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Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI

Chapter 5

‘Homosexual Health Hazards’:
Public Discourse on Homosexuality and Medicine in Australia, 1973–1984

Emily Wilson

Between 1973 and 1984, there was a prominent public discourse on homosexuality and medicine in Australia. During the 1970s, medical attitudes towards homosexuality were widely debated, and fiercely contested, notably by gay and lesbian activists. In the late 1970s, largely in response to this activism, the medical profession began to withdraw its claims to expertise on the topic, but outside the profession the emphasis placed on medical authority did not necessarily diminish accordingly. The framing of homosexuality as a biomedical issue in the early 1980s is usually seen as a consequence of an increasing awareness of HIV/AIDS in Australia, and certainly the onset of the crisis complicated the relationship between medicine and homosexuality. In fact, though, a tendency to defer to medical expertise on homosexuality was continuously apparent from the late 1970s through to the 1980s. This period thus provides a fascinating insight into the (de-)construction of a biomedical model of homosexuality.1

This chapter examines public discourse on homosexuality and medicine in Australia from 1973 to 1984. It utilises the Medical Journal of Australia (the dominant national medical periodical during this period) as well as mainstream newspaper sources, drawing comparisons between the two. Discourse in newspapers illuminates a period of unprecedented public debate on homosexuality. Officially, the medical community was abandoning its previous claims to authority on homosexuality, but prejudices about the nature of homosexuality continued to influence biomedical conceptualisations and interpretations of clinical data. At the same time, both journalists and correspondents to newspapers continued to rely on medical authority when discussing homosexuality. This was apparent among those who supported homosexual rights and law reform. It was also apparent among those who opposed these trends, and among this latter group there was a noticeable conflation of medicine and morality, as reflected in the title of this chapter. When a letter from Bishop J. R. Reid to the Sydney Morning Herald was given the heading ‘Homosexual Health Hazards’, there was a clear implication that it was homosexual people themselves who were the hazard, from both a health and a moral point of view. Reid, the chairman of the Social Issues Committee of the Sydney Anglican Diocese, blamed gay men for a rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and argued that chastity was the only ‘healthy’ solution for this problem.2


A number of Australian historians have explored the experiences of gay and lesbian people with the medical profession – particularly regarding treatments aimed at curing homosexuality – most notably Garry Wotherspoon, Graham Willett and Robert Reynolds. Willett and Reynolds in particular have examined how a medical model of homosexuality came to be dominant in Australia, providing invaluable evidence of the way in which medical expertise could be used to reinforce existing prejudices against homosexuality. Reynolds focuses on how these attitudes impacted on the development of a homosexual identity in Australia, while Willett is concerned with activist responses to these attitudes.3

Reynolds argues that by the 1960s, Australian understandings of homosexuality were based on a medical model formed primarily in the United States.4 Medical opinion tended to agree on a number of basic factors: that homosexuality was a neurotic condition or personality disorder; that chances for a cure were far better than was generally believed; and that treatment rather than punishment alone was the most effective strategy for dealing with homosexuality. Articles in medical and psychological journals in Australia during the 1960s indicate a high degree of interest in homosexuality as a potentially curable, or at least treatable, condition5 and various therapies were practiced to this end.6 Among those who believed it was possible to cure or at least minimise homosexuality, two main forms of therapy were used.7 The first was hormone therapy, most commonly the administration of oestrogen to male patients, a treatment which has been described as a form of chemical castration.8 The second was aversion therapy, in which behavioural modification was sought by the substitution of desirable for undesirable responses. Aversion therapy caused distress to a great number of patients, and also had a dubious success rate; the highest estimate was 20%, but even this was based on studies taken immediately after a course of treatment. There was almost no evidence of long-term change in sexual orientation.9

A number of American historians have argued that a medical, and particularly a psychiatric, model was the basis for many negative attitudes towards homosexuals, especially men.10 The emphasis on male homosexuality, reproduced in Australian sources, was caused by a number of factors, perhaps most importantly the fact that, unlike female homosexuality, it was illegal. A number of patients came to the attention of doctors as a result of criminal proceedings, as sex acts between males were outlawed in all states of Australia until South Australia initiated law reform in 1972. Treatments were therefore undertaken in a climate of legal and social repression. While sex between women was not legally prohibited, lesbians could come to the attention of the law in various ways, primarily through the breakdown of a marriage and in subsequent disputes over custody of children, particularly in the Family Law Court after 1975.11 The evidence suggests, though, that the majority of patients treated specifically for homosexuality were men: certainly, the medical literature focused on male homosexuality.12

By the 1970s, criticism of both legal and medical oppression of homosexuals was greatly increasing. As the gay and lesbian liberation movement gained momentum, those who continued to practice aversion and other therapies were targeted by active and vocal campaigns.13 At the same time, partly in response to this agitation, mental health professionals began to seriously question the efficacy of treatments. In 1973, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) released a clinical memorandum which supported the idea that homosexuality was ‘a developmental anomaly not necessarily or commonly associated with neurotic symptoms’.14 This memorandum came almost a month before homosexuality was famously, and controversially, removed from the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. This was a significant step forward in the relationship between the medical and gay communities, although it did not represent a complete acceptance on the medical side that homosexuality was a normal variant of human behaviour. Commentary on the subject frequently drew attention to its controversial nature. In discussing the 1973 memorandum in the Medical Journal of Australia, R. F. Barr and M. S. Dalton noted that there was ‘no general agreement among psychiatrists on the nature of homosexuality. Professional opinion varies widely, but in recent times has moved away from the view that homosexuality is neurotic’.15 The authors also claimed that ‘the majority of psychiatrists are not prepared to recommend treatment aimed at change in sexual orientation while the patient is not a free agent’.16

