On June 16, 1983, young socialist feminist Alison Thorne put a question to an auditorium full of dispirited gay activists: “What are we going to do about this, and how can we do it?” The shocking facts of HIV/AIDS, a new and little-understood disease, were dawning. It had been afflicting people in the U.S., mainly gay men, and was spreading globally. Alison also asked, “What are we going to do to protect the gay community from homophobia as the AIDS hysteria becomes more out of control?” This was not only a health crisis, she said, it was a political threat to all queers.
Early days. Phil Carswell recalled this “pivotal” moment, when “a lesbian got up amongst a bunch of scared queens and said, ‘This is what you’ve got to do, boys.’ And they went and did it.” Before long, grassroots movers and shakers, Thorne among them, formed the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), the first of its kind in Australia.
This past July the AIDS council celebrated its 35th birthday with a new name, Thorne Harbour Health (Thorne Harbour). This was a great honour for Thorne and Keith Harbour, who was also instrumental in the VAC’s early life. An activist in ACT-UP, and president of VAC from 1987 to 1989, Harbour fought the profit-gouging pharmaceutical companies and the system protecting them, which were keeping lifesaving medicines beyond reach. HIV positive himself, Harbour died in 1991, just 47 years old.
His sister, Bev Harbour, speaking at the anniversary celebration, recollected the 1980s as “a horrible time. Fear and homophobia were rife. People were being beaten and even murdered. People were dying of AIDS, and doctors wouldn’t treat them. Families were rejecting their children. People were losing their livelihoods.”
As treatments became available and affordable, the AIDS council broadened into an LGBTIQ health service that addressed the needs of Indigenous, women’s, trans and gender-diverse and rural queer communities. This added mental health, family violence and drug and alcohol services. VAC chose to reflect both its radical roots and evolving commitment to its community by renaming itself after these two liberationists.
Kai Clancy, former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peer Education and Support Worker with VAC, was enthusiastic. “I like the rebranding. It sounds very modern. Congratulations to Alison and Keith!” Jake Lewis, who works at Thorne Harbour in disability capacity building, summed up the excitement. “I’m very proud to be operating on the progressive edge of such a progressive organisation. It’s amazing how a small amount of work in targeted areas can create new possibilities for people in our community.”
Different times, same struggle. A few days later, Thorne addressed Thorne Harbour’s LGBTIQ Women’s Health Conference. Her keynote speech was entitled “Capitalism is bad for our health: An LGBTIQ liberationist perspective.” She pointed out that homophobia, alongside sexism, transphobia, racism, ableism, and class exploitation, continues to torment the community. Through moving stories, Thorne showed the hideous impacts of Medicare’s erosion, insecure work and outright discrimination on the mental and physical wellbeing of LGBTIQ people. She described a queer friend who, employed all her life in dead-end jobs, spent $24,000 on in vitro fertilisation over two and a half years, only to finish with dashed hopes. And Veronica Baxter, 34-year-old Aboriginal trans woman who was arrested for a minor offence, placed in a male prison and then denied her hormone therapy. Tragically, she died as a result.
Unite against the far right. Thorne warned about the re-emergence of fascists and the far right. This was not lost on her listeners, who are experiencing the worst homophobic hysteria since the 1980s. Late last year, the federal Turnbull government had pumped $122 million into a marriage equality survey. It was a cynical move to turn loose the bigots, with all their resources, against the growing demand for legalising single-sex marriage. A fascist group, self-described as “the 21st century Hitler youth,” plastered up posters saying, “Gays are a walking disease” — adding fuel to the far right’s toxic fire. The plan backfired. But for the LGBTIQ community, the resounding “Yes” for legalisation that followed cannot erase the harrowing impact of those months.
Thorne explained: “Far-right hysteria around anything challenging the gender binary is one of many hot buttons to drum up fear. Transphobia and homophobia are in the wanna-be füherers’ toolkit, along with sexism, rabid nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric, hostility to First Nations, climate change denial and over-heated panic around terrorist threats. These are all neo-Nazi favourites.”
The far right is globally connected,” she said. “When capitalism nosedives, we’re all in the über right’s sights. To stop it from forming into a coherent mass movement, we need to join forces with each other in a diverse and disciplined united front.”
Listeners agreed, including Esther Montgomery, a lesbian First Nations woman of the Mardudhunera people in Western Australia’s Pilbara region: “The rise of the alt-right in Australia is disturbing,” she emphasised. “It is paramount that Aboriginal people lead in the resistance. We have a vested interest for our mental health and overall wellbeing.”
Liberation cures. Thorne offered a vision of a society where transphobia, biphobia and homophobia, sexism and racism are no longer the norm. Fighting for this achievable alternative can start now. Demand that officials redirect subsidies from private to public healthcare; remove profit from healthcare and create a system that’s universal, free and top quality; scrap tax loopholes and cuts for the rich.
To those enthused by Thorne’s irrepressible optimism and boldness, she responded: “It comes from the legacy of a long line of revolutionaries, from Leon Trotsky, leader of the Russian Revolution, to Clara Fraser who helped found Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, and from my comrades around me today. This makes and sustains leaders.”
Congratulations to Thorne Harbour Health. May its radical roots keep fortifying the struggle.
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