Gary Kinsman, co-founder of the AAHP, was recently interviewed at length by Toronto-based journalist Michael Rancic for The Breach. The article explores what relevance HIV/AIDS activism of the ’80s and ’90s has for us today as we continue to deal with the ongoing COVID19 pandemic and the threat of future pandemics.
The gulf between the direct action of those early AIDS groups and how COVID-19 is being addressed couldn’t be greater, Kinsman said, with the response to COVID being focused on individual behaviours like masking, social distancing and hand sanitizing.
Grassroots movements around COVID have been missing in action. Kinsman said it’s urgent to remember the legacy of changes brought about by AIDS activists at the time: centering the people most affected in conversations about public health, creating more inclusive 2SLGBTQIA+ spaces, and bringing sex workers into the labour movement.
With restrictions lifted, variants on the rise, and no end to COVID-19 in sight, Canada’s left can and should be looking to AIDS activism and organizing as examples of how networks of community care build strong, lasting social movements.
In collaboration with Artexte and as part of a SSHRC research grant titled After-Images and Urban Spaces: Lesbian, Gay and Queer Visible Presence in Montreal (1950-1990),Ryan Conrad has led the thirtieth anniversary digitization and preservation effort of A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art & Contemporary Cultures. Edited by Allan Klusaček and Ken Morrison, the out of print book captures the energy, excitement, and cultural activism that exploded at the 1989 Montreal AIDS Conference. While many of the AAHP’s transcripts from Montreal and Toronto on this website discuss the direct action activism of many conference participants, not much has been noted about the cultural interventions—film screenings, exhibitions, performances, lectures—organized at the conference. Sidart, the cultural track at the conference, was a first in the history of the international AIDS conferences that until that time were exclusively biomedical in its approach to the epidemic. The proceedings of sidart formed the back bone of A Leap in the Dark and was first published in 1992 a few years after the conference.
To read more about Allan and Ken’s work putting together the book and to get yourself a free copy of the newly digitized ebook, check out Artexte’s website where you can also read Conrad’s introduction to the project.
Calgary-born video artist David Tuff (b. 1959) died due to AIDS-related illness in 1992. A compilation of his video works was recently recovered from the personal collection of Montreal-based cinema studies scholar Tom Waugh. One of the video works on the tape is Tuff’s 1989 short titled Are We Going Backwards?. The video is an experimental activist documentary covering the BC Social Credit Party’s proposed (and eventually passed) Bill 34, a piece of legislation that legalized the quarantine and internment of people with HIV/AIDS. Tuff makes a comparison between this piece of legislation and the internment of Japanese Canadians in British Columbia during World War II. The ten-minute video was made from Tuff’s previous video installation at Emily Carr in 1987-88 that tackled the same themes.
Don’t miss these two upcoming Zoom-based events on HIV/AIDS video activism in Canada this month. They are both free and open to the public! See registration links below.
HIV on TV: A Panel on Early HIV/AIDS Activist Television in Canada | 10 June 2021 | 2pm EST In the ‘80s and ‘90s HIV/AIDS activists in Canada used video cameras to organize, educate, agitate, and document their own rebellions. Before widespread use of the web-based video distribution platforms that we have today, artists and activists utilized community cable television channels to reach audiences near and far as tapes were also exchanged through the mail. This panel features video makers who either contributed to these community cable projects or are stewards of this archive. Notably, this panel will touch upon two community cable projects, Vancouver’s Gayblevision and Toronto’s Toronto Living With AIDS. The panel will be moderated by Dr. Ryan Conrad. Register here!
Dialogue on Women’s HIV/AIDS Video Activism Then & Now | 17 June 2021 | 2pm EST Join an intimate conversation between esteemed HIV/AIDS activist Darien Taylor and award-winning independent film and video maker Alison Duke. Taylor’s groundbreaking documentary Voices of Positive Women (1993), which she made in collaboration with video artist Michael Balser, is one of the earliest examinations of the impact of HIV and AIDS upon women. Duke has been making documentaries about HIV/AIDS since 2007, most notably the pair of documentaries Positive Women: Exposing Injustice (2012) and Consent: HIV Non-disclosure and Sexual Assault Law (2015). The dialogue will be moderated by Dr. Ryan Conrad. Register here!
