How Did Religion and Politics Affect the Aids Movement in Australia During the Early 80’s and After?
HIV/AIDS is and continues to be one of the major health concerns across the world. Australia, as one of the countries with some of the lowest HIV/AIDS statistics, reported its first AIDS diagnosis in 1982. Response to the pandemic in the early days of its discovery largely relied on its perception as homosexual disease. Politics and religion have and continue to play a major role in response to AIDS, particularly among social conservatives. Historically, some religious influences have created obstacles for non-traditional, heterosexual individuals when it comes to politically accepting ways of life for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals. It is affirmed that policies such as “test and contain;” and other clearly targeted policies stem from a religious and homophobic way of thinking from the early 70s and before. Many biblical references look down on any sexual relationship that differs from a traditional male and female relationship, and it is a belief this had a big part on how Australians responded to the epidemic in the early stages.
Australia has one of the lowest AIDS statistics in the world. The low numbers are a result of the Australian government’s swift action at the first diagnosis of the virus in 1982. Like the rest of the world, confusion was rife given the little knowledge medical professionals had of the virus. Much like the discovery of the epidemic in the US, where the media reported a disease affecting gay homosexuals, reports in the Australian media were similar.
Little was known about AIDS, with initial reports indicating the HIV virus that causes AIDS was first reported in Central Africa. The Australian government’s response to the AIDS diagnosis in the country was swift, ideally the recipe for effective control and management of the pandemic. By building a grassroot approach coupled with government-nongovernment stakeholders, the government created a health policy that effectively helped in the management and control of AIDS. At the same time, AIDS Action Committee (later ACON) came into being as an organization representing more than 20 gay groups in the country. Given that little was known about the virus and the fact that the gay community was essentially a frowned-on community, it experienced struggles. The struggles were mostly on dissemination of correct information to one another and their open acknowledgement as a community.
Building capacity and the concerted efforts between the government and non-governmental organizations in the early days of the virus’ discovery worked efficiently in lowering the infection rates. Indeed, the efforts, way before the government had set up any government-funded programs were an important global health milestone. Moreover, the recognition of social action as the most effective way of combating the epidemic informed setting up the government-NGO program. The recognition also informed subsequent advertising programs launched by the government, which, although controversial when released, gained a lot of attention, although with a negative impact of stigmatization of people living with HV, especially in the gay community.
Stigma against people living with HIV especially grew against the gay community, given that especially religious societies such as Australia consider gay relations as going against the very “normal” societal norms. Across the world, religious faith and belief play a pivotal role in the daily lives of people. Therefore, while government and NGOs formed concerted efforts to curb and manage the spread of the virus through policies, some religious leaders questioned, while others outrightly opposed the implementation of such policies. 2011 population census in Australia reported that half of the Australian population professed Christian faith (61%), even as others professed non-Christian faith such as Buddhism (2.5%), Islam (2.2%), Hinduism (1.3%), and Judaism (0.5%). The census numbers in relation to religion are no different from the statistics in the days of the first AIDS diagnosis in Australia.
AFAO (Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations) informs that religious practice and HIV interconnect in a number of ways. Most important is how religion shapes individual values and behaviors, informing how such people judge others and their own actions, treat others, in addition to coping in times of crisis or grief. As aforementioned, some of the early government-NGO policies towards curbing and management of AIDS epidemic were controversial, with the church questioning and outrightly rejecting some of the policies. Religious bodies’ rejection and questioning of the such policies hinged on the fact that some of the policies read like a public acknowledgement of the gay community. The fact that gay men were among the first to be diagnosed with AIDS gave fodder to the religious leaders, who preached it as “punishment” for the abominable sexual relations.
Most religious text references frowned upon same sex relations, a fact that made things difficult for people living with HIV in Australia. Similar unfavorable reactions and stigmatization were extended to lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. These reactions were highly based on religious beliefs, which considered LGBTs as going against societal mores, and a threat to the social fabric. Moreover, promiscuity came into play as one of the risk factors among the gay in contracting the infection. The mention of promiscuity worsened things for gays living with HIV/AIDS as religious beliefs, particularly Christian beliefs, were not only against same-sex relations but also against promiscuity. Stigma against gays therefore increased tenfold as religious leaders preached against same sex sexual relations, which stirred public discontent against the gay community.
Well before the religion stirred public discontent against the LGBT community in relation to AIDS, the accepted beliefs in the 70s and before was that it was contagious and deadly. The beliefs came before the discovery of HIV as the virus causing AIDS. Belief about the contagious and dangerous nature of AIDS merged with homophobia, a combination of attitudes that presented an image of gay men as diseased and dangerous. Further, the image coined passed judgement on the gays, finding them guilty of both misdirected sexual preferences and a newfound capacity to infect and slay “normal” Australians.