The emerging homosexual law reform debate was clearly informed by medical interpretations of homosexuality, and a number of medical organisations supported homosexual law reform from a relatively early period.17 In a 1974 editorial, the Medical Journal of Australia argued for law reform, although it acknowledged that homosexuality remained a controversial topic, likely to remain an issue on which the medical profession, and the wider public, would never reach universal agreement.18 In the same issue, Barr and Dalton recommended law reform as the official view of the RANZCP:

The psychological adjustment of homosexuals and their psychiatric treatment are made unduly difficult by existing community attitudes. The acceptance of homosexuals by society is slowly increasing, but could and should be facilitated by reform of existing laws against homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.19

This apparent support must be critically examined. First, some professionals who espoused tolerance and supported law reform continued to treat homosexual patients with the aim of changing their orientation or at least diminishing their sexual drive. In a 1984 article in Outrage, Graeme Brewer documented the history of psychiatric treatments of homosexuality, providing evidence that aversion therapy, in particular, was still being used at least until the late 1970s.20 Brewer singled out Professor Neil McConaghy as ‘Australia’s leading aversion therapist practising on homosexuals until the late 1970s’.21 In 1973, McConaghy had published an article in the Medical Journal of Australia in which he discussed what he considered his successful treatment of homosexuality; in the same article, he expressed his support for homosexual law reform.22 Second, despite the fairly rapid acceptance that homosexuality should no longer be classified as a neurotic disorder, some reluctance remained when it came to completely renouncing medical authority on the issue. Consideration must also be given to any medical support for law reform: it may not have been motivated solely by altruism and there is a sense, at least in part, that the issue concerned territorial claims to a particular area of expertise. Indeed, the rationale for the early support of many medical professionals for law reform was that homosexuality should be treated by doctors rather than punished by the judicial system.23

Homosexuality as Health Hazard

By the late 1970s, then, there was a growing belief within the medical community that there was no legitimate reason for medical professionals to be involved in the treatment of homosexuality as a condition in itself. Those doctors who continued to treat patients with the aim of changing their sexual orientation were increasingly a minority. There was, however, a continuing medical-clinical interest in some aspects of homosexual behaviour, particularly when it came to the sexual transmission of disease among homosexual men. During this period, a number of articles in the Medical Journal of Australia displayed a distinct emphasis on the promiscuity of gay men. One article on venereal disease suggested that it might be difficult to trace the transmission of the disease in the case of male ‘passive’ homosexuals, since they ‘tend to have bouts of extreme promiscuity and may not be able to give any clues concerning their contacts’.24 Such an assertion displays a number of assumptions about the nature of homosexuality: that homosexual men were generally promiscuous; that they could be divided into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ partners; and that it was the ‘passive’ partners who were particularly problematic.

Most articles though, simply assumed that all homosexual men were promiscuous despite the active and passive role. The pervasiveness of this belief is apparent in a 1981 article, which attempted to dispel the myth:

despite much being made of the reported proportions of homosexually acquired syphilis, it must be noted that the total incidence of homosexual syphilis in a major metropolis, such as Sydney or Melbourne, is usually only 100 to 200 cases per year, and that, in terms of the number of male homosexuals, this represents less than 1% of homosexuals.25

The ‘at-risk’ group was therefore only a small sub-section of the gay male population. Nevertheless, in 1983, another article on a similar topic began by stating that: ‘[h]omosexual men are known to be at a high risk of contracting syphilis’.26 Later, this second study quoted the first, and pointed out that while it was ‘tempting to assume that the results could be applied to all Australian homosexual men, such an assumption may not necessarily be valid’.27 This qualified discussion sits uneasily with the assertive opening sentence.

These examples are suggestive of the way prejudices, perhaps unconsciously, could affect interpretations of clinical data. Whether or not these examples reflect explicit homophobia, they demonstrate that the lens through which homosexuality was viewed influenced theories developed from clinical data. When the mainstream media reported on these findings, the misunderstandings and misrepresentations, some deliberate, some not, were intensified. For example, in July 1977, the Hobart Mercury reported that a rise in venereal disease was linked to homosexual activity, or rather, to homosexuals themselves: ‘VD Spread Tied to Homosexuals’.28 In 1981, Bishop J. R. Reid, blaming gay men for a rise in STIs, argued that promiscuity of homosexuals presented physicians with surgical as well as medical problems. Drawing on medical authority, he went on to explain that the medical literature showed that practising homosexuals were prepared to live with health risks.29 This supposed willingness to live with health risks was framed as a danger to the rest of the community.