Ryan Conrad, a long-time member of the AAHP team, has recently published an article titled “Cable Access Queer: Revisiting Toronto Living With AIDS (1990-1991)” in the open-access media studies journal Jump Cut. The article analyzes the Canadian AIDS activist community television series Toronto Living With AIDS and provides insight into how this extraordinary program came to be, how it was received by various imagined publics, how it ended, and why revisiting this series is useful for today’s video activists. The article contains nearly 100 images and archival documents about the public access show and AIDS activist media in Canada. An excerpt is included below:
“AIDS activists changed the world. They organized, strategized, and put their bodies on the line to change their medical, social, and political circumstances. Importantly, AIDS activists in North America did all this with early consumer-grade video technologies in hand. From the committed documentary to the experimental short, AIDS activists engaged in change-making at the level of culture through moving images in new ways and on a scale not possible during previous social movements. Due to the parallel development of increasingly affordable consumer grade video technologies alongside the rapidly expanding AIDS crisis, scholars, activists, and media makers have an expansive decentralized archive from which to consult, study, and make new meaning. The importance of revisiting and maintaining this archive, as film scholar Roger Hallas notes, is not merely to preserve the past for the sake of history, but to attend to the stories that emerge from AIDS activist cultural archives and their revelatory potential for historical consciousness in the present.
We live at a moment of great interest and reinvestment in the history of AIDS activism in the U.S. and Canada. These histories are undergoing a storytelling process through which certain accounts begin to take canonical form. While this process of canonization makes AIDS activist histories more available to those who did not experience them firsthand, this process also leads to the occlusion of complex, lesser known, and marginalized aspects of the histories at stake. AIDS activist histories in the U.S. are being solidified through autobiographies, memoirs, oral history projects, massive art retrospectives such as the 2015-2017 touring exhibition “Art AIDS America,” and recently-produced historical dramas, television movies, and activist documentaries, most notably the Oscar-nominated films How to Survive a Plague (2012) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
The alternative media work of Canadian AIDS activists is largely absent from these more well-known U.S. history projects. Furthermore, scholarship on alternative media practices in Canada largely occludes or only briefly mentions the history of AIDS activist media and the contribution of AIDS activist media makers. This paper remedies this oversight by providing a complementary analysis of Canadian-made AIDS activist videos from the Toronto Living With AIDS (TLWA) cable access project, thereby facilitating future possibilities for comparative scholarly work examining the histories of AIDS activist media globally, and across the U.S.-Canadian border in particular.”
To continue reading, check out the full article on Jump Cut‘s website.
American activist, artist, and performer Blane Charles came to Montreal as part of the ACT UP/New York contingent at the V International AIDS Conference taking place at the Palais des Congrès during the summer of 1989. By 1990 Charles was living full-time in Montreal and was a founding member of ACT UP/Montreal. Charles was recently interviewed by Never Apart, a queer Montreal cultural centre, and Charles was also interviewed by the ACT UP Oral History project back in 2014. Both interviews supplement the many Montreal interviews in our own oral history project and provide a unique insight into political context and social milieu of Montreal HIV/AIDS activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
While living though the current Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis I am struck by the connections between the AIDS crisis (which is also not over) and this health crisis. These connections are not often being made or remembered in the commentaries and analysis I have seen. At the same time there are also major differences between these two different health crises including mode of transmission, impact on people’s bodies and health and to some extent who is most affected. I was actively involved in AIDS organizing and activism in the 1980s and 1990s and have also been involved in documenting some of these histories. In this initial sketch I try to draw out some of what can be learned from the history of AIDS organizing and activism for the current pandemic. I know this is partial and limited but I feel an urgency to get it out there. Please feel free to add to it or critique it. It is intended to get discussion going.
Referring to AIDS organizing and activism I refer firstly (but not only) to the treatment based (but always much broader) direct action informed activism associated with various AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) groups that existed across the USA, in ‘Canada,’ and around the globe (some of which still exist) or groups like AIDS ACTION NOW! (AAN!) based in Toronto. These groups with the themes of “Silence=Death, Action=Life” focused on fighting to get access for people living with AIDS/HIV to treatments to fight the infections that were actually killing people. They put the needs of people most affected by AIDS at the centre of the social response. I am also referring to the first wave of the setting up of community based groups in the early 1980s (and later) that supported people living with AIDS/HIV, developed education and fought against discrimination when governments were leaving people to die. It was these community initiatives growing out of gay and lesbian, and to some extent the feminist and progressive health movements, that provided support for people affected by AIDS in the face of state inaction and indifference from the elites of the medical profession. These forms of activism extended and saved people’s lives.
