AIDS Council Needs Urgent Change: A Founding Member Speaks Out!

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A change is needed in the Victoria AIDS Council (VAC). The organisation, which now employs 50 workers, must open up to give all groups affected by AIDS a genuine share of the power within the organisation or they should stop pretending to be the peak AIDS body and change their name to the Victorian Gay and Bisexual Men’s AIDS Council.

Safe Women Squeezed. The highly successful Safe Women group is battling for its political life within VAC. Safe Women, formerly part of the Peer Education Team, has been downgraded within the organisation’s structure and is being starved of funds. This has forced Safe Women to cancel a number of their planned safe sex sessions for lesbian and heterosexual women. Women, migrants, Aboriginal people, IV drug users and sex workers do not have a voice within the Victorian AIDS Council.

Until recently, People Living with AIDS complained bitterly about the lack of voice HIV positive people had within VAC. The complaint was that VAC resources went disproportionately into organising prevention strategies and that not enough effort was put into issues such as campaigning around access to drugs.

AIDS Council Beginnings. Over a decade ago, I attended a gay community meeting in the dining room of the Laird Hotel to discuss setting up an organisation to respond to the mystery disease, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). I was amongst the dozen people elected to establish the Victorian AIDS Action Committee (VAAC), forerunner of the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC).

We didn’t know a great deal about AIDS at this time. We didn’t know what was causing it, how it was spreading or how to prevent it. We did know that it was gay men being affected by the disease, and we knew it killed people. We also knew that we lived in a homophobic world.

I remember lesbians asking me why I was putting my energy into gay men’s health issue and I remember arguing that AIDS was not merely a health issue but a first order political issue. I warned of the huge potential for a homophobic backlash; implicit in the media use of the term “gay plague.” It was entirely possible that the political fallout of AIDS would impact lesbians almost as harshly as gay men.

The excellent work of the VAAC led ultimately to the establishment of the Victorian AIDS Council as the voice of gay community in relation to all matters relating to AIDS. The organisation received government funding and continued to grow. I’ve been a member of the VAC since its inception but with VAC well established I, as a revolutionary socialist feminist organiser, put my time into other struggles.

Now, over ten years since the first case of AIDS was diagnosed, we know a great deal more about the disease. The HIV virus has been identified, as has the method of transmission in bodily fluids. Swift mobilising by Australian AIDS activists, amongst them members of VAC, set the political agenda and identified high risk behaviours, not high risk groups.

Safe Sex campaigns were set up to prevent the spread of AIDS. They also aimed to establish an effective counter to the moralists who tried to argue for no sex before making a commitment to lifelong monogamy as the only solution. This approach, dependent on quality sex education and self-esteem amongst gay people, led to an acknowledged reduction in the rate of new cases of HIV infection in Australia especially amongst openly gay men.

But a reduction in the rate of HIV infection cannot hide the fact that the number of people with AIDS is continuing to grow. This is at a huge human cost.

Women and AIDS. Women are increasingly being directly affected by AIDS. In many corners of the world — parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Eastern Mediterranean, for example — women suffer from AIDS at the same rate as men. At least 3 million women are infected with the HIV virus, and 600,000 women in different parts of the world have AIDS.

By the end of the decade, half of all people with AIDS will be women.

Women do not receive equal access to drugs and chemical trials. There is little research into how AIDS presents in women and women tend to be diagnosed later, ignored longer and die earlier.

The issue of preventing the spread of HIV infection amongst women highlights the need for radical social change. The safe sex education approach, which has proved so successful amongst gay men, cannot work in the same way for heterosexual women on an international scale. Safe sex assumes a level of equality within relations that many women simply do not have.

An analysis of women and AIDS developed by the Victorian organisation, Women in Community Health, and published last year in Women in Action — the magazine of the Philippines-based international women’s network, ISIS International — clarified the link between preventing AIDS and social change:

“…  a clear message is coming through to women: get your partner to wear a condom. The message is necessary but limited and limiting! Part of the problem with the message is that it denies the realities of lives of too many women around the world, and the extent of power that women in economic social and political structures. These structures are reflected in State laws, which contravene the rights of women. State laws still exist which deny women the right to own property, limit women’s rights within marriage, deny custodial rights to children, and deny the opportunity of equal access to public life education, literacy, training, full employment, and healthcare. Economic dependence on men is still institutionalised; submissive behaviour in social and sexual matters and the ability to produce children are often women’s only means to an economic base in many societies. This economic base is only available through marriage, yet marriage offers no protection against AIDS for women.”

In Australia economic dependence on men is institutionalised both through the tax regime and through social security regulations. Women still earn only 63¢ for every dollar earned by men. Women are raped, and in fact it wasn’t until the late eighties that rape within marriage was made unlawful in Victoria!

Women and the Victorian AIDS Council. Women, and especially women with a feminist analysis, have an important role to play within the fight against AIDS. Yet women are being denied political access to VAC.

There are hundreds of women members of the Victorian AIDS Council but these women are marginalised into a role where they have little political say. The women members and volunteers with VAC are overwhelmingly members of the care teams. They are the nurturers and the VAC, which will not fight for this work to be valued by fighting to have it funded, could not deliver the service it does to people living with AIDS without this unpaid female labour.

Safe Women, which is fighting for a feminist perspective and a political voice for women within the VAC, is not viewed so benignly.

Who and What is the AIDS Council for? VAC was established primarily as the voice of the gay community in relation to AIDS. The VAC Constitution implies a broader base with its statement that VAC is for gay and bisexual men and people affected by AIDS. As the AIDS evolves, so has the breadth of the communities touched by AIDS.

Eight years ago, one of the frontline AIDS issues was how to answer the homophobes who dismissed the disease as “the gay plague.” Now no one, short of the Fred Niles of this world with their rightwing agendas to promote, would seriously peddle this line.

AIDS is a serious public health issue, which has revealed the fundamental incapacity of world capitalism to provide for people’s essential needs and rights. Professional rivalries and drug company profiteering on existing inadequate drugs means that there is still no cure. In parts of the world plundered by imperialism, the health systems are too poor, even to screen blood let alone provide quality care for people living with the disease. In the world’s richer nations the picture is equally bleak. The United States is a classic example, where many of the poorest people living with AIDS, overwhelmingly people of colour, are homeless and get no treatment at all because they cannot afford to pay.

In Australia, discrimination against people with AIDS is rife. Hospice care and palliative care is woefully inadequate. The home-based care available for people with AIDS is delivered by unpaid volunteers when 11% of population needs paid jobs. At the 1992 VAC Annual General Meeting, incoming President Michael Bartos stated explicitly that the Liberal government, when it looks at the finances of providing AIDS services, will continue to fund the VAC because volunteer services are so much cheaper than even the most miserly of alternatives. The healthcare system is being privatised by stealth, and as services become stretched increasing numbers are forced to rely on the well meaning “band aid” efforts of, overwhelmingly female, volunteer labour.

To address these issues, a fightback embracing everyone affected by AIDS is required, but the Victorian AIDS Council won’t take the lead and open up. The VAC is faced with a choice. Either it becomes more representative and actively encourages the participation of all communities affected by AIDS or it stops pretending to be the “peak” AIDS body in this state. The VAC Joint Advisory Committee must turn the VAC into a fighting force uniting all communities affected by AIDS. If the VAC won’t do this, then it should make explicit that it wants to be nothing but an exclusively gay and bixsexual men’s version of the Salvos.

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