Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Rites of Belonging: Grief, Memorial and Social Action

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Rites of Belonging: Grief, Memorial and Social Action

Article excerpt


HIV/AIDS entered the public stage as a 'mystery illness' for which there was no obvious cause and no known cure. Concerns that the disease would sweep rapidly across wide sections of the population provided it with media and political attention few medical conditions receive. But more significantly, HIV/ AIDS was a contagion associated with a set of illicit and widely disdained social and sexual practices (homosexuality, illegal drug use and prostitution). From the beginning, HIV/AIDS was perceived to be a disease of deviance, associated with criminal acts and 'immorality'. In Australia, sensationalist media articles began to appear which suggested gay men were irresponsible and that 'tough action' was required to protect the mainstream public in the wake of AIDS (Barnard 1985:1; Editorial 1989a:8, 1989b:10; Lawrence 1989:9).

Not surprisingly, there were indications, and fears among gay men and lesbians, that the infectious nature of HIV/AIDS would provide license for a formal crackdown on the social freedoms of gay men (and by association lesbians). This prompted a major response from activists within the gay community. Gay men in Australia took action not only to protect people afflicted with HIV/AIDS and draw attention to their needs, but also to defend the broader social rights of gay men and lesbians. AIDS activism (or the AIDS movement)1 in Australia was built on the back of the already existing organised gay and lesbian liberation movement, which had been mobilised in the early 1970s around the issue of decriminalisation of male homosexuality. Although AIDS activism took on a life of its own throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the issues being addressed were different to those of the gay community (particularly when HIV positive activists began to take leadership of the movement), from its inception AIDS activism was connected to the gay movement. Existing organisational structures were called into play and the cultural and political framework of the gay movement was reoriented toward the immediate context of HIV/AIDS. Indeed, during the 1980s and early 1990s gay politics became enmeshed with the politics of HIV/AIDS (Watson 1988).

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the gay and lesbian2 community, and their supporters, established the first 'safe sex' education campaigns, created extensive volunteer-run care and support networks for people living with HIV/AIDS, produced volumes of information to educate people and inform policy debate and established a presence at the forefront of political decision making regarding HIV/AIDS (Sendziuk 2003). AIDS activists also created two major memorials to people who had died from AIDS related illnesses: the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the annual Candlelight Vigils (or Candlelight Memorials). It is with these memorials that this paper is concerned.

Each year in Australia, and throughout the western world, candlelight memorials are held in remembrance of people who have died from AIDS. Inaugurated in this country by AIDS activist Phil Carswell and a nurse at the Melbourne Communicable Diseases Centre, Tom Carter, the first Australian vigil was held in 1985 when these two men stood silently with lit candles in a Melbourne city square (Carswell 2005). From this, the event has grown in magnitude and scope. By the 1990s, the estimated attendance at Candlelight Vigils had reached into the tens of thousands across the country and they were regularly attended by high profile public figures, including state and federal politicians (Carswell 2005; Bruce 1992:3; Taylor 1996:13). Candlelight Vigils involve a silent procession and vigil - held in the evening with thousands of lit candles - and a public reading of a list of names of people who have died from AIDS. They are often accompanied by the unfolding of new panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (Carswell 2005).

The Quilt itself is a series of cloth panels, each produced in memory of a person or persons who has died from AIDS, stitched together in the format of a traditional 'comfort Quilt'. …

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