Like all health emergencies the AIDS crisis was/is a condensation of many social relations – including sexuality, race, gender, class, poverty, underdevelopment, colonialism and neocolonialism, ability, drug use, sex work, the power of pharmaceutical corporations, the character of the medical profession, problems with public health and so much more. It is always important to ask which ‘public’ is being defended and whose ‘health’ is being protected? For the AIDS crisis to be fully addressed all of these relations had to be engaged with.
The current pandemic includes all of this and more but in a context where neoliberal capitalist relations have gone much further in their destruction of health care, social assistance and the social wage, and the generation of precarious wage labour in many countries. The power of multinational pharmaceutical corporations over our lives has intensified.
More specifically, there are a number of connections needing to be made:
‘Expendable populations’ and fighting discrimination and stigmatization.
In the early years of the AIDS crisis there was little official and state response since it was seen as only affecting ‘expendable populations’ — gay men/men who have sex with men, drug users, Haitians and other people of colour (including the racist construction of ‘African AIDS’) and sex workers. These were the groups identified as the “high risk groups” and this term was lifted out of epidemiological discourse to organize social discrimination and stigmatization against these groups. These people were thought by moral conservative (and often neoliberal) governments as ‘expendable’ and therefore years of social and health care response were lost in the fight against AIDS. Instead the ‘general population’ (coded as white, middle class and heterosexual) was defended against the ‘vectors’ and ‘reservoirs’ of infection. Early AIDS organizing fought against this by refocusing on the risk activities that anyone could engage in and by affirming the importance of the lives and needs of people living with AIDS/HIV and the communities most affected by AIDS. AIDS activism fought against discrimination and racist responses to AIDS. It also took up the concerns of those who were being ignored in the social response to AIDS, including the needs of women and people of colour. AIDS activists argued for the needs of those most directly affected to be at the centre of the social response and not only the needs of the non-infected.
In the current pandemic there has been the social organization of discrimination, racism, and stigmatization against people from China, Korea and other Asian countries, including continuing references by Trump and others to the ‘Chinese’ virus (or for some the ‘Asian’ virus). In a slightly more localized fashion this has also been mobilized against people from Iran — in the middle eastern context in particular. This early focus on the pandemic as only affecting ‘other’ people (and only viewing these ‘other’ people as the ‘threat’) led to weeks of delay in developing a response in many state and official circles.
But there are also ways in which those most vulnerable to the coronavirus — older people and those living with compromised or weakened immune systems – including people with cancer, HIV infection, diabetes, heart conditions, and forms of disability — are seen as also being ‘expendable.’ This was especially clear in the first responses of Boris Johnson and the UK government with their mobilization of ‘herd immunity,’ or, what some people conjuring up pseudo-eugenic aspirations referred to as the ‘culling’ of the population. The elderly were viewed as ‘non-productive’ (in relation to capitalist production), or by some as a ‘drain’ on social resources — in contrast to Indigenous traditions where elders are seen as having wisdom and are treated with great respect– and those with immune-compromised bodies, including those with cancer and HIV, often those living with disabilities were also viewed by these people as ‘expendable.’
With the articulation of ‘washing your hands” as part of the preventative measures this means that all those who cannot access clean water (like many on First Nation reserves in ‘Canada’) also become ‘expendable.’ With the official advice of ‘social distance’ and ‘social isolation’ as the way to prevent transmission this also makes all those who do not have the material basis to do this becoming ‘expendable.’ It is now clear to me that the term ‘social distancing’ participates in dissolving the social and since we need to maintain and build the social in the context of this pandemic we need to use terms like spatial or physical distancing instead. Those who cannot participate in these distancing and isolation practices include the poor and homeless (who are often racialized), and those in institutions (including nursing homes) and prisons, as well as those who cannot miss waged work when they are sick given the massive growth of precarious labour and the lack of paid sick days and social support given the ripping apart of the social wage by neoliberal capital. The class and racialized dimensions of this become very clear. Finally the closing of borders serves to place the lives of refugees, migrants and those without status in very difficult situations. These are mostly people of colour.
