, the president of the International Social Workers Union, has a dim view of politicians when it comes to social issues.

“People in the WA Parliament weren’t debating homosexual attraction or affection,” she says. “They thought they were talking about a perversion they were supposed to sanction: ignorance leads to that sort of prejudice. I think people in the community have been much less prejudiced than the people in Parliaments.”

Mr Lex Watson, a leading homosexual thinker and a lecturer in government at Sydney University, says that AIDS has struck a chord of antipathy towards gays that was submerged during the 1970s. He says it is unusual for a disease to stigmatise a group in the way AIDS has done for homosexuals, although in the Middle Ages Jews were blamed for the spread-of bubonic plague.

Mr Watson, who is speaking at the La Trobe conference, says: “Let’s face it. a lot of people are prejudiced against homosexuals; there is a level of homophobia around.”

PHOTO: Danny Vadaz, editor of ‘Outrage’ (seated), with members of his staff in the Fitzroy office.

Tags: / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /
Australia's response to the AIDS epidemic, in real time, 30 years on.
Follow @RealTimeAIDS on Twitter or Facebook for the best experience.

Powered by WordPress, Endless & Sneek