THIRTY-ONE years after the first AIDS case in Ireland, HIV is still headline news.
With 166 new infections reported last year amongst men who have sex with men, there has been a particular spike amongst guys aged 25-34. This could be because more men are getting tested than ever before. Yet some are concerned that this generation have been inoculated from the harsh lessons learned during the 1980s.
“I remember a moment, 20 years ago, when I realised all the people I had hung out with in college or on the scene were dead or HIV positive,” says Ciaran McKinney, who was a prominent gay activist at a time when sex between men was illegal.
The murder of Charles Self and Declan Flynn radicalised a generation of young gays who gathered in collectives around the country raising visibility, successfully picketing Pearse Street Garda Station until the cops stopped gathering information on gay men through intimidation.
As word filtered back through the diaspora and imported publications of a ‘gay cancer’, a small group of activists figured that, while there hadn’t been any indigenous cases in the country yet, it was only a matter of time. Something needed to be done. They formed Gay Health Action (GHA) in January 1985.
“We were hopeful if we got the information out there early enough, in relation to transmission routes and protection measures, that we would be able to prevent there being a large pool of infection,” says Bill Foley, one of the group’s founding members.
They provided clear and accurate information on AIDS to the media, the medical profession and the general public, producing the first HIV leaflets in the country, using a hand-rolled stencil machine. They went out among the gay community through a series of pub ‘zaps’, not just handing out leaflets, but actually discussing the lifestyle and the dangers inherent.
They weren’t always welcomed.
“It was the genesis of the scene and a lot of people felt they had arrived at this Nirvana where they could meet guys and do whatever,” says McKinney. “Then these cranks start telling you ‘you might die if you engage in this type of behaviour’.”
“People thought we were scare-mongering,” says Foley. “AIDS was something that was happening thousands of miles away.”
There was also, McKinney recalls, the fall-out of the Charles Self’s murder, where the murder squad interrogated closeted gay men on their sex lives and forced them to reveal information on others. “It created a lot of paranoia. Many emigrated because of it.”
GHA weren’t telling people not to have sex. They were telling people to have sex in a safe way. “Ireland had no history of sex education,” Mick Quinlan, another founding member, says. “We literally had to start from scratch in explaining to people what safe sex was.”
They held workshops at the Hirschfield Centre, showing graphic videos and produced a Play Safe card, outlining various sexual activities and the risks associated with them.
They liaised with GPs and clinics on the specific needs of the gay community and insisted the saunas provide contraception, lubricants and information on the dangers of unprotected sex. An AIDS helpline was manned, condoms were attained and they made informal connections with international groups like San Francisco’s The Shanti Project, who educated them on post-hospital care and bereavement counselling. Out of this meeting, Cairde was formed; a support group for anybody affected by AIDS.
“We realised quickly that we needed a different forum to have official contact with authority and health figures,” says Foley. “We brought together a range of interest groups that were directly affected at the time — the Irish Haemophilia Society, several drugs agencies and ourselves — to form the Aids Action Alliance.”
While this allowed GHA to meet with authorities without the shadow of criminality, it never really worked. “Different groups had their own issues. IHS were very much casting themselves as innocent victims of the infection.”
As coverage of the illness grew hysterical, people with HIV hid their condition from their friends and their families, travelling abroad to be treated. Prisoners with HIV were segregated in jail; undertakers were difficult to deal with and police were removing condom machines that campaigners had placed in areas where people were being sexually active.
“They forced publicans to remove them, threatening them with their licence,” says Arthur Leahy, who was involved in one such campaign in Cork.
“In Cork, the local hospice refused to take people suffering from HIV,” he continues, “so at one point we had three houses around the city that we were managing on a purely voluntary basis, comforting people who were dying.”
It was an Irish solution to an Irish problem, with nursing staff being provided by the Southern Health Board. “But it was a pretty horrendous time. We had no real qualifications to be doing this type of work.”
Ireland lived in the shadows when it came to sexual health. “I remember going for my first test in 1983,” says McKinney. “You went in and you asked for the ‘special’ clinic. You followed the yellow line and it lead you out to the back, to a portable building or a basement.”
“Tests were done on me without my permission,” says Quinlan. “Doctors reasoned ‘if you’re gay then you must have something else wrong with you’.”
“And there was a difficulty putting together the kind of information in our leaflets that would be accepted in clinics or community resource centres,” says Leahy. “It was often a trade-off in getting generic information out there over specific safer sex campaigns.”
GHA employed three people through a precursor to the CE scheme, yet they received little funding from the Government. There was fundraisers in gay-friendly nightclubs around town and support from trade unions, but the first open government funding came for the publication of the Information Aids Booklet.
It was low-key leaflet that was only going to be distributed to the gay community, so the government didn’t think such funding would get noticed. Since it was the only source of information on AIDS in the country, however, it was soon splashed across the Sunday papers. “We were contacted by a whole range of organisations, including convents that wanted to get information to schools,” says Foley.
“I befriended a number of nuns and they got involved with the AIDS helpline and were trained to talk about sexual activities in a fairly graphic way.”
Using the community’s own explicit parlance and featuring eye-catchingly graphic designs of two males entwined, there was a predictable backlash. “It was seen to be encouraging criminal activity and that was it for funding for a long time. But we were in the businesses of advertising information around HIV, so the more publicity it got, the better.”
Such official neglect and the exhaustion of its activists led to GHA disbanding in 1990. When the test for HIV finally arrived in 1985, some 60% of those testing positive were intravenous drug users, as opposed to gay men, which was the case in the rest of Europe. Dr Derek Friedman credits GHA with the apparent low HIV rate and the reduction of AIDS cases in the gay category.
“It was one of the reasons the gay rights agenda was parked for so many years,” says McKinney. “Those of us who had been involved in the gay human rights agenda were diverted for so many years into HIV. It was a great unifier.”
The same can’t be said anymore. “The advantage people had in our time is that it was a new epidemic,” says Foley. “It was a life-threatening illness that you could be exposed to. Your friends were dying from it. We were on the scene quite a bit so it was difficult to avoid discussion around it.
“Gay men today are aware of HIV and safer sex practices. But they don’t apply the risk to themselves.
“They don’t think it can happen to them. There’s no discussion. And it’s easy to ignore a bunch of leaflets thrown in the corner.”
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