This article is part of HWO’s “Road to Repeal” series, a collaboration with the Activist Histories of Ireland Conference, held on 12-13 July 2019, which explored histories of political activism in modern Ireland.
In January 1985 Gay Health Action (GHA) – Ireland’s first AIDS activist organisation – was founded to combat growing concerns about the presence of the syndrome in Ireland and to provide accurate, and often explicit, health information. Although underfunded and understaffed, GHA became the locus of information about HIV and AIDS until they disbanded in 1990.
GHA’s AIDS campaign focused on education and preventative measures. They sought to disseminate accurate and up-to-date information pertaining to AIDS among the gay community in Ireland. The group attempted to change the sexual behaviour of gay men through its publications. They hoped to bring their campaign to gay meeting places, bars and nightclubs, therefore reducing the risk of infection. The first edition of GHA’s newspaper, AIDS Action News, published in 1987, stated that, ‘AIDS takes away our freedom to some extent, to have sex in the ways we have been used to. It demands that we discuss “safer sex” with our sex partners and its implications, and cut out “high risk” activity.’ This focus on behavioural change was a prominent part of GHA’s campaign, which promoted harm reduction, rather than abstinence models, to combat the spread of AIDS in Ireland.
GHA published their first AIDS information leaflet in May 1985 with a print-run of fifteen thousand copies. There was initial criticism in the press about the nature of this leaflet and the fact that the Health Education Bureau (HEB), which was directly funded by the Department of Health, gave £800 towards the cost of producing it. An article published in the Sunday Independent (one of the main national newspapers in Ireland) on 18 August 1985 criticised the HEB for not vetting the contents of the leaflet. The article went on to state that GHA ‘does not, in the leaflet, discourage homosexual activity, although this is one of the ways of spreading AIDS.’ Objections to the leaflet generally tended to rest on the fact that rather than advocating abstinence from sexual activity, GHA provided information about how gay men could enjoy sex while staying safe, (it should be noted that sexual activity between men was illegal in Ireland at this time).
On 23 August 1985 the Irish Independent published an opinion piece by Des Rushe (a regular columnist and theatre critic in the Independent) under the headline, ‘A public misuse of our money?’ Rushe parodied the information in the leaflet using selected quotations to assert that GHA were not taking AIDS seriously and were light-heartedly promoting homosexual activity. He stated ‘There is, however, a warning that an animalistic type of homosexual activity known to initiates as rimming carries high risk. Otherwise the message is: don’t panic, have fun.’
Chris Robson of GHA responded to these criticisms in the letter section of the Irish Independent. He pointed out that the leaflet was compiled from international sources, including medical experts, and had been checked by a leading Irish venereologist, and that it had been praised at an AIDS conference in London ‘as being possibly the best information leaflet for gay men anywhere in the world.’ An immediate political consequence of the negative press coverage relating to the HEB’s funding of the first GHA leaflet was the refusal of state funding for any further GHA publications.
Despite a lack of government funding and initial press criticism, GHA produced a number of further leaflets. Their original 1985 leaflet on AIDS was updated and republished in April 1986. In December 1985 they published AIDS, The HTLV-3 Test, and they issued their Information AIDS Booklet in December 1986 and June 1987. Alongside these publications they produced two editions of a ‘play safe’ card, dealing with safer sex as well as posters for distribution in all gay venues. The finances needed for printing and the running of GHA came from donations and money raised at fundraising events.
In 1987 the Irish government launched its AIDS Awareness campaign, which focused on abstinence as the main prevention method, under the slogan ‘AIDS Don’t Bring It Home’. The campaign focused on promiscuity as the main cause for the spread of AIDS and advised that people should remain faithful to one sexual partner. If this was not possible, the campaign advised speaking to a doctor about the use of condoms as a tertiary prevention method.
1987 was also the year that GHA launched their ‘condom card’, described as ‘the latest addition to its range of explicit educational material on AIDS aimed at gay men.’ The accompanying press release asserted that ‘detailed, explicit practical advice is required couched in everyday language.’ Twenty thousand copies of the card were printed and it was distributed to the wider heterosexual community, Family Planning Clinics and Student Unions ‘due to the lack of a government campaign in the area’. The use of explicit language in the condom card was notable when compared to the rather clinical and circumspect material produced by the Department of Health. The card opened with the clear and unambiguous sentence: ‘fucking without a condom represents the highest risk for contracting the AIDS virus.’ It also made use of more colloquial language such as ‘cock’, and ‘sucking’ in reference to oral sex. This explicit language was typical of GHA publications, which sought to meet people where they were. The use of colloquial language and slang when discussing sexual health demystified and demedicalised discourse around HIV and AIDS prevention. This in turn provided a discursive vehicle through which preventative measures could be discussed more openly.
A few months before they disbanded, GHA published the results of their survey on the level of awareness about HIV/AIDS, and the means of its transmission, among the gay community in Ireland. The survey of 265 individuals found that 80% of respondents had adopted safer sex practices with 44% regularly using condoms, while over half had reduced their number of sexual partners. In light of the general lack of officially-produced AIDS information up to this point, particularly information aimed at gay men, it must be accepted that these results were the consequence of GHA’s concerted campaign to halt the spread of AIDS in the Irish gay community. A secondary, and often overlooked, aspect of GHA’s work was the positive visibility that they gave to the Irish gay community. Throughout their existence they actively presented gay men as responsible citizens who could effectively tackle an epidemic that threatened not only their own community, but the nation as a whole. In so doing, they took control of the national discourse around HIV/AIDS and had a positive effect on both political and public perceptions of the Irish gay community.
James Grannell is a current PhD candidate at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland. His research explores the role of activists and voluntary organisations who worked with the gay community, injecting drug users, and haemophiliacs, following the emergence of HIV/AIDS in Ireland during the 1980s. His dissertation is titled ‘The right to speak for ourselves’: AIDS activism in the Republic of Ireland, 1982-1992. James received his MA in the Social and Cultural History of Medicine from UCD in 2014. His thesis was titled ‘This great black plague’: The Treatment of Congenital Syphilis in Four Dublin Hospitals, 1917-1927’. Follow James on twitter @James_Grannell.