Capitalism is bad for our health: an LGBTIQ liberationist perspective

Alison Thorne speaking at the LGBTIQ Women’s Health Conference in Melbourne, July 2018. Photo: Mel Butters.
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The LGBTIQ Women’s Health Conference is an annual event, which focuses on the health and wellbeing needs of all LGBTIQ women. The 2018 conference was held in Melbourne on 12 – 13 July.

Alison Thorne delivered the opening keynote titled, “Capitalism is bad for our health: an LGBTIQ liberationist perspective” (see below).

The conference took place in the week the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), a co-host of the conference, marked 35 years of organising for the health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ communities. Born out of the AIDS Crisis of the early ‘80s, the organisation has broadened its scope and is looking to the future in what it hopes will be the last decade of HIV/AIDS.

To mark this anniversary, VAC has launched a new identity: Thorne Harbour Health, named in honour of Alison Thorne and Keith Harbour.

Keith Harbour was VAC’s fourth president from 1987 to 1989. He was HIV positive and coined the phrase, “Talk with us, not about us.” He was an inspiring leader, working tirelessly to access lifesaving medicines for people living with HIV. He worked at the grassroots through the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP).

It was Alison’s leadership that helped galvanise a community, frightened by the unfolding HIV/AIDS crisis, to move forward. She went to Melbourne’s earliest meeting with a clear objective: to name the political, as well as the health, risks confronting the community and motivate action! Alison’s role at that public meeting, held in the auditorium at the Dental Hospital on 16 June 1983, is described in Under The Red Ribbon, a history launched on VAC’s 30th anniversary: “One voice at the meeting stood out among many: that of well-known lesbian activist Alison Thorne. Thorne motivated and mobilised the meeting, asking ‘What are we doing about this and how can we do it?’ ‘I think it’s really pivotal,’ reflects [Phil] Carswell, ‘that a lesbian woman 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.’ As well as stirring everyone into action, Thorne also raised the serious issue of homophobia and harassment against gay and lesbian people, and how the fear surrounding AIDS could jeopardise the newly won rights of the gay community. ‘What are we going to do to protect the gay community from the homophobia as the AIDS hysteria becomes more and more out of control in the wider community?’ she asked. It was decided to meet again one month later to form an action group; a unified front to represent the Victorian gay community in all matters relating to AIDS.”

Alison Thorne founded the Melbourne branch of the Freedom Socialist Party and launched Radical Women in Australia.

As well as being a veteran LGBTIQ liberationist, Alison is a delegate in her union and an organiser of many decades in the campaign to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. She’s passionate about building a broad, working class-led movement capable of combating the far-right menace, which is organising globally and seeking to put down roots in Melbourne today! She is also managing editor of the Freedom Socialist Organiser.

The LGBTIQ Women’s Health Conference was co-hosted by Thorne Harbour Health and ACON (a New South Wales LGBTIQ health service).

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My theme today is that capitalism is bad for our health. This economic system that breeds sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, bi-phobia and that destroys our environment, was brought to this continent by the colonial invaders who devastated the flourishing communal economic system that existed in harmony with the land.

So, I too acknowledge that we’re gathered in Narrm on the Wurundjeri lands of the Kulin Nation. This is stolen land that has never been ceded by the owners, who I recognise as sovereign. I pledge my solidarity and I stand with, and actively organise in support of, elders and all First Nations people who are resisting, especially the women, who play such a key leadership role.

It is fitting that this LGBTIQ Women’s Health, which has Resilience and Respect amongst its themes, is taking place during NAIDOC week. [NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.] It is brilliant that the theme this year, Because of Her, We Can!, pays tribute to the leadership of First Nations women. Amongst them, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in our own LGBTIQ communities.   

I look forward to hearing first-hand from some of these deadly sisters later today.

When I was approached with the proposal to rename the Victorian AIDS Council “Thorne Harbour Health,” I was surprised and even a bit emotional. While it is true, I had been a political catalyst in the formation of the Victorian AIDS Action Committee, the forerunner of VAC, before I said “yes,” I wanted to be convinced about what was driving the new name and that the invitation was not just based on my history. Today, I am still the socialist feminist political organiser that I was 35 years ago.

When I explored the reasoning, I found a plan that honours the past, while looking to the future as a grassroots LGBTIQ health organisation that encompasses the diversity of our community.

It was vital to me that those rebranding the organisation understood that it was because of my LGBTIQ liberationist perspective that I recognised the threat posed by HIV/AIDS 35 years ago was both a dangerous political threat to the entire LGBTIQ community as well as a dire health threat.

In 1983, I was a young revolutionary feminist who had founded the Melbourne branches of the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women. I needed to be sure the rebrand team understood that I had not evolved from a youthful anti-capitalist queer rebel into a mainstream health advocate. My politics are the same — I’m just 35 years older! They understood, and so I enthusiastically said Yes.

