AIDS Conference 1992 Session 9 Gabrielle McCarthy

May 18, 1992AIDS Conference

Gabrielle McCarthy
Co-ordinator of People Living with AIDS (NSW) an Incorporated Community Association

Conference Paper: AIDS – Have we got it Right?

A conference organised by The Australian Doctors Fund Ltd.

Hosted by Professor Fred Hollows & ADF Chairman Dr. Bruce Shepherd

Sheraton Sydney Airport Hilton

May 14th and 15th, 1992

My name is Gabrielle McCarthy, I am HIV positive.

I’d like to begin with a quote from Professor Hollows’ article in Tuesday’s Herald, “If one life, whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal, can be saved as a result of this process (the AIDS debate) then I will consider my efforts to have been worthwhile”.

It is for exactly the same reason that I have chosen to be openly HIV positive, it is the reason why I’m here today. Having been infected with HIV whilst in a monogamous heterosexual relationship. I feel a great need to tell my story. To tell people that HIV is real, that it can happen to anyone.

Heterosexual transmission is again being questioned. I have been accused of lying about how I was infected. I have had to defend my integrity constantly. I’m tired of being told I don’t exist. Heterosexual transmission does happen.

Questioning heterosexual transmission implies a desire to link HIV with only those risk behaviours that are considered ‘socially unacceptable’. HIV positive women already find it difficult to access services, we don’t need the increased stigmatisation that results from these arguments.

I quote Professor Hollows from the same article, “I trust that, when the smoke clears, the suggestions I have made will have revitalised the AIDS debate in this country and properly focused it”.

I have to wonder how this is to be achieved when the debate leading up to this Summit has been no less emotive and sensationalised than previous debates. The combination of sex. death and homosexuality continue to provide fodder for a debate that appears to canvas only hysterically expressed moral opinion.

AIDS is a dream come true for the media. No less so because individuals cannot resist the opportunity for political point-scoring. I hold Professor Hollows and the Australian media culpable for further muddying the waters of the AIDS debate.

Hollows first captured the media’ s attention with his speech at the opening plenary of The First National Aboriginal AIDS Conference. A quote from the conference commendations states, “That this conference rejects the damaging statements by Professor Fred Hollows regarding the quarantining of Aboriginal people living with AIDS. His statements which received sensational media coverage were informed and harmful to the positive education strategies currently being used by Aboriginal people”.

It is a damning indictment of both Professor Hollows’ and the media’s commitment to a ‘revitalised and focused’ AIDS debate that they carried on regardless.

Hollows effectively discredited any opposing opinion by attacking the gay community, so-called AIDS profiteers and bureaucrats. Perhaps the fine points of a one sided debate eludes me, but I fail to see how any issues can be debated without canvassing a broad range of opinion and expertise. Nor by excluding the affected communities.

He accuses the ‘gay lobby’ of hijacking the AIDS debate – ironic from a man who appears to have hijacked the debate pretty thoroughly over the past two months.

Australia’s response to the AIDS epidemic is recognised internationally for its effective prevention strategy. A strategy developed by the gay community and the Commonwealth Government. The gay community should be thanked for accepting responsibility for containing the epidemic, not attacked.

As the community most deeply affected by this epidemic (90% of people with HIV or AIDS in this country are gay men), no reasoned debate can exclude them.

AIDS debate in Australia has consistently discredited attempts by the gay community to promote a rational debate of the broader issues. They are dismissed as attempts to move the ‘blame’ away from the gay men.

Whilst the AIDS debate in Australia continues its poofter bashing, gay men continue to fight the virus. The dreadful toll that AIDS will take on the gay community has yet to be fully felt.

As I speak gay men continue to provide services, work as volunteers, care for sick friends and raise money for services that aren’t funded by the government. They do this in the face of continuing discrimination and despite ongoing attacks.

Since my diagnosis I have received a great deal of support from gay men. Most of the services that I access were established by and continue to be supported by the gay community. The gay community is the only consistent source of support for my community – the HIV community – regardless of who we are.

The HIV community has also been attacked by Hollows, I quote once again from Tuesday’s Herald. “Those who have AIDS must be asked the hard question: whom have you given AIDS to?”. Suggesting that people with HIV are wantonly spreading the virus supports his argument for quarantining, but ignores the facts. Most people with HIV do not behave irresponsibly. If they did there would be a far greater rate of new infections.

Placing the blame on particular groups only makes it easy for people to abdicate responsibility for their own health. Having someone to blame doesn’t prevent HIV. a fact I know only too well.

HIV is very easy to avoid.

There has yet to be a reasoned, factual debate on AIDS in the general community. Once again the gay and HIV communities are the scapegoats, once again the wider community loses the opportunity for a sensible discussion of the facts.

Sensationalising the debate is too easy. Targeting the gay community and people with HIV and AIDS only provokes an emotive and discriminatory response. The media appears only too happy to jump on the bandwagon, their response continues to be characterised by an avoidance of real facts and real issues.

When AIDS is discussed in such simplistic terms the only winners are those with a political agenda. The gay community only suffers increased stress and discrimination. My community, the HIV community suffers increased stigmatisation and discrimination. And the wider community continues to needlessly place themselves at risk because they believe misinformation spouted from so called respectable members of the community.

Have we got AIDS right? I say no. The gay community, the HIV community the Commonwealth have gone a long way in the right direction.

I hope one day that the entire community’s response to this epidemic equals that of the gay and HIV communities then maybe we will have got it right.

As is so eloquently expressed by a quote from the NSW ADB report on the enquiry into HIV/AIDS related discrimination, “It is the tragic irony of HIV and AIDS that while people discriminate the virus does not”.

For a long time the fear of stigmatisation and discrimination have prevented me from speaking out. Many people have told me how brave I am for speaking here today. I’m not being brave, it isn’t a matter of choice. I can no longer remain silent, the issues are too important, people’s lives are at stake.