All these approaches prioritize the lives of those least at ‘risk’ of death from the coronavirus — the younger, the ‘healthy,’ the non-disabled, those with healthy immune systems, and the wealthy over everyone else. It is their health that was being protected. They became the ‘public’ to be defended from those who could potentially die from COVID-19. Calls for attention to the specific needs of Indigenous nations and communities, homeless people in the shelter systems, the need for all workers to have paid sick leave and relief from evictions and mortgages and to be able to refuse unsafe work, the need for adequate social supports. and for the needs of refugees and migrant workers to be addressed are ways to actively cut across this. This must be taken up as central to social responses to the pandemic.
Social solidarity/responsibility – from safe practices to ‘spatial or physical distancing.’
When people including Michael Callen (an early AIDS activist living with AIDS) began to figure out that whatever was causing AIDS (this was before HIV was identified) was transmitted through specific sexual acts and blood to blood contact this led to the development of safe sex and later safe practice guidelines for injection drug use and other practices that meant there was no transfer of bodily fluids or blood to blood contact. These practices were effective in lowering HIV transmission. This was not an individualist response but was instead based on a sense of group social and collective responsibility and meant that people with support were able to alter their social practices for the benefit of their communities. It was not easy for people to alter their practices so this was based on a great deal of popular education and community support. Much of this was based on the assumption that everyone was infected so it broke down the barriers between those infected and those not. Regarding drug use it became central to harm reduction practices. It became part of a community ethics. In relation to safe sex it was also based on the eroticization of safe sex and practising safe sex as fun. This is how safe sex campaigns worked. Safe sex was the erotic and social way to do it for everyone.
In the current pandemic this takes a different form but also one that has to be social and collective in character if it is to work. Spatial or physical distancing – combined with hand washing, use of gloves and coughing/sneezing into one’s sleeve etc — is now what is socially necessary and responsible to lower the infection and death rates. This is also based on the need for all of us to continue engaging in the vital work of social reproduction (including increasing caring labour) even in more distanced and isolated ways. It is this labour of everyday/everynight social reproduction — much of which is not waged and often associated with women (both cis and trans) in the prevailing gender division of labour — that creates the very possibilities for our survival. We need to change our social practices and this requires social support and solidarity, especially to protect those most at risk of death from COVID-19. This means opposing the selfish individualism often displayed in response to a health crisis bred in capitalist societies.
Like with safe practices this collective response requires popular education and social support. While governments and officials can encourage this much of the impetus for this must come from below and we need to provide mass support for doing this. There are some inspirations for this in the early support groups for people living with AIDS/HIV, the buddy systems, and more in early grass roots responses to the AIDS crisis. Networks of mutual aid and social solidarity to support people are being formed in many locations (there is a list of some resources below) in the current pandemic and these need to be facilitated and given resources. Without violating spatial or physical distancing we need to provide support and solidarity for people. For those who have to engage in isolation practices we also need to provide as much support and care as we can. These initiatives will be crucial in determining whether we can slow the infection and death rate. The next few months will be crucial on a global scale.
Health care for all! – health from above to from below.
Central to AIDS activism was health care for all. In the USA ACT UP groups engaged in important campaigns for universal access to health-care. In the ‘Canadian’ context and other countries with more of a ‘welfare state’ there was more access to health care but still major problems (no Pharmacare, very expensive treatments, no coverage for dental care etc). Since the 1980s and 1990s things have largely got worse with major attacks by neoliberal capital and state agencies on access to and the quality of health care and a growing privatizing of health care. Existing health infrastructures have been weakened and torn apart. As Mike Davis points out in the context of the current pandemic:
“capitalist globalization now appears to be biologically unsustainable in the absence of a truly international public health infrastructure. But such an infrastructure will never exist until peoples’ movements break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit health care.”
Here Davis raises major concerns about the need for our survival to shift the character of health care away from capitalist profit rates and the domination of big Pharma. If we are going to be successful in addressing this pandemic it requires major transformations in health care and social policy. This needs to be based on universal free access to quality health care, and free access to testing, treatments and vaccines when they become available — and the spending of major social resources on developing treatments and vaccines. Informed by feminist health organizing and AIDS activism this also needs to be a health from below where people get to take more control over their bodies and health in a rupture with capitalist health care and the power of the pharmaceutical corporations. This requires a major shift from health from above to a health from below. Michel Foucault, a French theorist, wrote about the development of ‘biopolitics’ where forms of social power mobilized bodies and the population as a resource for ruling forms of power starting in the 19th century. ACT UP type politics began to articulate what can be called a ‘biopolitics’ from below which is what we will need to address and build on in ending this pandemic.