Medical Aspects of Homosexuality: HIV/AIDS in Australia

By the 1980s, there was widespread acceptance that homosexuality per se was not a disease or a disorder. The conceptualisation of homosexuality as a disease had, at least within the medical profession, largely been discredited. However, there was some continuing opposition to this new position, and some of this opposition is significant. In 1984, there was widespread support for the decision of the World Health Organization to have homosexuality removed from its listing as a mental disorder.30 Two branches of the Australian Medical Association opposed its removal, though: the Queensland branch believed it should be kept as a classification for those who were unhappy with their orientation and suffered depression as a result, and the Tasmanian branch opposed it on the grounds of the incidence of disease among homosexuals.31 The significance of this opposition can perhaps be seen in the fact that these two states were the last in Australia to effect homosexual law reform (Queensland in 1990 and Tasmania in 1997). Such evidence suggests that opinion was far from uniform and that established beliefs – that homosexual behaviour was a legitimate medical concern – persisted to some degree. The linking of homosexual behaviour with disease was, in fact, apparent in both medical literature and wider public discourse in the early 1980s. This nexus was reinforced for many people by the onset of HIV/AIDS in Australia and the persisting mindset on homosexuality and health influenced public discourse on the crisis.

An awareness of HIV/AIDS gathered pace in Australia, at least among gay communities, from 1982 onwards.32 The first case had been diagnosed in Australia late that year. However, it was not until 1983 that discussion of the disease began appearing in mainstream media sources. This discussion intensified in June that year, when the first Australian death as a result of AIDS occurred. Paul Sendziuk, in Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS, argues that reactions to HIV/AIDS have to be seen in a historically specific context.33 The response was shaped by the way sex between men had been viewed (from a medical standpoint) in the 1970s, and would not have been the same had the virus emerged at a different historical period.34 In particular, the main early epidemiological theories about the cause of AIDS linked it directly to homosexual acts.35 A 1981 study undertaken by the US Centers for Disease Control (US CDC) task force assumed a connection between homosexual behaviour and symptoms of AIDS in homosexual men.36

In June 1983, the Medical Journal of Australia released an issue dedicated almost entirely to discussion of HIV/AIDS in Australia and the US. The majority of articles simply reported on the findings of the US CDC, although they also stressed the importance of finding a definitive causal agent, given that the virus had not yet been identified as such. Ian Gust and Kenneth Mutton repeated the official CDC definition of AIDS as ‘a disease, at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known cause for diminished resistance to that disease’.37 This disease, they said, ‘might be associated with passive (receptive) anal intercourse’, and ‘repeated challenges to the immune system, both infectious… and non-infectious’; for example, drug and spermatozoal antigens ‘might progressively paralyse the cellular immune system, allowing latent neoplasms to escape immune control and leaving the host susceptible to opportunistic pathogens’.38 The authors went on to discuss the apparent epidemiological link between amyl nitrite use and AIDS, linking it to promiscuity: ‘[d]rug usage… is difficult to separate from total lifestyle. Thus, the use of nitrites correlates with promiscuity, which, in turn, can have associations with particular types of sexual activity, the risk of venereal diseases and the treatment of such infections’.39

David Cooper, praising the role of epidemiology in discovering a causal agent, stated that US studies had clearly identified the ‘risk factors as the number of male sex partners per year; the passive role in anogential intercourse with ejaculation of semen by the partner; and a previous history of infections’.40 Cooper concluded that there was ‘an urgent need to identify the causal agent of AIDS… Unless, and until, we identify the cause, even the moral majority could become the victims of AIDS’.41 Cooper’s article was fairly representative of the ambiguity in a great deal of medical reports at this time. Generally, discussion and early theories about the causes and transmission of HIV/AIDS were limited by existing prejudices and beliefs about sex between men; but there was also a genuine desire for objectivity and compassion. The statement that ‘even the moral majority could become victims’ suggests a willingness to accept that the disease was not bounded by morality; but it also suggests (perhaps unintentionally) that if this happened, it would represent a greater crisis than when the victims were homosexual men and intravenous drug users.

Beliefs about homosexual promiscuity continued to influence theories about the causation and transmission of HIV/AIDS. In 1984, the Sydney AIDS Study Group raised the spectre of the ‘overload theory’, stating: ‘[o]ne of the most striking early observations has been that a significant proportion of sufferers from AIDS lead a “fast-lane” lifestyle with multiple sexual partners and regular use of “recreational” drugs’.42 The immunological overload theory had been widely discredited by this time, as the discovery of a retrovirus as the causal agent was now generally accepted.43 The Sydney Group did acknowledge that most epidemiological research had been done in the US, and that the results could therefore reflect factors affecting a group following a particular lifestyle, rather than being representative of all gay men.44 In the same issue, John Armstrong, in a somewhat unfortunate phrase, noted that ‘its predilection for promiscuous homosexual men is beyond doubt’, although he added that the condition was ‘by no means limited’ to this group.45

In the mainstream media, the medical identification of HIV/AIDS with homosexuality was exaggerated and shorn of its clinical context and qualifications. Seidman argues that, in the US, the media was fascinated with homosexual promiscuity (rather than homosexuality per se), so that ‘quantitative aspects of homosexual behavior’ were breathlessly and endlessly discussed. As he acknowledges, this fascination was partially a result of a medical-clinical preoccupation with the same issue:

In a sense, the heterosexual media was simply following the pronouncements of the medical establishment. Yet, it is unfortunately not that simple. The medical scenarios, especially through 1983, were highly tentative, conjectural and often contradictory. The mass media didn’t merely report the facts but constructed the very reality of AIDS by drawing selectively on medical data and framing this information in a non-medical interpretive schema. By featuring the number of sex partners as the key causal link without further qualification or contextualization, the heterosexual media was, in fact, offering its own particular image of homosexuality.46

Yet this does not give the full picture either; while the media undoubtedly offered its own view of homosexuality, it was not uniform. What was apparent at this time were contradictions and debate about the nature of HIV/AIDS, and the nature of homosexuality.

