Community hero and ally Yvonne Gardner – who worked to make the lives of people in the community better for more than 50 years – has passed away, leaving an indelible legacy in her wake.
In the early 1980s, Gardner would take food to HIV-positive gay men living in housing commission, men who were often isolated from their friends and family.
She had already been working in Melbourne’s gay community for years, and was working at the gay-friendly Middle Park Clinic when the first cases of gay-related immune deficiency (an early name for AIDS) began to appear.
Men living with HIV and their friends were able to connect during these Tuesday soup nights, and once she secured funding, Gardner was able to grow her soup kitchen into a two-course meal.
The weekly meals for people living with HIV had been running continuously to this day.
“There are people who come every week, who look forward to it, who have got a reason to get up, have a shower,” she told the Star Observer in 2015.
“Some of them even get up the night before, clean their shoes, go and pick up their clothes at the dry cleaners if they can afford it.
“It’s scary out there for young, nice, innocent gay men – you’ve got to like yourself first, before anyone else.”
In response to the news of Gardner’s passing, community leaders have highlighted her lasting impact.
Chief Executive of Thorne Harbour Health, Simon Ruth, said Gardner played a vital role in the community response to HIV and AIDS.
“The success of our community response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic over the past four decades has been due to the unwavering dedication of community members [like Yvonne],” he told the Star Observer.
“She remained committed to supporting people living with HIV from the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s to today, where ongoing challenges like stigma and discrimination are combatted by social connection and support.”
Melbourne artist Mama Alto took to social media to recall the first time she met Gardner, during Mama’s Melbourne Recital Centre performance.
“Yvonne started the standing ovation, one of the first I have ever received, and then walked down to the front of the stage, held my hand, and slipped a ring from her finger onto mine,” she wrote on Facebook.
“I recognised her immediately – this icon, this hero, this legendary stalwart pillar of our community – and was amazed, honoured, and shocked.
“I’ve worn that ring for every performance, ever since.
“These memories fill me with hope, love, and joy, knowing that there is good in the world, and that there are so many others with beautiful and powerful Yvonne stories. By following Yvonne’s tireless, fearless, extraordinary example, we can all be better human beings and contribute to the betterment of this world.”
Longtime marriage equality campaigner, Antony McManus, said he was devastated by the loss.
“[Gardner was] such an amazing woman who lived a very colourful life,” he wrote on Facebook.
“A tireless worker for our community. The world is a little less fun today – you will be greatly missed.”
Victoria’s gender and sexuality commissioner Ro Allen highlighted the importance of allies in the LGBTI community.
“Having just returned from the Australian Ally Conference, I can’t help but think of the enormous role that Yvonne played as an ally in our community,” they wrote on Facebook.
“A great advocate and supporter of our community, especially in the early days of the HIV epidemic, Yvonne will be sadly missed.”
See below for more tributes to Gardner on social media:
Vale Yvonne Gardner. The most fashionable bastion of our community. 🏳️🌈 You will be missed. 📷 Meredith O’Shea 2017. ❤️❤️❤️ pic.twitter.com/7zcOILS9lY
— Tristan Meecham (@TristanMeecham) October 1, 2018
Sad to hear of the passing of a great friend to the LGBTI Community & to so many of us. Yvonne Gardner was incredibly unique & somewhat iconic in Melbourne. You always knew her opinions on just about everything Darling you were a colourful character, you’ll be greatly missed, pic.twitter.com/kDixaWHoCl
— Dolly Diamond (@_DollyDiamond) September 30, 2018
Australia has lost an absolute champion of LGBTIQ matters in Yvonne Gardner.
Rest in power.
Sending love to all affected by the loss of this shining star (and there are many, many of you).
— Kirsty Webeck 🏳️🌈 (@KirstyWebeck) September 30, 2018