Melbourne — World AIDS Day, 1 December 2000 was marked by a resurgence of militancy. A Speak Out organised by Queers United to Eradicate Economic Rationalism (QUEER), which put forward both local and international demands, also celebrated the achievements of 17 years of organising to defeat HIV/AIDS.
Activism worked then… Veteran gay liberationist and historian, Graham Willett, highlighted the achievements of the movement. Since the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in Australia, it has been an immensely political issue. The potential for a serious anti-gay backlash was real. The newly formed AIDS Action Committee forced the government to work with the gay community. As more became known about the transmission of the disease, Australian activists campaigned for prevention through a non-moralistic approach — promoting safe sex and needle exchange.
This approach was successful in reducing the spread of the virus. Contrast this to the United States and Britain which promoted abstinence and testing. The message in the U.S. — “Just Say No to Sex and Drugs” — did nothing to educate people about safer behaviour, and fuelled a backlash mentality.
Militant activism around clear demands made a difference. It staved off a homophobic backlash and won prevention programs, funding for community organisations, anti-discrimination measures and ongoing care for people living with HIV/AIDS. The Speak Out also heard about the opening last November of Fairfield House, a public purpose-built HIV/AIDS facility at the Alfred Hospital. A grassroots community campaign ended years of stalling and was critical to getting the facility finished.
…and is needed now. The need to defend and extend reforms while fighting for lasting solutions was a clear theme. Alison Thorne, who spoke for Radical Women, outlined crucial fights on the agenda today. Thorne was scathing about the Howard Government, saying that while an ideologically driven campaign funnels huge subsidies to the private health industry, the public health system is being starved of funds.
The fight for access to safe donor sperm for lesbians and single women is also a priority. Speak Out participants yelled “Shame! Shame!” in protest against Howard’s plans to amend the Federal Sex Discrimination Act and overturn a landmark case granting IVF access to Lisa Meldrum, a single woman.
The Speak Out also demanded that the Disability Support Pension (DSP) be increased to the level of a living wage and condemned government plans to force people with disabilities to work for their pension — so-called “mutual obligation.” The Victorian AIDS Council had come out strongly against the government’s welfare reform announcement, arguing that there is nothing “mutual” about the proposal: “people already struggling to afford a roof over their heads, and basics such as food and clothing, cannot afford to be further penalised financially for not being able to comply with mutual obligation.”
Poverty among people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) is endemic. Over a third of PLWHA have incomes below the poverty line and many rely on the DSP. A report released in June 2000 revealed that 45.7% of women living with HIV/AIDS are impoverished.
AIDS is a feminist issue. The protest had a strong internationalist focus. Adrian Makohon, Queer Officer for Melbourne University, gave a global picture. Ninety-five percent of PLWHA are in Third World countries where life expectancy is plummeting as a result. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, more than a quarter of the workforce has HIV. Very few resources go into prevention at the community level or caring for people living with the disease. Makohon was angry that pharmaceutical corporations continue to line their pockets with outrageous prices for “proprietary drugs,” while stifling the distribution of cheaper “generic” therapies.
Alison Thorne argued that the struggle against HIV/AIDS in the Third World could not be separated from the fight for women’s liberation. In poor countries, the struggle to prevent the spread of HIV among women is part of the general struggle for women’s emancipation. More than half of those living with HIV/AIDS are women, and this figure is steadily climbing. In response to HIV, many men are now selecting younger partners. In Zimbabwe, five times more women than men under the age of 20 are HIV positive. Thorne said that “stopping honour killings, female genital mutilation, rape and domestic violence and winning sexual and reproductive self-determination, reforms to marriage, divorce, inheritance and property laws and increased access for women to education must be part of the struggle for HIV/AIDS prevention.” Protest participants were inspired to hear how women’s movements are increasingly fighting around these demands in many parts of the world.
Globalising the resistance. Neoliberalism has HIV positive people in a deadly vice, particularly in “developing” economies. While major drug companies use their patent monopolies to prevent access to cheap life-prolonging drugs, the institutions of globalisation, such as the World Bank, insist on cuts to public spending.
But, we can and are taking action to challenge this. People living with HIV/AIDS were among the 20,000 – 30,000 people who named the problem — capitalist globalisation — and took collective action by joining the blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne from September 11to 13. This action was part of a growing global movement which has the potential to solve the world’s problems.
The fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS is an important political challenge facing this new movement. On the global level, because of the intense and growing exploitation of poor nations by the rich, it is difficult to envision a solution for AIDS without a worldwide socialist economy. It’s easy, though, to imagine what strides we could accomplish in a world driven by human needs — not corporate profits.