There was certainly misrepresentation and sensationalising of medical data in Australian newspapers. In 1984, the Telegraph reported a ‘Shock Find on AIDS Symptoms’, claiming that researchers were startled by a new survey which showed that 47% of the subjects (gay men in Sydney) had symptoms of AIDS, while 60% felt at risk.47 This data, part of a survey conducted by the Sydney AIDS Study Group for the Medical Journal of Australia, only encompassed 289 homosexual and bisexual men.48 The article did eventually mention this small sample size, although essentially as an afterthought. Similarly, the Courier-Mail reported in November of the same year that 40% of Australian homosexuals could be carriers, a figure based on the estimate of Dr Peter Harden, the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service director, rather than actual data.49

The causes and consequences of HIV infection were related with hyperbole and described with prurient interest. Notably, there was a fondness for describing the condition as the ‘gay plague’ or the ‘killer sex disease’.50 An article in the Sunday Sun managed to combine both sensationalist titles: ‘The Killer Sex Disease Claims its First Life: The Gay Plague Strikes’.51 The ‘gay plague’ title was contested in a number of sources;52 the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, pointed out that it was neither gay nor a plague.53 Nevertheless, the sobriquet proved remarkably persistent, even in unlikely contexts, for example in a somewhat contradictory headline referring to ‘Heterosexual “Gay Plague” Victims’.54

Contrasting and contested responses to HIV/AIDS could be found within a single source. An early article in the Bulletin on the subject began with the sensationalist headline ‘US Killer Disease Reaches Aust’, although the author, Glennys Bell, was largely balanced and restrained in examining the development and impact of the disease. This was somewhat undermined, though, by the contents of a sidebar, also written by Bell and titled ‘Disorders Peculiar to Homosexuals’. In this, she stated categorically that homosexuals were ‘prone to certain diseases and disorders which occur far less frequently in the general population’, due to their ‘sexual proclivities’.55 She then went on to detail these disorders, as well as the ‘proclivities’ which led to them, as described at a medical seminar in Sydney given by Dr Dennis M. Greenbaum, based on studies he had carried out at St Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Centre in New York. Certain diseases, such as hepatitis, were more common among homosexual men in New York, an observation which was supported by clinical data. Drug overdoses were said to be ‘probably more common among homosexuals, although data is lacking’, suggesting that assumptions were made about a homosexual ‘lifestyle’ even in the absence of compelling evidence. Bell also discussed rectal perforation due to fisting, with the aside: ‘“Fisting” is also practiced in some sections of the Sydney homosexual population in communal steam baths. As one doctor described it, they soap their arms before “fisting”’. This article can be seen as one of the most extreme examples of prurient interest. In addition to the details already mentioned, Bell added that ‘homosexual practices also include the insertion of other devices into the rectum’, including screws, light bulbs, eggs, torches, and vibrators.

Possibly the most infamous example of sensationalism was the statement of one anonymous source, supposedly a homosexual doctor, who suggested that ‘[p]erhaps we’ve needed a situation like this to demonstrate what we’ve known all along – depravity kills’.56 This statement was controversially reproduced on the cover of the first issue of the Medical Journal of Australia to deal comprehensively with HIV/AIDS in Australia, together with a skull and crossbones and another media grab calling AIDS ‘The Black Plague of the Eighties’.

The cover of this issue sparked a fierce debate, both in the mainstream media and in letters to the journal. The cover was publicly criticised by the Health Minister, Neal Blewett, who identified it as an example of the media’s ‘prejudiced and sensationalist approach’ to HIV/AIDS.57 Dr Kathy King, the editor of the journal, argued that the cover had been an attempt at parodying sensationalist and irresponsible newspaper reports, but this did not prevent some severe criticism from readers. One correspondent congratulated them on the articles on AIDS, but ‘was disturbed by the cover’, which he found ‘judgmental and inflammatory’, even if he accepted that it had been an attempted parody.58 A New South Wales general practitioner, Peter Barker, felt that the cover ‘was in very poor taste’, lacking in the compassion usually ascribed to medical professionals.59 Barker continued, ‘I may be of very mature vintage and rather “square”, but I had felt that, as a profession, doctors had come to accept homosexuality as a simple preference’. This seems to indicate that for this writer, at least, the acceptance of homosexuality as ‘a simple preference’ was very well established.

Another correspondent, C. J. Dingle, protested against what he saw as the sensationalising of the morality of AIDS displayed on the cover, arguing that other diseases had a ‘moral aspect’: he singled out cervical cancer and coronary disease.60 Echoing Barker’s sentiments, Dingle also felt that condemnation of homosexuality was contrary to the ‘traditional’ role of the medical profession: ‘[n]o doubt we shall one day better understand the moral issues involved in the aetiology of cancer; but the medical profession has traditionally followed the course of trying to help the sick – not throwing stones at them.’61

Bob Fonseca, a medical student from the University of Western Australia, found the cover ‘offensive and irresponsible’, and objected to the final sentence of Cooper’s article that suggested the ‘moral majority’ could become victims of AIDS if a causal agent was not found.62 He argued that the cover and content, ‘[b]oth implied that homosexual victims of AIDS have deserved the disease as punishment for their “depraved” and “immoral” behaviour’.63