I am proud to lend my name to Thorne Harbour Health. The organisation is committed to “equal rights, health equity and recognition of social and economic inequality.” This is how “Justice,” one of the six values of the organisation, is described. In fact, I embrace all six values of Thorne Harbour Health: the others are Leadership, Diversity, Inclusion, Courage and Optimism. These values, and the perspective that underpins them, sit well with me.

I am sure that the late Keith Harbour, who played such an instrumental role in giving voice to people living with HIV, would share my sense of pride. Like me, Keith knew the power of mobilising those with the most to gain from building a mass movement and fighting like hell for our rights. As the spark behind the formation of ACT-UP in Melbourne, he knew that when profit was at stake, there was no point in asking the global pharmaceutical giants nicely.

Before ACT-UP, there was already a tradition of taking on the capitalist profiteers in big pharma. In 1988, with growing signs of treatments to help people with HIV/AIDS, I had backed the AZT Task Force, which demanded access to this early drug that held out hope.

Speaking for Radical Women at an AZT candle light vigil, I nailed the role of Wellcomme – the pharmaceutical multinational that produced AZT. I got strong support when I said: “We demand that all people have full access to a free quality healthcare system. We have had a gutful of capitalism’s scrimping and saving at the cost of our health and the cost of our lives. This is essentially what the issue of access to supplies of AZT is all about. We … demand that all people, who can benefit from AZT and who wish to use the drug, be guaranteed a consistent supply.

“We don’t want to hear any more whingeing from Wellcome Australia about how they can’t make an adequate profit from the drug if they reduce the price. If Wellcome won’t do it, then supplying AZT should be nationalised! We’re sure Wellcome will be shouting long and loud about their patents if that should happen.”

Both Keith and I have a proud history of demanding — and winning — affordable access to life-saving medications. Keith Harbour, I salute you!

In fighting for access to AZT, Radical Women also put this campaign into the broader health context. Addressing that speakout, I noted, “Mammograms that can be used to screen women for signs of breast cancer are extremely expensive to have done and are not even covered by Medicare!” This was a huge fight led by feminists, and it was not until three years later, in 1991, that the screening program, which has saved so many lives, was introduced. This was not a gift from benevolent politicians but something that was fought for, won and which must be defended. We must also ensure that programs such as Breast Screen provide a culturally and LGBTIQ appropriate service that is sensitive to the special needs of our communities.

Addressing that early vigil, I also argued that “The whole Workcare system is facing a sustained barrage of attacks, while workers are getting sick and being injured and killed at work as the system tries to squeeze the last drop of blood out of us through ‘productivity deals.’”

Oh, how this remains a pressing issue today. Work is becoming increasingly insecure and unsafe. Right here in Victoria, the fight is on in 2018 to demand Industrial Manslaughter Legislation to hold bosses, who kill by their profiteering and negligence, to account.

The fight for AZT was taking on the same economic system that failed Indigenous people. As candles flickered at the vigil, I observed, “The health of Aboriginal people in this country is a national disgrace: life expectancy is low and the infant mortality rate is huge, trachoma — a completely preventable eye disease — is running rife, and some still suffer from leprosy!” I made these comments 30 years ago! Three decades on, how much has healthcare really improved for the first people of this continent?

As I stood on the steps of the GPO, all those years ago, I felt rage as I pointed to the fact that “Kids from poor families have their decaying teeth drop out because they can’t afford to go to a dentist, while the school dental service has been cut back.” Fast forward to 2018. Why are most parts of our bodies covered in some way by Medicare but not our mouths? When it comes to dental care, capitalism is not only failing the LGBTIQ community but everyone, except the richest few.

For me, the ‘80s was not just a time of rage. It was also a time of sadness.

Like so many of a certain age in the LGBTIQ community, I too lost friends. The love story of John Caleo and Tim Conigrave and their deaths from AIDS, is well known from the book and film, Holding the Man. John and Tim were friends of mine from Young Gays, a political and social group for young lesbians and gay men formed in 1979.

While some groups of this era embraced both lesbians and gay men, separatist political ideas were influential amongst many other lesbians. But having learnt that sexism and homophobia were cornerstones of the capitalist system, the understandable, but ultimately futile, notion of blaming all men for oppression or being able to opt out of – rather than dismantle – the existing system held zero attraction for me.

Still, as the AIDS crisis unfolded, other lesbians sometimes asked me why I was putting my energy into this issue, which they (incorrectly) defined as a men’s issue.  The answer was not difficult.

I had studied history and I knew that despite building vibrant inner city communities and winning some reforms, the gains lesbians and gay men were starting to make were fragile.

