Filed under virus

Bryce Courtenay: ‘I’m sorry’

Best-selling Australian author Bryce Courtenay has apologised for his use of the term ‘innocent’ to describe people with medically-acquired HIV/AIDS.

After the publication of his book April Fool’s Day in 1993, Courtenay was criticised for describing his haemophiliac son, Damon, as an innocent victim of AIDS.

In an interview broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast program this morning, Courtenay said:

The word ‘innocent’ was unfortunate, it really was. It was never used in the book and I think I used it once. People had a — certainly, homosexual people — had a right to be angry. But the net result of April Fool’s Day was the most important book I think I’ve ever written and had it not been for Damon saying, “Dad, you have to tell the world that it’s not a punishment from God; it’s a virus,” I may never have written the book. […]

But yes, for anybody I offended with the word ‘innocent’ I humbly apologise because we’ve come a long way since.

It’s good that Courtenay has finally acknowledged his mistake, albeit 17 years after the outcry it caused. While no compassionate person could fail to sympathise with Courtenay’s grief at losing his 24-year-old son, separating people with AIDS into ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ victims is plainly offensive, as it suggests some people with the virus deserved to get it, or are culpable for the ‘innocents’ infection. Language like this led to increased stigma among gay men, who were blamed for the spread of HIV at the very time they were taking the lead in combating and containing it.

The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations publishes a media guide that explains why the term ‘innocent victim’ is offensive:

‘Innocent victims’ is usually used to describe children with HIV, or people with medically-acquired HIV infection. It implies that people infected in other ways are guilty of some wrong-doing and deserved to be infected with HIV. This feeds stigma and discrimination and should be avoided.

Courtenay, who is 79, has announced that he has terminal cancer and that his current book will be his last.

(Hat tip: Daniel Reeders)

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Public Health Act 2010 (NSW) starts today

New South Wales has a new Public Health Act starting today, with a small but important change in the way the Act deals with HIV.

The revised Act was passed by the previous Labor government, but has been waiting for gazettal for the last two years. NSW is one of two states in Australia (the other is Tasmania) that legally mandate HIV disclosure before sex, and the changes to the Act provide a new defence to prosecution for non-disclosure if the HIV-positive person can show they took ‘reasonable precautions’ to prevent transmission.

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Grim reaper ads a ‘missed opportunity’

The Queensland Association for Healthy Communities has responded to the state government’s new HIV prevention scare campaign, calling it a ‘missed opportunity’ in an article in the Star Observer.

“While we welcome increased public attention to HIV, this is a missed opportunity the update people on the reality of living with HIV today,” [QAHC CEO Paul] Martin said.

“It is also a missed opportunity to encourage people who may be at risk to come forward for testing and treatment and to inform and remind people how to prevent transmission of HIV.”

Responding to the criticism of the ad, Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg said, “We needed a campaign that would reach everybody.”

Well, no. While ‘everybody’ should be aware of HIV and take steps to prevent themselves, not ‘everybody’ is at equal risk. More than 80% of people diagnosed in Queensland are gay men, which is why previous Queensland governments funded QAHC to do prevention work targeted at gay men. Spending a half-million dollars on a TV campaign to tell ‘everybody’ about HIV is not a cost-effective way to educate people who are at real risk.

Yours truly also gets a mention in the story:

Local LGBTI community member Paul Kidd released his own version of the new commercial on YouTube supporting QAHC, titled ‘Lawrence Springborg Shouldn’t Be Making This Ad’.

Read the full Star Observer article, or my earlier post on this subject, with my remixed version of the video.

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The Grim Reaper died in the ’80s

The Bouverie Centre’s Jennifer Power on the Queensland government’s HIV prevention efforts:

The government argues that de-funding QAHC was a response to rising HIV rates — evidence of QAHC’s lack of effectiveness — not an anti-gay agenda. But it would be a concern if HIV prevention in Queensland was to become more conservative, with little acknowledgement of the needs or interests of gay men.

Australia is known as a world leader in HIV prevention largely because the federal government at the time had the foresight to see that community-led organisations such as QAHC were best placed to deliver targeted HIV prevention campaigns to the communities most at risk.

The Grim Reaper died in the 80s – time for a new approach to HIV prevention

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It’s Different Now

As a follow-up from my previous post, take a look at this amazing campaign coming out of Vancouver. Unlike the Queensland campaign, this effort is open and honest about the reality of living with HIV today. It presents HIV testing as a personally and socially worthwhile thing to do, and situates that action within a broader framework of ultimately stopping HIV.

Australian HIV organisations can’t even make up their mind whether or not to accept the evidence about treatments as prevention, while the rest of the world embraces our first real chance to actually end HIV infections with innovative campaigns like this.

With all the talk about how our HIV response will look at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, this video shows just how far behind the curve we are.

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Dude with a scythe

The Grim Reaper TV advertisement has cast a shadow over the HIV response since it was first aired more than a quarter century ago. The original ad, with its foreboding “Always use a condom — always” tagline and grim predictions that AIDS could “kill more Australians than World War Two,” has often been credited with raising awareness of HIV in Australia. It’s also been rightly criticised for having the unintended consequence of increasing stigma around HIV and towards gay men.

