Those impacted by 1980s Aids crisis forced to take matters into their own hands

The dearth of information in the wake of the Aids crisis demanded that early health education campaigns were undertaken by grassroots groups, writes Dr Nina Holmes

December 1 marks the 30th anniversary of World Aids Day.

Today, advances in antiretroviral treatments have had profoundly life-changing effects for many in Western societies; however prognoses in the advent of the HIV and Aids epidemic in the 1980s were bleak.

At an official level, government inaction and bureaucratic inertia came to define the early days of Aids, causing ire amongst activist and lobby groups throughout much of Europe and the US.

Similarly, in Ireland, criticism was levelled at the authorities for failing to provide timely information about transmission and protective practices.

In 1987, Derek Freedman observed that “Ireland was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the Aids epidemic”.

In the wake of the Aids epidemic in the 80s and early 90s, criticism was levelled at the authorities her for failing to provide timely information about transmission and protective practices

It is easy to see what he meant: A variety of legislative and social factors distinguished the Aids crisis in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s.

The influential position of the Catholic Church and legacy of health and education provision in Ireland likely affected the prevalence and explicitness of HIV and Aids information campaigns.

Catholic teaching on sexual practice and artificial contraception was maintained at a legislative level by the Censorship of Publications Act, which prohibited publication of literature which might advocate “the unnatural prevention of conception”.

It was not until 1992 that condoms were deregulated and could be legally sold in retail outlets to any person over the age of 17.

Additionally, health education efforts directed at the gay community in Ireland were inhibited by the status of male homosexual activity, which was not decriminalised until the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act was passed in 1993.

The scarcity of information in the wake of the crisis demanded that early Aids health education campaigns were undertaken by grassroots groups, many of which were formed by the gay community.

In fact, Ireland’s first Aids pamphlet was issued not by the Department of Health, but by the independent group Gay Health Action.

Aids was an A4 fold-out pamphlet issued in May 1985. Given its early publication date this was a crucial source of information, particularly for Ireland’s gay community.

This pamphlet positioned Irish Aids activism alongside international campaigns to raise awareness about the disease.

It visually aligns with the style of material produced by the international Aids activist group ACT UP in the 1980s and 1990s.

The logo — a pink triangle — is a visual reference to gay rights activism and a subtle anti-discrimination message.

During the Holocaust, a pink triangle was used to demarcate gay men in concentration camps. In later years, the oppressive symbol was reclaimed by the community as a symbol of gay rights activism, as seen in many examples of activist ephemera.

The pamphlet challenged what it described as attempts “to deny our civil liberties” through the communication of “anti-gay hysteria on Aids”. It went beyond the mere address of safe sex practice; it was a platform for political and social activism.

Issued in 1986, Gay Health Action (GHA)’s Aids Information Booklet also predated the first Government Aids education campaign.

The need for clear, unbiased information was addressed through the informative language and the functional design of the booklet.

The understated aesthetic emulates publications produced by State sources and does not engage with shock tactics, graphic imagery, or other visual devices that were often employed by Aids activist groups internationally.

As indicated within the booklet, the main motivation was to inform readers and “to collate accurate information in a clear and concise format” in response to the dearth of information and “the very poor and frequently hysterical coverage”.

At that time, GHA stated that ‘the lack of information being provided for the public indicated that GHA would be acting as primary source’.

The acute need for a government-backed campaign was specified by GHA’s Chris Robson at the launch of Aids: Information Booklet. This was eventually addressed by the State in 1987 with the Health Education Bureau’s TV advertisement.

According to Janice Gaffey, the Catholic hierarchy promptly “denounced any campaign that advocated any solution to Aids other than chastity until marriage and monogamy within marriage”.

Revisiting that advertisement today, it appears less interested in offering advice on safe sex and more interested in promoting monogamy.

The visual approach of the advertisement and the tagline — ‘Casual Sex Spreads Aids’ — personalises transmission by emphasising sexual partners, rather than sexual practices.

Dramatic public information campaigns such as ‘Casual Sex Spreads Aids’ (right) did little to clarify matters.

The 30-second advertisement opens with scenes from a horse race and a greyhound racing stadium; disembodied hands place bets and handle money.

Images of gambling and chance are intercut with the suggestion of sexual encounter; a man and woman’s eyes meet across opposite sides of a revolving door.

The visual trope of the disembodied hands ‘gambling’ is repeated with shots of a game of cards featuring a design of abstracted bones, introducing a theme of death and bodily decay.

Significant eye contact between the pair indicates a sexual undertone and correlates the idea of death and danger with sex.

The voiceover warns: “Meet someone who is an Aids carrier, and although condoms give some protection, just one act of intercourse may give you Aids, and lead to… death.”

In the scenes that follow, the man covers the woman’s Claddagh-ringed hand, and then deals the death card.

The Claddagh ring is traditionally representative of monogamy and marriage and significantly, is a culturally specific Irish symbol. Its use in the context of the Health Education Bureau’s advertisement constructs Aids as not just a serious threat to health and life, but as a foreign problem — an infraction on ‘traditional’ Irish values.

On a panel discussion on The Late Late Show in 1987, journalist Ann Marie Hourihane observed that “we have seen this country bury its head in the sand about the people it doesn’t approve of”.

She claimed that Aids had “ripped the cover off” the perception that Irish people were sexually innocent.

The alarming tone of the ‘Casual Sex Spreads Aids’ advertisement bolsters fear rather than providing practical information and advice.

In Britain, the ‘Don’t Die Of Ignorance’ campaign similarly aroused much fear and apprehension, though it was accompanied by an information leaflet which was delivered to every household.

The Irish Health Education Bureau’s campaign did not encompass such a measure.

This was put to the Health Education Bureau’s Harry Crawley on The Late Late Show, when Gay Byrne read out a viewer’s question: “Why are the Health Education Bureau leaflets only gone to chemists and health boards? Why not into all schools and to people’s homes?”

To this, Dr Crawley responded that it was “just a matter of the organisation of distribution”.

The campaign’s emphasis on promiscuous sex and the lack of accompanying practical information suggest a concern with the moral implications of sex exposed by the occurrence of Aids in Ireland.

The overarching message was not how to have safe sex, but rather who to have sex with. A discernible Catholic influence can be seen within government HIV and Aids material by the dominant ‘one faithful partner’ message as the most effective preventative measure.

Indeed, particularities of Catholic moral teaching were preserved as ‘national values’ through restrictions on condoms and the criminal status of homosexual acts, and as such distinguished the Aids crisis in Ireland.

Nina Holmes has a PhD in design history from Kingston University London. Her research specialises in the contemporary history of Irish government health campaigns.


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