'Don’t be stupid, don’t be silly, put a condom on your willy': Early HIV/AIDS activism in Ireland

To mark the thirty-first anniversary of World AIDS Day, we take a look back at the history of HIV/AIDS activism in Ireland.

Men wearing Act Up t-shirts at an HIV/AIDS demonsration

2019 will mark the thirty-first World AIDS Day, first began in 1988 as an ‘opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV’. This year’s theme, ‘Communities make the difference’, is particularly apt to the history of HIV/AIDS. In the fight to combat HIV/AIDS, communities, in particular, the LGBT+ community, have been to the fore. Only recently the Irish government announced the roll-out of a (limited) PrEP programme. This would not have occurred but for the tireless efforts of activists, mainly from ACT UP Dublin. ACT UP Dublin’s struggles to convince the government of the importance of a PrEP programme, however, is not a unique story. In fact, historically, Irish society has had to rely on a small voluntary cohort to force the government into action, no more so than in the case of HIV/AIDS.

The first reported AIDS case in Ireland was in 1982. By 1987, at which point the Irish government had belatedly, and reluctantly, involved itself in a public AIDS education campaign, this figure had reached 24, with 590 individuals having tested positive for HIV. At that time, Dr Derek Freedman, one of Ireland’s leading specialists in sexual health, remarked that Ireland was “ill-equipped to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Our facilities for the control of STIs were lamentable in the 1970s and early 1980s”. Coupled with this was the almost complete absence of sex education in Irish schools and strict restrictions on the purchase of condoms.

In the absence of a measured state response to the growing HIV/AIDS crisis, Ireland’s LGBT+ community pioneered a public AIDS education campaign. This was despite the many restrictions they faced. It is worth noting that laws existed at this time criminalising sexual activity between males. In fact, the Irish government were in the midst of defending these laws at the European Court of Human Rights and even considered using AIDS as a justification for the maintenance of the laws.

Before any other body recognised the severity of HIV/AIDS, Ireland’s LGBT+ community worked to get as much information out as possible. These efforts were led by Gay Health Action (GHA) which was established in 1985. It was GHA that first produced an AIDS Information leaflet in Ireland in May 1985. Over 16,000 were printed, but the Health Education Bureau only provided a grant of £800, which did not cover the cost of printing the leaflets. This was the first and last time that the state provided such funding to GHA.

At a time when there was considerable misinformation about the means of HIV/AIDS transmission, the GHA’s AIDS Information leaflet became an important source of information for many throughout Ireland. The leaflet sought to dispel many of the myths surrounding HIV/AIDS, insisting that AIDS “is not a homosexual disease, a gay plague, a moral problem, or a punishment from God”. In rather explicit language GHA gave advice on reducing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS through the adoption of safer sex practices. They advised avoiding “anal sex, except possibly with regular partner(s)”, while also warning that “receiving other men’s semen into your body can give you the virus”. GHA also, however, sought to reassure readers that other sexual acts were completely safe, such as “dry kissing, cuddling, massage, and mutual masturbation.”

Over the next few years, GHA produced further educational material on HIV/AIDS, including their ‘Condom Card’, ‘Safer Sex Card’ and ‘Joys of Sex’ poster. The ‘Condom Card’ warned that “fucking without a condom represents the highest risk for contracting the AIDS virus…. If you decide to fuck, using a condom will significantly reduce your risk….” The dearth of information available at the time resulted in considerable demand for GHA leaflets. Organisations such as An Bord Altranais and the Northern Ireland Family Planning Association (NIFPA) contacted GHA requesting their material. NIFPA’s Alison Wightman described GHA’s leaflets as “wonderful [with] really good language, positive approach, clear information, [and] great layout”.

The LGBT+ community did not limit themselves to a public AIDS education campaign. They also prioritised support services for those affected by HIV/AIDS. They were aided in doing so by Dr John Dupree and Dr Glen Margo, two American doctors who specialised in AIDS prevention and support services. In August 1985 they facilitated a two-day HIV/AIDS workshop in Trinity College Dublin for the National Gay Federation. This workshop led to the establishment of Cairde, a confidential help service for members of the gay community who were fearful they had contracted the HIV virus or to those who had tested positive. Within the space of a year, however, Cairde announced that “due to the lack of information and organisation by the Department of Health, we have decided not to limit ourselves to the gay section of the community and are available to support anyone who is affected from whatever section of society.”