Those surreal bowling reapers were supposed to represent death, but too many people read them as representing gay men, hurling a deadly virus at the innocent women and kids at the end of the alley. The ad fed into a climate of fear and hysteria and generated a great deal of hateful commentary towards gay men and those living with HIV, who were seen as the diseased vectors of a plague that at the time seemed certain to sweep through the ‘innocent victims’ of the heterosexual community.

Despite its many failings, we’ve never quite shaken off Mister Grim and his bowling buddies. The ad is so widely believed to have been a smashing success that barely a year has gone by in the last quarter century when some ill-informed government minister or pundit calls for a ‘new grim reaper campaign’ to scare people into behaving more sensibly. Luckily, to date those calls have been largely resisted.

All that changed this last weekend with the launch of We Shouldn’t Be Making This Advert, a new TV advertisement from the Queensland government, the first evidence we’ve seen of its new ‘in-house’ approach to HIV prevention following the shock de-funding of the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities. And there, proud as punch, is our old friend Grimsby, not looking a day older despite the intervening decades, ready to scare us all back into using condoms.

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How to fight an epidemic of bad laws

“The law can seem remote, arcane, the stuff of specialists. But it isn’t, because for those of us who live in democracies, the law begins with us,” says Shereen El-Feki, vice-chair of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, in this TED talk.

The talk is a very fine summary of the issues around HIV criminalisation and its unintended effects. The comments below the video, alas, show how far we have to go.

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The great leap backwards

Queensland’s LGBT and HIV communities have been hit with a double whammy this morning, showing just how dangerous the new LNP government in that state is.

First came the news that the Queensland government is set to overturn the state’s civil union laws. With a new poll showing that 50% of Australians are in favour of marriage equality, and just 33% opposed, the reported LNP plans represent the opening of a new front in the war on queer civil rights in this country. But given the LNP’s opposition to the legislation when it was passed, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

Much more troubling is the announcement this morning that the government has, without warning, pulled all funding from Healthy Communities, the only LGBT health organisation in the state and the front line of Queensland’s HIV prevention effort. Formerly the Queensland AIDS Council, Healthy Communities has been continually funded by Queensland governments of all political stripes since 1988, and currently holds (or rather, held) government contracts valued at $2.6 million for HIV prevention and LGBT health work.

In a press release (PDF link) issued this morning, Healthy Communities has confirmed that 26 of their 35 staff will lose their jobs as a result of the defunding decision.

This is an appalling, short-sighted, ideologically driven decision that will hurt LGBT people in Queensland. Cutbacks in HIV prevention funding in Queensland and Victoria between 1998 and 2006 led to pronounced increases in HIV infections, and this will happen again now.

According to the Queensland health minister, Lawrence Springborg, Healthy Communities is being defunded because it has “lost its way” and that funding is “made available for health campaigns, not advocacy.” This shows just how out of touch the minister is – it displays a complete absence of understanding of the basic principles of health promotion and its smacks of an ideological approach.

Springborg says the LNP government will fund a new AIDS Council – there’s no detail on when that will happen or how, but we can expect it will be a timid, compliant body with no real attachment to the community it is supposed to serve.

Elsewhere: A thoughtful post on the decision on View from the Quarterdeck.

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Farmyard shenanigans

First it was ‘Pig AIDS‘, now Australia’s agricultural industries are under threat from ‘Apple Herpes‘. No matter where you look, increasingly our food has a sexually-transmitted infection.

And the common link? Senator Nick Xenophon, whose involvement in both stories suggests he has some explaining to do.

Or maybe Xenophon and the farmers’ lobby could just lay off the venereal metaphors.

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A positive test

When someone tells you you’re going to die, it’s normal to have a few questions. Depending on the context, these might include “how?” and “why?”, but most importantly, “when?”

On the day that I got my HIV diagnosis, Chris, my doctor never said I was going to die — but that’s what I heard. He said “This was a positive test.” It’s an odd choice of words, a bit clumsy and scientific, but of course medically precise. The diagnosis had to be confirmed with a second test, and backed up by a T-cell count. There was the possibility that the second test would show the first to be false, but he and I both knew that wasn’t really going to happen. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he said.

The test was positive, and so was I.

In my head, “This was a positive test” became “You’re going to die.” I wanted to know what all people given this news want to know: when?

“How long have I got?” The words came out of my mouth like a line from a bad TV movie. Chris looked at me with sad eyes.

“We don’t know. Some people do better than others, but without treatment I think you would have between one and three years before you were very seriously ill. There is a treatment available — it’s called AZT — and with that you would probably double that, but better treatments are being worked on and new ones could come along in the future.

“You shouldn’t worry: you can expect to have another five to ten years with a bit of luck. And in that time, who knows — treatments might improve. Who knows? You could live for another 20 years.”

I knew he was trying to be upbeat, stretching the story as far as possible to make me feel better. But no-one lived that long with HIV, not in those days. I walked out of the surgery with a prescription for AZT and started taking it the same day.

That was twenty years ago, today. The 6th of August, 1991, when I was 27 years old and going to die.

I posted another story about the day of my diagnosis a few years ago: Hiroshima Day.

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