I was voracious in my passion to find out more about LGBTIQ history and particularly to learn more about the pre-Stonewall Days. The Freedom Socialist newspaper was running a regular column called Gay Resistance: The Hidden History. From this series, I had learnt how pre-private property societies were matriarchal and communal. Sexuality was unconstrained, and there was no rigid gender binary. I was inspired by the Russian Revolution, which had legalised homosexuality, divorce and introduced communal kitchens.

And I was amazed to find that in the 1920s, a thriving movement was organising in Weimar Germany for lesbian and gay rights. There were nearly 100 lesbian and gay bars and cafés in Berlin. The Girlfriend was a lesbian magazine published in Berlin from 1924 until 1933. It had a circulation of more than 10,000. There was a vibrant theatre, literary and cultural scene. The League for Human Rights, known as the “Bund,” was a German homosexual rights organisation with more than 48,000 members in the ‘20s.

All of this was swept away in 1933, along with the entire German labour movement and the Jewish community, who were prominent amongst the scapegoats when German capital concluded democratic rights were a luxury it could no longer afford. The German ruling class turned to fascism, and the Nazis came to power.

Reflecting on this history in the ‘80s — the use of scapegoats in difficult times and the potential for a political backlash — the need for vigilance was crystal clear, as was the importance of joining the dots around all forms of oppression and building alliances.

Today, around the world, the far right is again on the march, seeking to build mass movements and win support for fascist ideas. Australia is no exception. Just two weeks ago, a far-right group, Antipodean Resistance, plastered hate-filled propaganda across the country. This included right here in Melbourne, where posters with vile racist and homophobic messages appeared along Chapel Street in Prahran. One poster, which said “Gays are a walking disease,” reprised some of the fear mongering of the early years of the AIDS crisis. The so-called Antipodean Resistance describes itself as “21st century Hitler Youth.” It is amongst a range of neo-Nazi groups striving to build gangs of street thugs, and they have friends in parliament and the media. These forces use fear of difference to build a fascist movement. While not its preferred method, the ruling class will resort to fascism and the complete crushing of all democratic rights, if needed to rescue profits.

Transphobia and homophobia are an entrenched part of fascist ideology. For more than 13 years, we witnessed the right wing’s determination to frustrate the drive towards marriage equality. And while they failed, they made our community pay a shocking price in terms of mental health and wellbeing through the gruelingly long marriage survey that gave license to bigots to spew hatred.

Far-right hysteria around any support for those who challenge the gender binary, especially young people, is one of their latest hot-button issues to try to drum up fear. Transphobia and homophobia are combined with the other items in the would-be Führers’ tool kit: traditional family values, sexism, reactionary nationalism, racism, xenophobia, law-and-order hysteria, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric, hostility to First Nations, so-called “political correctness,” climate change denial and over-heated panic around terrorist threats. These are all neo-Nazi favourites.

The far right is globally well connected. If capitalism nosedives, then we are all in their sights. A key task is to stop far-right groups from forming a coherent mass movement. The good news is that we can do this while they are still small. But we can’t be complacent. We need to join forces with others in diverse and disciplined united fronts to counter the far right. Stopping far-right bigotry is a crucial issue for the health and wellbeing of our community.

We know that homophobia and transphobia contribute to poor mental health in our community. Compared to the general population, we are much more likely to experience mental health issues.

The statistics are well known so I won’t repeat them. Just go to “Statistics at a glance: The mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Australia” on the LGBTI National Health Alliance website for a very comprehensive snapshot.

In the ‘80s we faced both political and health challenges, and today the same combo is playing out. Every time we log onto social media or turn on the radio, yet more political and economic decisions are announced that impact negatively on our health and wellbeing.

True, there are many parts of the world with health systems that are already much worse than Australia’s increasingly stretched system. They provide a warning of how bad it can get if we don’t stop the race to the bottom. Increasingly, our healthcare system is being driven by profit. It has flawed priorities, is being steadily eroded and has massive gaps.

I think it is always useful to talk about real people and real stories to illustrate these points.

I will start with my own. My GP works at a community health center I’ve used for decades. A couple of years ago, they started charging a gap to patients without a health card. They explained they had no option, because the Medicare rebates had been frozen for so long.

I also live with a chronic condition called lymphedema. To manage this, I go to a hospital clinic that bulk-bills with no gap (that’s how it should be). But there is a catch. The clinic is run by the Mercy Hospital, which is a religious institution. There are still religious exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation: this license for bigotry has got to be scrapped!

Additionally, I need to wear specially fitted surgical stockings every day. I need two pairs a year. Each pair costs $500. As I don’t have a healthcare card, I am not eligible for any subsidies. To manage this condition, I also need to see a podiatrist on a regular basis. I can access some assistance through Medicare Plus — this covers a rebate for five visits per year. But, as we have come to expect, there’s a gap to cover, which is the same size as the rebate. Doling out for this service is not enough to manage my chronic condition, so for the rest, I must self-fund or put my health at risk.

