Remembering Melbourne’s HIV/AIDS History

Monday, 26 May, 2014

Words by Mick Roe
Photographer unknown. Image courtesy Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

In July close to 18,000 delegates will meet in Melbourne for the 20th International AIDS conference. To coincide with the conference, the George Paton Gallery will be presenting Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS—Melbourne 1979-2014, curated by Michael Graf and Russell Walsh. The central theme of the exhibition is the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Melbourne from 1979 to the present day. It will contain artworks from this period, as well as activist, government and other cultural responses that have been archived. Some of the works have never before been exhibited.

Russell and Michael have been spending a lot of time in the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives in preparation for Transmissions. “It’s such an amazing place,” Russell says on the archives. “They have lots of interesting stuff including personal collections of matches and beer coasters from gay bars.” There are some very personal collections in the archive such as letters, but there are so many stories that don’t age well because they aren’t written down. But not everything has made it into the archive; “Theatre projects are sometimes only archived with a surviving poster”. Among the queer minority there are further marginalised voices such as those of queer women, people of colour, sex workers, and trans* people. These voices don’t always archive well because they weren’t broadcast in print at the time.

Working on Transmissions Michael and Russell have come across some very interesting stories. In the early morning of 6 June 1991, members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) pulled up the flowers from the Melbourne Floral Clock (near the NGV), and replaced them with white crosses. “A lot of people were quite upset that they had ripped out the flowers, but it was carefully planned to happen about a week before the local council was about to replant them anyway,” Russell explains. That was followed by a ‘die-in’ under the Flinders Street station clocks. ‘Die-ins’ involved people lying down en masse to symbolise the scale of death and to disrupt passers-by, and were a popular tactic of ACT UP in the United States and elsewhere. These actions were among many performed across the country on ‘D-Day’, a day of several protests aimed at speeding up the availability of life saving drugs. In the pre-Facebook days, organising such events had their challenges, but Russell recalls ACT UP employing some innovative tactics. “They used a telephone tree, where everyone calls two people and that’s how the word gets out.”

Russell and Michael also researched the history of a rural-themed gay bar during the 1970-1980 called The Woolshed, situated in the basement where Australia on Collins stands today. As homosexuality was illegal in Victoria until 1981, the bar often attracted the attention of the police. At the closing night of the bar in 1980, a University of Melbourne student living at Graduate house, Terry Stokes, was arrested for kissing another man in the street outside the bar. He was consequently evicted from University House. A week later there was a ‘kiss in’, where about a hundred gay couples kissed in front of the bar. There were also widespread protests at the university, and Stokes was re-instated. Today, there is still an active gay beat in the area.

Reflecting on Transmissions, Russell is interested in how it is now almost impossible to imagine a world without HIV. “The word ‘safe’ has changed its meaning so much. Because of HIV, safety is always a question (even if unspoken), but it wasn’t always like that”

Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS—Melbourne 1978-2014 is on at George Paton Gallery from 14-25 July.