These letters themselves provoked counter-arguments. And while fewer in number they demonstrate the link some still made between homosexual practices and disease. In December 1983, a correspondent complained about the ‘moral indignation’ expressed over the cover, arguing that there was a call ‘for comment, to restore some balance to the discussion about the apparent susceptibility of very promiscuous male homosexuals to contract this frightening and mysterious disease’.64 He continued:

It is reasonable and quite compatible with the best principles of objective medical research to examine the practices of male homosexuals to learn whatever lessons we can from their behaviour. While it has long been established that male homosexuals are the principal reservoir of syphilis, and that they suffer repeated attacks of gonorrhoea, herpes genitalis, venereal warts and other common sexually transmitted diseases, it has only recently been recognised that their activities result in a variety of enteric-related diseases which have serious implications from the public health point of view. It is time that the medical aspects of homosexual activity were given more serious consideration by the medical profession.

Another correspondent was even more blunt in his condemnation of the ‘unhealthy’ nature of homosexuality, and the supposed link between same-sex acts and disease. In February 1984, commenting on the ‘recent flurry of letters’ on AIDS, John Melov complained that ‘[v]ery little discussion occurs in the medical press in relation to the social mores of male homosexuals’.65 He blamed the emergence of AIDS on the promiscuous sexual practices of male homosexuals:

Thus, with the anal canal being used as a surrogate vagina and trauma being inflicted as a result, it is not difficult to see how immunosuppression may occur in susceptible individuals, e.g., passive, receptor male homosexuals with ano-rectal trauma.66

He added that it was well known that homosexual men were more at risk of STIs than heterosexual men. This debate thus reveals the contested nature of homosexuality within the medical community itself, and seemingly confirms statements made a decade earlier in the Medical Journal of Australia that any uniformity of medical opinion would not be achieved easily.

Given the nature of HIV/AIDS and the debate which flourished around homosexuality from the early 1970s onwards (both within and outside the medical community), it is perhaps surprising that a number of newspapers were reasonably even-handed in their initial coverage of the disease, cautioning their readers against hysteria. In July 1983, the Telegraph told its readers that ‘[a]ll the work so far indicates that normal, healthy people have little to no chance of contracting the condition. This, of course, includes homosexuals who have a single-partner sex life.’67

It satirised those who claimed it was a divine punishment on homosexuals, who had ‘so far been unable to explain what God has against haemophiliacs’. The Australian, one of the earliest mainstream media sources to report on HIV/AIDS, was also fairly balanced in its reports on the disease in 1983 and early 1984.68

This changed dramatically in November 1984, when a gay man in Queensland inadvertently donated infected blood which was responsible for the death of three children. The result of this tragedy was, first, to suggest that this devastating mistake was actually a deliberate desire to infect the population: while most sources acknowledged that the individual involved in this particular case had no such desire, many could not resist suggesting that shadowy ‘other’ homosexuals had developed a resolution to do so.69 The second result was an alarming tendency to blame the entire gay community for this attributed vindictiveness and thus to (re)pathologise the homosexual population. Sendziuk traces the way that this idea – that gay men were intentionally donating contaminated blood ‘out of spite’ – was sensationalised and spread through the Australian media.70 He points out that the media response can partly be explained by the commercial imperative, but that there were two other crucial factors: ‘the belief that AIDS was caused by gays and was originally contained within their ranks, and the conviction that AIDS confirmed that homosexuals were indeed deviant and sick and lived lifestyles that should rightly be avoided’.71 This chapter does not attempt to replicate Sendziuk’s work but rather, it examines the way in which medical authority was conflated with moral condemnation and older prejudices in order to condemn the entire gay community as both unhealthy and immoral during this period.

An editorial in the Daily Sun, ‘AIDS Kills Babies’, blamed the incident on the failure of the gay community to ‘regulate’ itself:

A homosexual man has apparently passed on his affliction with the most horrible of results. Homosexuals have no grounds for complaint against the tough legislation introduced last night which will prevent them giving blood. The shame is that the gay community has not been able to educate and regulate its members more effectively [emphasis in original]… Three families have suffered deep tragedy because one man refused or neglected to examine the consequences of his lifestyle. It is impossible to believe that his attitude has not been shared by other homosexuals.72

The Daily Sun’s conflation of HIV/AIDS with homosexuality itself is clear in the opening sentence: the affliction which the man has passed on with ‘horrible’ consequences appears to be his homosexuality; no mention is made of HIV/AIDS in this context. Furthermore, the infection is explicitly described as a direct consequence of his ‘lifestyle’.

The Telegraph carried headlines referring to an ‘AIDS Blood “Time Bomb”’, while Angus Innes, at that time a prominent Queensland Liberal MP, said that homosexuals who gave blood which resulted in deaths should be charged with manslaughter.73 Another article announced in its headline that ‘Donors Give to Spite’, attributing this sentiment to a New South Wales Health Department official.74 In fact, Dr Tony Adams, the official quoted, pointed out that while some homosexals might donate blood out of spite, the majority did not, and that the man in question in Queensland certainly was not in the first category. Sendziuk also points out that Harden, the director of the Queensland Blood Transfusion Service, was actually quite sympathetic to the man, but that no newspapers printed his comments in full.75

The Australian, previously one of the more restrained newspapers on the subject, argued that the selfless system of blood donation was in danger, and managed to suggest that homosexuals as a whole were threatening that most cherished of Australian myths, mateship.76 It called the system of blood donation ‘perhaps one of the few real examples of Aussie mateship still left’, and in doing so, placed homosexuals outside ‘true’ Australian society (seemingly ignoring the many non-Australians who donated blood, not to mention the existence of blood donation in numerous other countries). The article warned that it was in the interest of the entire gay community to ensure that no other incidents occurred, and labelled homosexuals who continued to donate blood after advice to the contrary as ‘vindictive’. Finally, it stated that the infringement of civil rights was acceptable in this case. It is striking that the article was titled ‘The New Plague’, given that the Australian had strongly disputed the ‘gay plague’ misnomer.