Last September, while visiting Katajuta I went on the rocky Walpa Gorge walk, and my knee has never been the same. It took six months to finally get a diagnosis, but only after having to pay $315 for a MRI that was not covered by Medicare. The answer: a small tear in my meniscus that was folded over and causing pain. The solution? Just hope it might go away over time! Repairing an injury such as this is elective surgery and not something I’d be able to access under Medicare.

After I accepted this invitation to speak, I also began talking to my friends about our health and gathering their stories.

I had long conversations with two friends, both queer socialist feminists and, coincidently, both called Lisa — one is in her 30s and one in her 40s.

My friend in her 30s is currently a student on a low income. Before returning to complete her course, she had a stream of insecure jobs in contact centres and in cleaning. One job ended with the fixed-term contract staff, whose leave entitlements have been replaced by casual, labour-hire workers with none. She is working hard to manage significant mental health challenges associated with trauma.

She has worked with a parade of psychologists that she accessed under the misnamed “Better Access to Mental Health” initiative, funded through Medicare. She finally found a psychologist who is helpful. But the funding – ten miserable visits per year – is not anywhere near enough for her to make the progress she wants. She characterises mental healthcare funding as rationing. She also told me how the climate around the marriage equality survey last year was traumatising and set her progress backwards.

My other friend generously told me of her experience attempting to become pregnant, using IVF. She tried for two-and-a-half years, with each cycle bringing hope that was then dashed. We chewed over the nuanced issues together. It is so important that lesbian, bi, queer and single women have access to this technology, but so problematic when hope is being sold for profit.

The very reason the IVF clinics exist at all is to make a profit. The information they provide about the chance of a pregnancy and a live birth is far from transparent. It’s near impossible to compare the success rates of different clinics, all spruiking what they do to enhance their bottom line.

This friend, who has also spent most of her working life in casualised, short-term contract employment, spent 24 thousand dollars on IVF cycles!

Part of the solution is to get profit out of this industry, which sells a dream to so many women. And part of the answer also needs to be to work towards a society that is more supportive of children being communally raised. Before the rise of private property and with it the patriarchal institution of heterosexual marriage, children were not the chattels of the head of a household who controlled a woman and her offspring. They were raised communally by a group of mothers in matriarchal clans.

I have titled this talk “Capitalism is bad for our health: an LGBTIQ liberationist perspective.”

There are so many issues that I could potentially discuss, it was hard to choose.

I could have discussed the number of fundraisers I have attended to support friends seeking to cobble together the funds they need to transition.  

Or my passion for campaigning to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody and the intersection with Indigenous health and LGBTIQ issues. The 2009 death in custody of Veronica Baxter, a 34-year-old sistergirl, is a tragedy that should never have happened. Arrested on a minor offence, she was placed in a NSW male prison and denied access to her hormone therapy. If the Managing Transgender Inmates policy and the Recommendations of Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been fully implemented, Veronica Baxter would still be with us today. But as her death shows, these recommendations are gathering dust!

Or I could have talked about the devastating health impact of transphobia on my friend Samantha. She is a graduate with an accounting degree, who has now been unemployed for years. She gets interviews alright, but the job offer never comes.

It needn’t be like this!

I can imagine a very different society — one free from transphobia, and homophobia and biphobia. I can imagine a world where young people and elders are respected. A world where there are no systemic barriers to people with disability achieving their fullest potential. A world where we are safe at work and where our environment is not making us sick. I can imagine a world where sexism and racism are beyond human comprehension.

In terms of healthcare delivery, we can switch priorities now. Let’s immediately redirect all the subsidies that go to private healthcare into the public system.

Let’s end the scam of semi-compulsory private health insurance that charges exorbitant premiums and delivers little in return.

How about we scrap the tax cuts to the big end of town. Close big business tax loops holes and make them pay.  

It is time to end the profiteering on healthcare.  Provide universal, free, quality public healthcare for us all NOW! We deserve it.  

I’ve taken you on a journey this morning that’s spanned many years.  Next year, I will have been on the front lines organising for this vision for 40 years.

People often ask me how I keep motivated.

Having a body of theory is crucial — knowing that before the rise of private property, women were equal and sexuality and gender were fluid gives me optimism. As does knowing that racism was invented by colonial invaders to justify their theft of land. There’s nothing permanent about oppression, rooted in a crisis-ridden economic system that only benefits a tiny minority.

Being part of both the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women is also important. I am not organising on my own. And just as I was mentored to develop my leadership skills, I have the inspiration of working with younger Comrades today. If you’d like to know more — let’s talk!

Yes, capitalism sure is bad for our health — very bad! But my life continues to show me that socialist feminist organising is the healthy antidote.

Thank you.

Alison Thorne
Delivered at the LGBTIQ Women’s Health Conference
Melbourne, 12 July 2018

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