The Victorian AIDS Council has been officially rebranded as Thorne Harbour Health to mark the organisation’s 35th birthday, and to reflect the diverse services it provides.

Matthew Wade spoke with both the founding and current president about the milestone.

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Before the AIDS crisis truly hit Australia, members of the community were hearing reports from airline stewards, tourists, and weather boys that had recently travelled to America about a new disease primarily affecting gay men.

To inform the community about the disease, the Melbourne-based ALSO Foundation hosted a meeting in 1983, which saw gay-friendly GPs speak to a packed auditorium about what they knew (which at that stage, was very little).

The meeting felt hopeless, and the disease like a looming, unknown monster, but when the attendees were just about ready to give up, lesbian activist and feminist Alison Thorne grabbed the microphone and asserted that it was important for the community to build an organisation that would defend them, given no-one else was.

The call to arms prompted a second, more proactive meeting that was held at The Laird, and from that the Victorian AIDS Council (then known as the Victorian AIDS Action Committee) was born.

Founding President Phil Carswell says unlike Sydney, which had a federation of groups struggling to come together and mobilise, Melbourne had the one, which made strategising, advocacy, and informing the community a lot easier.

“Everyone in the organisation had a portfolio to deal with—law, support, health—and went out to find volunteers,” he says. “We spent the rest of that first year trying to get heard by the state government, who didn’t want anything to do with this strange group of homosexuals.”

This month, the Victorian AIDS Council will celebrate its 35th anniversary, a particularly astounding milestone for an organisation that was founded on the shoulders of passionate community activists who were struggling to have their voices heard at the time.

To mark the occasion, the organisation has undergone a rebrand, and will now be known as Thorne Harbour Health. The new name has been chosen to better reflect the organisation’s diverse and inclusive services, which have grown and adapted with the community’s needs since the early eighties.

‘Thorne Harbour’ itself was named after two of the many legends in Australia’s fight against HIV and AIDS — lesbian activist Alison Thorne, and Keith Harbour, who was the organisation’s fourth president, and who ultimately passed away from AIDS.

From his bedside in Fairfield Hospital, Harbour was awarded the Order of Australia by the governor general for his fierce advocacy for PLHIV and access to treatment.

Current president Chad Hughes says the organisation has evolved a lot over the past three decades, something he believes the rebrand will help recognise.

“During the first decade it really focused on gay men and HIV, because that’s who was affected by the epidemic, and it was wiping out a generation,” he says.

“Then as we moved into the later half of the nineties, we had effective treatment for the first time, and people were learning how to manage HIV as a chronic illness. So for the last 20 or so years we’ve broadened our scope to accommodate the health needs of our community as a whole.

“We now cover Indigenous health, mental health, smoking, drugs, and stigma around HIV… HIV is still one of our top priorities though, we’re focused on doing absolutely everything we can for those affected by HIV.”

He adds that the organisation’s former title—the Victorian AIDS Council—is no longer reflective of the diverse services they provide, or diverse communities they service.

The ‘V’ is redundant, given the organisation now reaches people beyond the state through online campaigning and programming in South Australia, and the ‘A’ doesn’t mirror the stories of Australians experiencing HIV in the 21st century.

“We’re bigger than the V and the A now,” he says.

“And by naming ourselves after a strong feminist and queer liberationist who individually cried out for an organisation to deal with the people that were dying, and one of our early day presidents who died from AIDS, we’re nodding to the generation who formed this movement.”

As the organisation’s founding president, Carswell says the 35th milestone has made him realise the importance of the community’s history.

“It’s important that people who have a story to tell from back when the organisation started, tell them,” he says.

“I want to make sure the next generation understands that we all—myself included—stand on the shoulders of giants.

“The people that went before us paved the way so that we could do what we did, and that’s why [Thorne Harbour Health] is still standing here today.”

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