In Queensland Parliament, during a debate on a proposed amendment to the Transplantation and Anatomy Act which would prevent homosexual men from donating blood, Innes united biblical and medical condemnation of homosexuality. He called buggery an ‘abominable crime’, but claimed to be ‘saddened by the thought that there are people with these compulsions’.77 He questioned the motives of those who might be AIDS carriers who gave blood, arguing that the homosexual community comprised more people with aberrant social patterns who were antisocial or perverse than the heterosexual community, and added that many homosexuals used blood donation as a free check up because donated blood was automatically screened for diseases. He continued:

It is appalling that innocent people can be so afflicted by a disease with such untoward origins… In my view, in the end result, spreading AIDS is like putting in the boot in a fight or carrying firearms… If the spread of homosexuality is stemmed or even reversed, and the incidence of homosexuality returns to what it once was, the dangers of the spread of the disease will be reduced. If it is a toss-up between indulgence in some selfish lifestyle and protecting innocent people from death, I know which one should be chosen. It is a decision that normal people make a thousand times during their lives.

Innes’s rhetoric directly equated the spread of disease with the ‘spread’ of homosexuality. Indeed, it seemed that a large part of his abhorrence for HIV/AIDS stemmed from its ‘untoward origins’. According to Innes, homosexuality was a selfish choice made by abnormal people, and one which had a direct impact on the health of the community. He concluded that, because ‘AIDS is a killer disease to which there is no known cure… transmitted by blood’, and because the ‘infection comes from people who practise homosexuality through anal intercourse’, it was clear that homosexuality was the ‘root cause’ of AIDS. Therefore, the only way to prevent AIDS was to prevent homosexuality itself.

In 1984, Lex Watson, writing in the Medical Journal of Australia the month before these developments, pointed out that the mass media was the major source of information about HIV/AIDS for many people, including ‘nursing and paramedical personnel, home-care nursing services, work and social contacts of AIDS and LNS suffers, and a substantial section of the homosexual male population’.78 The consequence of the ‘unparalleled media coverage’ of the disease was that ‘the label “AIDS” is now deeply ingrained in the public mind, and, like no other disease for many years, it has allowed the stigmatisation of a minority group. It is, among other things, a highly political disease’. The attitudes expressed towards homosexuality after a homosexual man was found to have donated infected blood were not only highly political; they also drew on a language of combined medical and moral condemnation, arguing that homosexuality was both immoral and unhygienic. While this link was exacerbated by the outbreak of HIV/AIDS, it was in many ways a continuation of the way homosexuality was considered by some in the late 1970s; a view that was sustained by an appeal to medical authority, even though it was not a link which would have been endorsed by the majority of the medical community at this stage.


Stephen Seidman argues that while HIV/AIDS gave some in the US an excuse for virulent homophobia, it simultaneously allowed ‘a far-reaching, perhaps unprecedented, public discussion of homosexuality’.79 Or, as Watson noted in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1984:

AIDS has also posed quite unusual non-clinical problems. It has provided an opportunity for medical and media enquiry into homosexual men’s lives and lifestyles which have not been researched since the 1950s, when medicine was extensively involved in seeking an aetiology of, and a ‘cure’ for, homosexuality itself… [However] the research has been conducted with that combination of fascination and disapproval that is so often a part of academic enquiry into sexual matters.80

The HIV/AIDS crisis in Australia allowed a continuation of a discussion of homosexuality within a medical-scientific framework. In particular, links were made between homosexual behaviour and ill health.

The period from 1973 to 1984 was one of intense debate and the first time that there was sustained public discourse on homosexuality and medicine. During the 1970s, medical views on homosexuality changed rapidly, shifting from disorder, to an accepted, if not precisely normal, variant of personality. There remained those who believed it could and should be treated; and medical interest in homosexuality continued by way of investigation into STIs and homosexual behaviour. In fact, the use of language and appeal to medical authority by those outside the profession continued into the 1980s, when the medical profession moved more definitively away from the idea that it was necessary or desirable to treat homosexuality. The onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Australia between 1983 and 1984 strengthened some in their belief that homosexuality was inherently unhealthy and immoral, supported by medical views that homosexual practices were directly linked to causation. From 1984 onwards, medical knowledge about the disease increased exponentially. However, the idea that there was a direct link between homosexuality and disease proved remarkably persistent throughout the period.

Endnotes - Chapter 5

1 As this chapter is concerned with public discourse about medicine and homosexuality, particularly during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Australia, the focus of the paper will be on male homosexuality. This focus is a consequence of the sources used and the era under examination.

2 (Bishop) J. R. Reid, chairman, Social Issues Committee of the Sydney Diocese, ‘Homosexual Health Hazards’, letter to editor, Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), in Greg Weir Collection, Gay Issues 1891–1994: Mainstream Political and Cultural Perspectives; a Comprehensive Archive and Index, Fryer Library, University of Queensland, vol. 6, 155 1981.08.03.