Transferring Resources to the ‘Global South’
In the AIDS crisis AIDS activists called in the Montreal Manifesto (issued by ACT UP NYC and AIDS ACTION NOW! at the World AIDS conference in Montreal in 1989) for a major transfer of wealth and resources to people in the global south if the ravages of AIDS were going to be successfully fought. This was based on an understanding of how the underdevelopment of much of the global south was based on the transfer of wealth and resources through colonialism and imperialism to ‘overdevelopment’ in the global north. If people were going to be successful in combating AIDS they needed more wealth and resources and these needed to come from the more wealthy countries in the ‘global north.’ While these campaigns had only a limited impact they pointed in a very important direction.
In the current pandemic the situation is a bit different and even though China faced the first attacks of this virus they and Cuba are now the only countries in the world who seem to have the skills and resources to help people in Iran, Italy, Iraq, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other countries. We can actually see how neoliberal capitalism and its tearing apart of social programs and the social relations of health have weakened the ability of countries like the USA and many countries in Europe to be able to respond to this pandemic. At the same time forms of colonialism and neocolonialism and imperialism still cause major forms of ‘underdevelopment’ in major parts of the ‘global south’ and the transfer of resources, wealth and expertise there are urgently needed.
An important part of this now is also to end the sanctions against Iran and Venezuela that are making it far more difficult for these societies to respond to this pandemic. The sanctions against Cuba actually make it more difficult for other countries to be able to use the medical experience that Cuba has gained. These sanctions must be ended. The Israeli state in its restriction of what can enter Gaza and the occupied territories is also making it more difficult for Palestinians to survive this pandemic. The Israeli state must let aid and assistance in and not leave Palestinians to die.
Problems with distancing and isolation.
There are problems with the solutions proposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. While absolutely necessary ‘social distancing’ (what needs to be called spatial or physical distancing) and ‘social isolation’ (what needs to be called spatial or physical isolation) can be taken up in a very individualist way. Those with lots of material resources are able to accomplish this far easier than others and there are major racialized class implications. These measures also can facilitate isolation and depression and exacerbate mental health problems in people who need everyday social contact. ‘Social isolation’ with abusive partners can intensify problems of domestic abuse and violence against women and we must develop ways to respond to this. We need to also see that there is a lot of work/activity involved in ‘distancing’ and ‘isolation’ and this needs to be recognized and supported. We need to provide as much social support and solidarity for this ‘distancing’ and make it clear this is a needed and necessary social and collective response. In this sense we need to see it as the opposite of an individualist response but view it as our social and community responsibility. We need to consistently check in on people via telephone, email, facetime and other social media. We need to make sure people are able to get their groceries and whatever else they need. We need social solidarity and mutual aid and need to facilitate networks that can accomplish this. The scenes from Italy, Lebanon and other places of people singing to, and with, each other from their balconies are an inspiring example of what is very possible and badly needed. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we all engaged in collective practices of survival and find joy, play and pleasure wherever and whenever we can in doing this.
Opposing the dissolving of our social struggles and movements and resisting the social organization of forgetting – Returning to the streets when we can.
From above they are using ‘social distancing’ and the ban on public gatherings in the streets to attempt to dissolve our public struggles and movements. In the AIDS crisis we resisted their attempts to have us so overwhelmed with grief that we could not continue our collective struggles. We resisted this through the political mobilization of anger, rage and grief including with the development of ‘political funerals.’ But in the AIDS crisis we were still able to express publicly our social and collective response and our power from below in direct actions. In this pandemic we can no longer do this.
Those in power are attempting to use this pandemic to dissolve our social struggles and to further there class and racial interests. The wave of declaration of states of emergency, while necessary in very important ways, can also give state agencies powers they can use against us collectively and individually. We need to remember how quarantine legislation was used against the communities of people most affected by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s.
This demobilization of struggle is very clear regarding the Wet’suwet’en struggle for sovereignty and against pipelines and ‘man camps,’ in the major teachers struggles in Ontario, and perhaps most clearly in the halting of mobilization against the neoliberal pension reform and in the continuing Yellow Vest struggles in France. We need to keep these struggles going, even if using new tactics. For instance, this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (a pro-Palestinian global week of education and action) has had to cancel and postpone many events and this week is being kept alive via social media. The Wet’suwet’en struggle continues via telephone and social media and popular education in a more dispersed fashion.
