Australia: Recognising the unsung heroes of Australia’s AIDS crisis

All your friends were getting sick. All your contacts, all your sexual friends and people that you drank with at the pub. You started visiting people in hospital and the wards had a lot of people in them and you knew them.

This is what Mac, a gay man I recently interviewed in a regional town, told me of the HIV/AIDS crisis that emerged in Australia in the early 1980s. It would last until September 1996, when the arrival of new medication transformed the experience of HIV/AIDS into a manageable and chronic condition, rather than one likely to be fatal.

Australia’s response to the crisis has been recognised around the world as one of the best. This response was, in part, driven by thousands of people who volunteered at a time when prejudice was rife and stigma widespread. Theirs is a remarkable story of compassion that has yet to be fully acknowledged.

Volunteers are rightly revered in Australian culture. Surf lifesavers and country fire fighters are seen as the embodiment of Australian values. AIDS volunteers worked right at the very margins of life and death. But they have not been sufficiently recognised for two reasons: they came from marginalised groups and they worked with stigmatised individuals.

I am currently working on a major project with Robert Reynolds and Paul Sendziuk that aims to unearth the work of these volunteers through recording their oral histories. We’ve interviewed more than 50 people so far, and their stories form the basis for this essay.

For some gay men, volunteering provided a means of coping with a seemingly relentless epidemic, while others felt obligated to assist as people they knew fell sick. It was about making sure that friends and lovers were treated with the dignity society refused to give them. In his interview, Mac remembered “gay brothers caring for gay brothers, and gay sisters caring for gay brothers”.

Gay, a lesbian woman who volunteered in Perth, reflected on her motivations and said simply, “it was all about the heart”. Read more via The Conversation