There can be no doubt that members of GHA and Cairde recognised that a considerable section of Irish society relied on them for information and the pressure that came with this responsibility. Writing in 1986, GHA noted that “it has become clear that we need to look closely at the structure and funding if we are to respond effectively to the growing demands being made on us.” The level of frustration felt within GHA was evident in a letter to the Minister for Health that same year, in which they lambasted the government’s response to HIV/AIDS. GHA insisting that “the entire responsibility of public education and training on AIDS in Ireland has landed on our shoulders: to put it bluntly, we are doing your department’s jobs.”

Funding was a constant struggle for GHA. In April 1987 they organised Ireland’s first International AIDS Weekend to fundraise for their activities. This weekend coincided with the Pasteur Institute in Paris declaring the 3rd April 1987 as International AIDS Day in an attempt to focus world attention on the appalling problems caused by AIDS. GHA and the National Gay Federation organised a number of events at the Hirschfeld Centre, including a forum chaired by David Norris which 170 people attended. Activists also took to Grafton Street and raised over £1,000.

GHA also had to contend with criticism and attacks from some segments of Irish society. In 1985 the National Socialist Party distributed a leaflet called ‘Smash AIDS Blitzkrieg’, which claimed that AIDS was being spread “amongst all normal people by the Gay – AIDS spreaders and the Junkies”. The leaflet even called for the “burning down of suspect discos, gay bars, [and] clubs.” On the whole, however, GHA received considerable praise. Senator Nuala Fennell, speaking in Seanad Éireann in 1988, praised the gay community, insisting that it was “the gay community which gave the lead in 1982 in this country in taking practical action. They realised the threat, understood the reality of it and pioneered the information circuit for public information.”

Although GHA disbanded in 1990, citing fatigue as one of the main reasons, this did not spell the end of HIV/AIDS activism within the LGBT+ community. Later that year a branch of ACT UP was established in Dublin. In a statement announcing their establishment, ACT UP Dublin declared that “the move to set up a group in Dublin is an indication of the level of anger that many people feel at the government indifference and inaction…. [we] will also press for changes in the legislation on the sale of condoms and improvements in sex education in schools.”

ACT UP Dublin adopted a different approach to GHA, in particular organising a number of protests and zaps. In February 1991 they protested outside the Four Courts and Leinster House, with some dressed up as a condom carrying placards stating, ‘Silence = Death’ and ‘Don’t’ be stupid, don’t be silly, put a condom on your willy.’ Later that same year they occupied the office of Dr James Walsh, then the National AIDS coordinator at the Department of Health, protesting against the lack of action by his department. In perhaps one of their most controversial, but also most popular demonstrations, ACT UP Dublin dressed up as bishops and staged a public crucifixion of a five-foot-tall condom outside the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.

By the early 1990s the efforts of GHA, ACT UP Dublin and many other voluntary organisations had begun to pay off. In 1992 the Eastern Health Board established the Gay Men’s Health Project, a dedicated service to deal with Sexual Health amongst the gay community in Dublin. One year later the government removed the age restrictions on the purchase condoms and legalised their sale through vending machines. Speaking in support of these changes, Joe Costello complimented the “gay community on their responsible approach to dealing with this problem and particularly their emphasis on awareness in the community at large when other sections of the heterosexual community were turning a blind eye.”

Ireland’s LGBT+ community has much to be proud of in terms of their response to the early years of HIV/AIDS in Ireland. Their efforts forced the Irish government into action and saved many lives. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to those fearless activists who have tirelessly dedicated themselves, over many years, to fighting for better resources. While considerable progress has been made, many of the issues which activists were fighting for in the 1980s, however, still remain. In particular, better STI facilities throughout Ireland, a more comprehensive sex education programme in Irish schools, and not to mention better healthcare for Ireland’s LGBT+ community. We can draw strength, however, in what can be achieved when communities work together.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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