Home' LOTL : August 2010 Contents 4 Lesbians On The Loose Magazine • lotl.com
ACON: COMMEMORATING 25 YEARS
During the worst years of the HIV
epidemic, lesbians across NSW
contributed in many important
ways to our state'sHIVresponse.Perhaps
one of the most moving is the care and
support that many lesbians provided to
people a ected by HIV, especially the
thousands of gay men who died from
the virus in the mid 1980s through to
the early 1990s.
"Lots of lesbians were working
as nurses at St Vincents," says HIV
researcher and veteran HIV activist
Garrett Prestage, "and when many
health workers were scared and refused
to come near gay men who they thought
might be sick, lesbian nurses were very
prominent in stepping up to support
"Also, at a time when gay men were
being demonised as promiscuous
disease-carriers, lesbians could have
easily distanced themselves from gay
men, but they didn't. Instead they stood
beside gay men."
Ann Maree Sweeney was one of those
nurses. "I started working with AIDS
patients in 1989. I was 21 years old,
Catholic, just out of university and just
coming to grips with my sexuality. I had
NO idea what I was in for. I experienced
the depths of despair, but also the essence
of love -- true love. I wasn't ready for the
roller coaster, but who was?
"I can't talk easily about nursing
people who were dying of AIDS
during the early '90s. It was like being
on the front line
during a war,
during the AIDS crisis in this city. We
were the least likely to contract the virus
but the most likely to take it on, to help,
to confront a community crisis head on.
"Sometimes ve men where dying
in a week at St Vincent's. 18 year olds.
22 year olds. It was awful. People were
literally shitting and bleeding to death.
Nothing we could do would stop it. Not
to mention pneumonia, the blindness
or the AIDS dementia process. But at
the same time as the horrid virus was
tearing our hearts out, dykes and poofs
were rocking together -- partying,
loving, caring and consoling. Our mates
were dying, we were united. e poofs
needed us strong women to do the dirty
work... and we were willing."
In addition to the health workers,
many lesbians provided care and
support for their gay male friends as they
battled with and eventually succumbed
to the virus. "Even a er all this time the
emotional impact is still quite intense,"
says Annette Gunnis whose friend
Byron passed away in 1992 at the age
"Byron and I met in Brisbane as
children and he was the best friend a
girl could have. At 18 he went to live in
New York where he made a big name for
himself making costumes on Broadway.
en one night I got a call. "It's hard to
tell you... it's AIDS... my lover is dying
and soon I will be too."
Byron returned to Sydney a er
the death of his partner. "I promised I
would be there for him no matter what.
When his family didn't look a er him,
he came to live with me and I cared for
him. It was hard - he was dying. I had
lost my father the year before so I knew
death, but not dying, and certainly not
someone dying before their time."
Annette's commitment to her friend
continued a er his death. She became
an HIV activist and advocated for
people with HIV to get better access
to potentially life-saving treatments. "I
found a way to remember him, to really
honour his memory, and that was to
ght for the rights that he should have
had and for the drugs that he could have
"Caring for my dying friend and
ghting for his rights a er his death is
one of the things in my life of which I
am most proud. It also taught me that
dying sucks and that you shouldn't have
to do it if there's any way to stop it."
For 25 years, ACON has played a vital role in helping people in NSW who have been affected by HIV. Just as
vital is the role played by many lesbians, as health care workers, volunteer carers, activists, fundraisers and
friends. We asked two unsung heroes of the epidemic to share their story.
CLOCKWISE: Ann Maree (3rd from right) with
other St Vincents staff raising money for HIV
patients at Mardi Gras Fair Day 1994.
Annette Gunnis with her late friend Byron
Ann Maree Sweeney today (from Ward 17, a
series of contemporary photographs by John
Image courtesy of John McRae: www.johnmcrae.com
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