“I AM against the dirty and despicable acts these [homosexual] people carry out. You can’t get any beast or animal that is so depraved to carry on the way they do”.
Queensland’s response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was set back for years by the actions of the man quoted above: Joh Bjelke-Petersen— the state’s former premier and one of the country’s most controversial.
[showads ad=MREC] A reflection on this era of Queensland’s history has been prompted by the release of cabinet documents from 1985 that, among other decisions made by the Bjelke-Petersen government, details its reaction to the epidemic.
Gay Queenslanders at the time found themselves both preyed upon by a notoriously homophobic police force and lambasted by politicians and religious leaders, all in the name of government-condoned “morality”.
The gay community was also left to fend for themselves in its greatest time of need as HIV and AIDS made its way into Queensland.
The minutes reveal the 1985 cabinet considered the issue of AIDS during eight meetings throughout the year and what it could do to prevent the its spread in Queensland.
An incident at a Sydney pool that hosted an event for the Sydney Mardi Gras sparked national concern over how HIV was spread.
“As a parent, I would have strong reservations about letting young people compete in a pool that was used for such a sick event as a gay swimming carnival,” Queensland’s welfare, youth and ethnic affairs minister Geoff Muntz said at the time.
“It seems these people who promote such an immoral, unnatural and deviant lifestyle are turning up everywhere in NSW.
“You’ll never hear of a gay mardi gras or gay swimming carnival in Queensland.”
Homosexuality would not be legal in the state until 1990 and as such, public disclosure of someone’s sexuality could result in legal harassment, which prevented many gay activists from speaking out and advocating for a better response to the epidemic.
Awarded an Order of Australia for his work in the HIV sector at the beginning of the epidemic in Victoria, Phil Carswell – now living in Brisbane – worked closely with the Queensland AIDS Council (QuAC) that was formed in 1984.
“Activists I worked with then were fearful of QuAC being labelled as a ‘gay’ organisation even though all other state AIDS councils were unashamedly gay community organisations,” Carswell told the Star Observer.
“This reluctance was for two main reasons – firstly it was made clear to me that anyone openly identifying as a spokesperson for a gay organisation would be subject to Special Branch and other police scrutiny and harassment as well as problems in their workplace and accommodation if they were renting.
“There was a genuine and well-founded fear of actual physical violence. The other perspective was that quite simply the Queensland Government was not prepared to do anything in terms of preventive education for anyone – gay or straight.”
At least 45 positive AIDS tests had been confirmed and six Queenslanders had died of AIDS-related illnesses by the time of these cabinet documents.
“The Queensland gay community was determined to try and work out their problems themselves,” Carswell said.
“Given the hostile environment, the gay community was not particularly large or well organised so when AIDS arrived, there was a very small pool of people ready and able to fight for what was taken for granted in other States.”
The 1985 documents also reveal applications from the state government for Commonwealth funding to deal with the virus – something they had refused previously.
“I spent a lot of time trying to help work out how to get funding to QuAC in the early days when the state government refused to accept Commonwealth funds (unheard of at the time) because the Commonwealth insisted that half the money went to prevention,” Carswell said.
“To quote Brian Austin, health minister at the time: ‘Queensland wants to use the money for contact tracing not to set up counselling centres, Hotlines and clinics to pander to the homosexuals’.
“Finally, the Commonwealth came up with an approach which meant passing funds onto the Sisters of Mercy at the Mater Hospital and every week, Sister Angela Mary – one of the few people in Queensland who was able to stand up to Joh – would carry a brown paper bag full of cash over the road to the house the Sisters were leasing to QuAC and put the money on the front bench to pay staff wages.
“That was an example of the level of bastardry that was going on in Queensland at that time.”
Also revealed in the cabinet documents, Austin failed in an attempt to rescind a statewide ban on condom vending machines in public spaces.
Reflecting on the 1985 documents, Acting Health Minister Anthony Lynham told the Star Observer the current government was committed to ensuring that HIV in Queensland never took a step back again.
“HIV is no longer the grim sentence those letters evoked in people’s minds in the era of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government,” he said.
“No-one should carry a stigma in our community because they are living with a particular health condition.
“We are… reinvigorating the Biala Sexual Health Service, developing a comprehensive sexual health strategy for Queensland, injecting millions of dollars in funding into supporting relevant non-government organisations and making significant investments in HIV treatment as prevention initiatives.”
The content of the cabinet documents came as no surprise to Carswell.
“The papers just confirmed my insights that a vicious and ideological government has many ways to enforce its agenda,” he said.
“It used all government departments to stifle the AIDS council, it refused charitable status to the group, it enabled and encouraged police behaviour that went against good public health principles and it politicised the public servants responsible to do the same.
“It refused to provide funds, it refused to answer correspondence and it breached confidentiality, which just supercharged the race back into the closet and away from prevention, treatment and care.
“Not wanting the ‘general public’ to swim in a pool because ‘the gays’ might have been there first is insulting enough but the real issue for me was that gay men were actually being imprisoned and brutalised at a time when those they loved were sick and dying – that to me is a far greater and deeper wound.”