Vale Phil Carswell OAM – a true community hero

Vale Phil Carswell OAM – a true community hero
Image: Phil Carswell (centre) and representatives from Australia’s AIDS Councils at the 1985 AIDS Summit. Photo: Australian Queer Archives Facebook

Phil Carswell was a highly respected, long-term political advocate for the LGBTIQ+ community. His work and dedication over 40 years brought positive influence to politics in Victoria and across Australia, including marriage equality, age of consent laws, and HIV/AIDS education. 

 

“He lived an incredible life and our LGBTIQ+ communities owe him a debt of gratitude for his remarkable contribution to our collective health and wellbeing.”

 

Legend is a word used far too freely these days, but Thorne Harbour Health President Janet Jukes wasn’t exaggerating when she said of the late, great Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) co-founder Phil Carswell, “We use the label ‘legend’ for many people who have played important roles in our community, but it’s completely true and appropriate of Phil. He lived an incredible life and our LGBTIQ+ communities owe him a debt of gratitude for his remarkable contribution to our collective health and wellbeing.”

Fellow former President of the VAC, Dr Adam Carr, a former Star Observer columnist, agrees. He met Carswell at Monash University in 1974 when they were both 20 years old. “I was the news editor for the student newspaper Lot’s Wife and Phil was doing his teacher training,” Carr recalls.

“He would come in with story ideas and I remember him as this funny, bouncy little guy who talked a lot and had lots of good stuff to say.”

One year later, Carswell helped organise the first National Homosexual Conference at Melbourne University and approached Carr about publishing the report he had written. “He was going on about gay rights activism on the assumption that all of us in the office were straight,” Carr says.

“At which point I said, ‘Phil, I’m on your team,’ and he was actually one of the first people I came out to.”

‘Young Gay and Proud’

After becoming fast friends at Monash, Carswell became an ardent union man, a key figure in the Melbourne Gay Teachers Group which produced the landmark booklet Young Gay and Proud. Carr had dropped out of uni to pursue graphic design and contributed the cover and some interior cartoons. 

“We were both in Sydney in 1978 at the National Homosexual Conference at Town Hall, which led to the famous march to Taylor Square where everyone got arrested,” Carr says. 

He marched, but Carswell stayed behind. “He was a very good feminist, and he thought men should take responsibility for childcare, so didn’t qualify as a ‘78er, which he was a bit disappointed about.”

A leader during the HIV/AIDS crisis

Carswell made a monumental mark on the movement, nonetheless, and was a valiant leader during the devastating peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis. He was a member of ALSO Foundation’s subcommittee on health tasked with researching what was then known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), becoming President of the newly formed VAC in 1985. 

“Phil was an extraordinary character who carried a very heavy burden of responsibility,” Carr says of those darkest days. “Having this leadership position thrust on him, which he hadn’t asked for, he suddenly found himself trying to lead our community through this dreadful crisis.”

Carswell’s wide social and professional circle across Melbourne and Sydney was both a blessing and a curse. “Many people he knew were dying, particularly in Sydney, and he kept a list, but he always projected optimism and enthusiasm,” Carr says. 

Australia’s response is rightly regarded as being much more constructive and proactive than the UK or US, with Carswell a huge part of that success.

A pioneer for Australian LGBTQI health

The first out gay man employed by any state health department in Australia, he was able to bridge the gaps between the community, governments of the day, and the health authorities. 

“His real leadership gift was that he was able to work very closely with people of all different political orientations or social backgrounds and get us working together as a team,” Carr says. “He was very good at smoothing out conflicts and played a vital role in getting the community to do the things that needed to be done and not succumb to despair.”

“If we support each other, we can all get through this”

Carswell could pitch his remarks to the emotional needs of his audience.

“His leadership style was always ‘I know what you’re feeling and we’re all feeling this. If we support each other, we can all get through this’.”

Carr says his friend was always across the details. “He was always conscious that time might run out, which was one of the reasons why he was so frantic and a supremely effective worker, as a public servant. He was a policy wonk and always knew what he was talking about, reading enormous amounts.”

Awarded the OAM for his work

Carswell moved to Brisbane, continuing the good work in Queensland, and was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2015.

He and Carr would call one another intermittently, but it was the advent of social media that rekindled regular correspondence. During the pandemic, they were regular Zoom buddies.

“I’ll miss him a lot, because he’s always been there for 50 years and now suddenly he’s not, and that’s really very sad,” Carr says.

Carswell penned a book about his life’s work, which Carr, who published eBook Journalism from the AIDS Years 1982-2003, eagerly awaits reading, because a life well lived by a true legend, a real hero of our communities, should be shared.

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2 responses to “Vale Phil Carswell OAM – a true community hero”

  1. Lovely article thanks. Still can’t believe Phil isn’t with us anymore.He was such an integral part of our lives ❤️🕺🌈🙏👏

  2. He was a pioneer for gay health and HIV nothing to do with LGBTQI plus umbrella. Stop rewriting history! We are gay not Queer.

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