Gay life turns sour

From The Herald (Melbourne), 16 Jul 1983:

LIKE most Melbourne homosexuals, “Bill” is sick and tired of hearing about AIDS.

Bill’s concern stems not from fear of catching the mysterious, newly-discovered disease but because it threatens to prejudice Australia’s relaxed attitudes to homosexuals.

AIDS — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — has no known cure. In the United States, where it was first identified in the gay community in 1979, about 75 per cent or the victims have been homosexual men. According to strict definition, two cases of AIDS have been identified in Australia.

Bill explains his unruffled attitude to AIDS this way: “I am not afraid of the disease myself because I have only ever had one boyfriend, and the evidence suggests that mostly promiscuous homosexuals are at risk.

“But because of the overblown emphasis given to AIDS and its link with homosexuals I have begun to wonder whether my straight friends are doubting me.

“Gays are worried that all the effort put into trying to make the community understand homosexuality will be forgotten, and that people will begin to believe propaganda put forward by fringe conservative groups who have seized on AIDS to attack us.”

Melbourne’s gay magazine OutRage. with a hint of paranoia, puts it more directly in its latest issue:

“There is no doubt that the deliberate creation of public fear and the spread of false information is going on. and that AIDS is being used to attack gay people and gay rights in Australia.”

Bill, (not his real name), is 21. He is an official of GAYSOC, the Melbourne University gay society which has about 80 members.

GAYSOC’s room in Union House has twice been the target in the past two weeks of egg-throwing vandals. Someone scrawled obscene graffiti on the door — one of the printable slogans read: “Long live AIDS.”

Bill told me: “On this campus we have some extreme religious groups who are portraying AIDS as a visitation of the wrath of God. There are also these who are anti-homosexual and who would like to create fear by saying that we have caused the disease.

“We think their irresponsible attitude to homosexuals gives ratbags the excuse they need for violence.

“IN general. Australian society is fairly moderate, and resists extremist groups. What bothers us is that what happens on campus is sometimes reflected later in society at large.”

OutRage reports hysterical reaction in the United States: “There has been a great number of cases of AIDS patients being evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs and cut off by their families. There has also been a series of incidents involving AIDS patients being discriminated against and isolated within the hospital system.”

Five of Melbourne University’s GAYSOC members are among 100 homosexuals taking part in a two year research program into AIDS by Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

The Institute has been so concerned about the confusion and exaggeration surrounding AIDS, that it has released a
statement aimed at achieving perspective.

It says that public concern about AIDS “is the result of a lack of knowledge on the part of scientists and doctors, firstly as to its cause, secondly, as to whether it is indeed infectious as seems to be the case … and thirdly because of a lack of knowledge of an effective treatment in the face of a death rate of greater than 50 per cent”.

The institute adds: “Prolonged close physical contact with an infectious person is seemingly required to contract
the disease.

“For example health care workers have been caring for patients with AIDS in the United States of America for some three years and not one doctor, nurse or other hospital employee has yet caught the disease.

“Moreover, no Australian resident in Australia has so far been diagnosed as having fully-developed AIDS…”

In Australia, one confirmed case was that of a visitor to Sydney from the U.S. The other man, who died in Prince Henry’s Hospital last weekend, was an Australian recently home from America.

Doctors say he had all the classic symptoms fitting the strict definition of AIDS, laid down by tho Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Material has been sent there for tests.

As well as those cases, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute says one Australian who had lived in New York for many
years died of the disease there.

Doctors told me that conditions for an epidemic of AIDS of U.S proportions do not yet exist in Australia for three reasons:

  • Too few cases have been confirmed here;
  • None has involved an Australian resident;
  • The disease, if it is infectious, is very hard to catch.

But a Melbourne specialist warned that while the danger of AIDS in Australia should not be exaggerated, it was important for homosexuals to be aware of the risks and to take the same sort of care as they would over venereal disease.

He told me: “This is especially important when they are travelling in the United States if we are to prevent introduction of the disease into the Australian gay scene.”

Bill says that only a small proportion of gays fit the stereotype of the promiscuous homosexual who roves the gay scene seeking a series of partners.

“Just because people go to the gay bars, saunas and discos it doesn’t necessarily imply they are promiscuous. Only about five of the homosexuals I know of at Melbourne University are in this category.”

But whatever their numbers, it is the promiscuous homosexual who is heavily at risk, the Hall institute says.

Bill says: “Some of those who have caught AIDS in America have slept with hundreds. I have only ever had one boyfriend. I can’t understand how anyone could sleep with 20 people, let alone hundreds, but my view is that if they want to take the risk, that’s their affair.

“I know that risk doesn’t threaten me — I believe I am not as much as risk us promiscuous heterosexuals.”

Bill said gay organisations have been conducting an education campaign at places where homosexuals congregate.

AIDS is a disease affecting the body’s immune system which when functioning normally fights disease and the development of cancerous cells.

In the United States more than almost 700 of the nearly 1800 cases designated as AIDS have died. This is less than half the number of cases, but of those diagnosed before 1981, 85 percent are now dead.

Some of the confusion about the number of AIDS cases in Australia (reports from the U.S. place the number as high as 20), can be explained by the fact that, as the Hall Institute says, AIDS can be confused with other diseases which seem to affect homosexual men.

Also, confirmation of the disease depends upon what definition is applied to the case, as a doctor at the Hall Institute explained:

“The definition for AIDS as laid down by the Centre for Disease Control, In Atlanta, Georgia, is precise and according to these criteria, Australia has had only one case of AIDS, with another almost certain to be confirmed.”

Diseases which can be confused with AIDS include one that is characterised by enlargement of the lymph glands of the body. This disease is also accompanied by an impaired immune system, and, the institute says, it might be a forerunner of AIDS — although this presumption “is certainly not proven”.

As well as this condition, the institute reports that some homosexual men without either AIDS or enlarged glands were found to have moderately impaired immune systems.

The institute makes it clear that AIDS is a disease which doctors can recognise without doing laboratory tests — it is most clearly evident when the patient has an unusual skin tumor called Kaposi’s sarcoma, which
which is associated with patients who have severe immune deficiency.

This skin tumor was formerly seen only in men aged over 60.

The other easily recognisable symptom of AIDS is a severe infection of microorganisms of low-grade infectlvlty. One of these in particular — Pneumocystis — infects the lungs.

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