Given that the society lends social and moral interpretation to some diseases, AIDS created a potential and eventual relation to gay lifestyle as its cause. It therefore exacerbated homophobia and renewed calls for punishment of homosexuality. Thus, from the onset, AIDS became a disease associated with a sexuality and lifestyle marred with social stigma, disapproval, and in many instances, illegality. While public tolerance had grown on homosexuality in the 1960s after the fear and loathing of the community in the 1950s, ignorance of AIDS and its reported incidences revived the hate for the community. Moreover, the limited information on AIDS at the time, and with reported cases of AIDS among gays had people coining names for the disease with relation to the gays. Researchers used GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) in describing infections among gays, even as the media used ‘the homosexual cancer’ and ‘the gay plague’ to describe AIDS.
These descriptions caused major fallouts and increased acts of discrimination against gay men and lesbians. Not only were there reported acts of violence against gays in different Australian cities, but some gays and lesbians lost their jobs. The public feared the spread of the disease as well as the fact that the disease was associated with gays. There was therefore public opinion that PLWHA should be placed under the state’s control and law as a measure against spread of “the plague.” Moreover, others were of the opinion that there should be compulsory testing of ‘risk groups’ as a measure against further spread. Known as “test and contain” the purpose of the proposed policy was to test individuals for HIV virus and when found positive, confined to avoid spread to “normal” people. Such opinions had foundation in homophobia and misinformation on HIV infection. The view here additionally was that both HIV and homosexuality were easily contagious, therefore the need to seclude gays from the rest of the public.
In later years, the wanton discrimination against gays heralded AIDS activism. Homophobia, discrimination and fear became a precursor to the organization of gay communities and the rest of the society in Australia into AIDS activism. Gays were at the time battling a disease inflicting a possible death sentence to anyone infected, even as the rest of the society were oblivious of the eventual spread of the epidemic. There was obvious uncertainty of AIDS impact on not only the infected, but also the other gays and lesbians. Besides, while homosexuality was still illegal, albeit with laxity in enforcing the law there were fears that the advent of AIDS and its association with gays spelt doom for their future. Moreover, with increased discrimination, harassment and bashing of the gay, there were fears among not only the LGBT community but also among the rest of the society that the acts would be normalized under the guise of avoiding AIDS.
The realization of AIDS as a pandemic and not as a gay disease came with reports of the possibility of acquiring the virus through blood transfusion. The risk therefore moved from the junkies and homosexuals to heterosexuals, women and children. This realization brought into effect a blood transfusion policy that locked out gays and other at-risk groups from donating blood, sparking protests from the gay community.  The death of three babies, who had died after receiving AIDS-infected blood from a known homosexual sparked even more debate, with politician blaming the Labor Party for the death of the babies and their lackluster approach in dealing with AIDS, support for homosexuality and promised support for homosexual marriages.
In light of the death of the Queensland babies, the government passed laws that imposed criminal sanctions for untruthful assertions by blood donors. Other states across Australia eventually adopted the laws for protection of blood donations, following in Queensland’s footsteps. Although the legislation passed served the purpose of protecting blood and recipients from infection given that there were no known HIV tests at the time, it was also a well-target legislation. Prejudice against gays was overt during public debates leading to passage of the law, essentially translating the moral discourse hinged on homophobia and traditional religious views into legal terms.
AFAO. HIV & Stigma in Australia: A Guide for Religious Leaders. Newtown: AFAO, 2014.
Altman, Dennis, “Legitimation through disaster: AIDS and the gay movement,” AIDS: The Burdens of History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Bowtell, William. “Australia,” Fighting a Rising Tide: The Response to AIDS in East Asia. Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2006.
Gary, Dowsett. “Pink Conspiracies: Australia’s Gay Communities and National HIV/AIDS Policies,
1983–1996”, in Anna Yeatman (ed.), Activism and the Policy Process. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998.
Plummer, D. and Irwin, L. “Grassroots activities, national initiatives and HIV prevention: clues to explain Australia’s dramatic early success in controlling HIV epidemic.” International Journal of STD and AIDS 17, no. 12 (2006): 787-793.
Power, Jennifer. Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism and HIV/AIDS in Australia. Canberra: ANU E Press, 2011.
 William Bowtell, “Australia,” Fighting a Rising Tide: The Response to AIDS in East Asia (Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2006) p. 19
 Dennis Altman, “Legitimation through disaster: AIDS and the gay movement,” AIDS: The Burdens of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 301
 William, p. 22
 D. Plummer and L Irwin, “Grassroots activities, national initiatives and HIV prevention: clues to explain Australia’s dramatic early success in controlling HIV epidemic,” International Journal of STD and AIDS, 17, no. 12 (2006):787 https://doi.org/10.1258%2F095646206779307612
 William, p. 49
 AFAO, HIV & Stigma in Australia: A Guide for Religious Leaders (Newtown: AFAO, 2014), p. 2
 William, p. 49
 Jennifer, Power, Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism and HIV/AIDS in Australia (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2011), p. 31
 Dowsett, Gary, “Pink Conspiracies: Australia’s Gay Communities and National HIV/AIDS Policies,
1983–1996”, in Anna Yeatman (ed.), Activism and the Policy Process, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p. 173.