3 Garry Wotherspoon, ‘City of the Plain’: History of a Gay Sub-culture, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1991; Robert Reynolds, From Camp to Queer: Remaking the Australian Homosexual, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002; Graham Willett, Living Out Loud: A History of Gay and Lesbian Activism in Australia, St Leonards, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2000.

4 Reynolds, From Camp to Queer, p. 14.

5 ibid., p. 18.

6 Graham Willett, ‘The Darkest Decade: Homophobia in 1950s Australia’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109 (1997), p. 121.

7 For further discussion of medical treatments of homosexuality in Australia during the 1960s and 1970s, see, Emily Wilson ‘“Someone Who is Sick and in Need of Help”: Medical Attitudes to Homosexuality in Australia, 1960–1979’, in Shirleene Robinson, ed., Homophobia: An Australian History, Sydney: The Federation Press, 2008, pp.‌148‌–‌171.

8 Lesley Rogers, ‘Hormonal Poofter Bashing’, p. 33, in Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA), file number 837. An editorial in the gay magazine Stallion also described the use of Benperiodol as leading to ‘chemical castration’ (‘Stop This Butchery!’, Stallion, no. 13, p. 4, ALGA).

9 Rogers, ‘Hormonal Poofter Bashing’, p. 33; Arnold Veraa, ‘Sexual Deviance and Homosexuality: A Social Work Appraisal’, Australian Social Work, vol. 28, no. 3 (1975), p. 25.

10 Simon LeVay, Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996, pp. 75–78. See also, Laurie Guy, ‘“Straightening the Queers”: Medical Perspectives on Homosexuality in Mid-twentieth Century New Zealand’, Health and History, vol. 2, no. 1 (2000), pp. 107–108.

11 Ruth Ford discusses women who came to the attention of the courts in Australia at an earlier period in ‘“Filthy, Obscene and Mad”: Engendering “Homophobia” in Australia, 1940s–1960s’, in Robinson, ed., Homophobia, pp. 86–112.

12 The history of medicine and female homosexuality in Australia is far less developed than that of male homosexuality. It is likely that lesbians did become the victims of medical and psychiatric interventions: Ford provides one example in ‘“Filthy, Obscene and Mad”’ (p. 87). However, the majority of medical literature focused on male homosexuality, and discussed female homosexuality as an adjunct or afterthought.

13 Willett, Living Out Loud, pp. 100–105; Wotherspoon, ‘City of the Plain’, pp. 168–169.

14 Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Clinical Memorandum: Homosexuality, no. 6, 1973, p. 3.

15 R. F. Barr and M. S. Dalton, ‘Homosexuality and Psychological Adjustment’, Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), vol. 1, no. 6 (9 February 1974), p. 187.

16 ibid., p. 189.

17 Reynolds, From Camp to Queer, p. 18.

18 ‘Homosexual Law Reform’, editorial, MJA, vol. 1, no. 6 (9 February 1974), p. 158.

19 Barr and Dalton, ‘Homosexuality and Psychological Adjustment’, p. 189.

20 Graeme Brewer, ‘Our History on the Couch’, Outrage, no. 16 (August 1984), pp. 34–35. Brewer’s conclusions were based in large part on the work of Lex Watson, particularly his chapter ‘Homosexuals’, in Erica M. Bates and Paul R. Wilson, eds, Mental Disorder or Madness: Alternative Theories, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1979, pp. 134–161.

21 Brewer, ‘Our History on the Couch’, p. 35.

22 N. McConaghy, ‘The Doctor and Homosexuality’, MJA, vol. 1, no. 2 (13 January 1973), pp. 69–70.

23 John Court, ‘Sexual Deviation in Society’, Australian Humanist, vol. 6 (July 1968), p. 26; McConaghy, ‘The Doctor and Homosexuality’, p. 70. See also, Reynolds, From Camp to Queer, p. 20.

24 ‘Venereal Disease’, MJA, vol. 1, no. 6 (10 February 1973), p. 270.

25 Michael W. Ross, ‘Attitudes of Male Homosexuals to Venereal Disease Clinics’, MJA, vol. 2, no. 12–13 (12 December 1981), p. 670.

26 David L. Bradford, ‘Syphilis Case-finding in an Australian Men’s Sauna Club’, MJA, vol. 2, no. 11 (26 November 1983), p. 561.

27 ibid., p. 563.

28 ‘VD Spread Tied to Homosexuals’, Mercury, 6 July 1977, Weir Collection, vol. 4, 205A 1977.09.13.

29 Reid, ‘Homosexal Health Hazards’, letter to editor, SMH.

30 ‘Move to Keep “Gay” Listing’, Sunday Mail, 5 February 1984, Weir Collection, vol. 11, 39A 1984.02.05.

31 ibid.

32 Paul Sendziuk, Learning To Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2003, p. 12.

33 ibid., p. 15.

34 ibid., p. 23.

35 Stephen Seidman, ‘Transfiguring Sexual Identity: AIDS and the Contemporary Construction of Homosexuality’, Social Text, vol. 19/20 (1988), p. 190.

36 ibid.

37 Kenneth Mutton and Ian Gust, ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’, MJA, vol. 1, no. 12 (11 June 1983), p. 540.

38 ibid., p. 541.

39 ibid., p. 540.

40 David A. Cooper, ‘Epidemic Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections’, MJA, vol. 1, no. 12 (11 June 1983), p. 564.

41 ibid., p. 566.

42 Sydney AIDS Study Group, ‘The Sydney AIDS Project’, p. 569.

43 NHMRC Working Party, ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS): Report of the NHMRC Working Party’, MJA, vol. 141, no. 9 (27 October 1984), pp. 564–566.

44 Sydney AIDS Study Group, ‘The Sydney AIDS Project’, p. 570.

45 John A. Armstrong, ‘Research Developments in AIDS’, MJA, vol. 141, no. 9 (27 October 1984), p. 556.

46 Seidman, ‘Transfiguring Sexual Identity’, p. 191.

47 ‘Shock Find on AIDS Symptoms’, Telegraph, 29 October 1984, Weir Collection, vol. 13, 11 1984.10.29.

48 Sydney AIDS Study Group, ‘The Sydney AIDS Project’, p. 571.

49 ‘Homosexual Carriers “Could Be 40 Percent”’, Courier-Mail, 17 November 1984, p. 10, Weir Collection, vol. 13, 36 1984.11.17.

50 ‘“Gay Plague” Epidemic Sweeping US’, Australian, 17 July 1982, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 3 1982.07.17.

51 Sunday Sun, 10 July 1983, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 46 1983.07.10.

52 In spite of using the term in its headlines, one of the earliest articles in the Australian quoted a Sydney general practitioner who pointed out that ‘gay plague’ was a misnomer (Sue Cook, ‘Australia Could Be Next on the List for the “Gay Plague”’, Australian, 19 July 1982, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 4 1982.07.19). The newspaper challenged the title more directly in an editorial the following year (‘No Need for Hysteria’, Australian, 28 June 1983, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 26 1983.06.28).

53 ‘The Controversy Over AIDS’, SMH, 4 July 1983, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 40 1983.07.04.

54 Nicholas Rothwell, ‘Heterosexual “Gay Plague” Victims Alarm Doctors’, Australian, 20 May 1983, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 9 1983.05.20.

55 Glennys Bell, ‘US Killer Disease Reaches Aust’, Bulletin, 10 May 1983, p. 23, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 6 1983.05.10.

56 Michael VerMeulen, ‘The Gay Plague’, New York Magazine, 31 May 1982, p. 61.

57 ‘AMA Journal’s AIDS Report Angers Blewett’, SMH, 29 June 1983, Weir Collection vol. 9, 27 1983.06.29.

58 Mark A. Barnett, ‘AIDS Cover’, letter to the editor, MJA, vol. 2, no. 8 (15 October 1983), p. 364.

59 Peter Barker, ‘AIDS Cover’, letter to the editor, MJA, vol. 2, no. 8 (15 October 1983), p. 364.

60 C. J. Dingle, ‘AIDS Cover’, letter to the editor, MJA, vol. 2, no. 8 (15 October 1983), p. 364. He claimed that carcinoma of the cervix was ‘associated with sexual promiscuity, either of the patient or of her male partner’, and that coronary disease could be caused by greed and over-ambition.

61 ibid., p. 364.

62 Bob Fonseca, ‘AIDS Cover’, letter to the editor, MJA, vol. 2, no. 8 (15 October 1983), p. 364.

63 ibid., p. 364.

64 Kevin Hume, ‘AIDS’, letter to the editor, MJA, vol. 2, no. 12 (10/24 December 1983), p. 601.

65 John Melov, ‘Pathogenesis of AIDS’, letter to the editor, MJA, vol. 140, no. 3 (4 February 1984), p. 177.

66 ibid., p. 178.

67 Telegraph, 15 July 1983, Weir Collection, vol. 9, 58 1983.07.15.

68 Cook, ‘Australia Could Be Next on the List for the “Gay Plague”’.

69 Sendziuk, Learning to Trust, p. 61. See, for example ‘Donors Give to Spite, Says Official’, Daily Sun, Weir Collection, vol. 13, 45 1984.11.28.

70 Sendziuk, Learning to Trust, pp. 61–63.

71 ibid.

72 ‘AIDS Kills Babies’, Daily Sun, 16 November 1984, p. 1, Weir Collection, vol. 13, 25–27, 1984.11.16.

73 ‘AIDS Blood “Time Bomb”’, Telegraph, 16 November 1984, p. 1, Weir Collection, vol. 13, 29 1984.11.16. Innes later became the leader of the Liberal Party in Queensland.

74 ‘Donors Give to Spite, Says Official’, Daily Sun.

75 Sendziuk, Learning To Trust, p. 60.

76 ‘The New Plague’, Australian, 17–18 November 1984, p. 24, Weir Collection, vol. 13, 35 1984.11.19.

77 In Weir Collection, vol. 14 1, 16 1984.11.15.

78 Lex Watson, ‘Living with AIDS’, MJA, vol. 141, no. 9 (27 October 1984), p. 559.

79 Seidman, ‘Transfiguring Sexual Identity’, p. 189.

80 Watson, ‘Living with AIDS’, p. 560.

Cite this chapter as: Wilson, Emily. 2011. ‘Homosexual Health Hazards: Public Discourse on Homosexuality and Medicine in Australia, 1973–1984’, in Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI, edited by Smaal, Yorick; Willett, Graham. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 69–87.

Out Here: Gay and Lesbian Perspectives VI

   by Yorick Smaal, Graham Willett