We need these struggles to be kept alive in the various ways that we can, and also use this pandemic period to do as much popular education on these and other struggles as we can. This means using social media as a terrain of struggle, while at the same time recognizing its limitations including that not everyone has access to it — and how measures like the closing of libraries will further limit access to it. We need to use the internet and social media as much as possible as a terrain for remembering and for critical social analysis. We must not allow them to make us forget about the struggles we were engaged in before this pandemic hit nor what we will learn from surviving it about the need to get rid of neoliberal capitalism and for radical social transformation. When the situation again allows for it we must return to the streets and large public assemblies to continue, intensify and to link together our struggles for justice and dignity with the added wisdom of what we will have learned from surviving this crisis.
Gary Kinsman was one of the first three employees of the AIDS Committee of Toronto, a member of AIDS ACTION NOW!, the Newfoundland AIDS Association, the Valley AIDS Concern Group in Nova Scotia, and now the AIDS Activist History Project (https://aidsactivisthistory.ca/). He is also the author of The Regulation of Desire, and co-author of The Canadian War on Queers. His website is: https://radicalnoise.ca/
Nick Dyer-Witheford, Cyber-Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism, Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality: Volume One, An Introduction, New York: Vintage, 1980.
Gary Kinsman, The Regulation of Desire: Homo and Hetero Sexualities, Montreal: Black Rose, 1996.
Gary Kinsman, “Managing AIDS Organizing: ‘Consultation,’ ‘Partnership,’ and Responsibility’ As Strategies of Regulation,” in the second edition of William Carrol, ed., Organizing Dissent: Contemporary Social Movements in Theory and Practice, (Toronto: Garamond, 1997), pp. 213-239.
Gary Kinsman, “AIDS Activism: Remembering Resistance versus Socially Organized Forgetting,” in Suzanne Hindmarch, Michael Orsini, and Marilou Gagnon, eds., Seeing Red, HIV/AIDS and Public Policy in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, pp. 311-333.
Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers, National Security as Sexual Regulation, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.
Eric Mykhalovskiy, and George W. Smith, Hooking up to social services: A report on the barriers people living with HIV/AIDS face assessing social services. Toronto, ON: Community AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, 1994. .
Jamie Lee Hamilton (1955 – 2019) was a trans, Two-Spirit, Indigenous woman, and organizer who fiercely advocated against the past and ongoing criminalization of sex work in Canada. Her work propelled people to notice and think critically about anti-sex work sentiment, and liberal discourses that frame sex workers as victims in need of rescue, rather than as empowered organizers who worked together across multiple issues to resist the erasure of vital histories of sex work in Canada, as well as the violence that such erasure makes possible. Drawing on sex worker activism throughout the 70s-80s—what Hamilton referred to as the “golden age of sex work in Vancouver”—Hamilton’s interview with the AAHP documents powerful histories of organizing across multiple issues, and underscores the importance of resisting isolation and erasure through collective action and intergenerational remembrance practices (T48/3).
Hamilton’s activism demonstrated the radical potential of organizing across multiple issues for change-making. Her interview documents many moments in which sex workers in Vancouver came together and worked collectively to resist their attempted erasure by civil society organizations such as Concerned Residents of the West End, and by various levels of government through legislation such as the city’s Street Activities By-Law, and the province’s 1984 injunction against sex workers. Amidst this context of anti-sex
work sentiment, and the violence it made possible, Hamilton highlighted the formation of sex worker-led organizations that were directed towards their empowerment and safety, such as the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes, the Women’s Information Safe House, and Prostitutes and Other Women for Equal Rights. Amongst many other initiatives, Hamilton helped create various harm reduction strategies for sex workers, such as creating some of the first “bad date sheets”, through which sex workers protected each other by documenting the license plates, vehicle descriptions, and physical descriptions of dangerous clients (T48/7). She also organized a “shoe dump” action at City Hall. Recognizing that many of the sex workers missing were Indigenous, Hamilton reached out to the United Native Nations to join in the dumping of 67 pairs of shoes at City Hall—one pair for each of 67 sex workers noted to be missing at the time (T48/12). In doing so, Hamilton demonstrated that the protection of sex workers required an ongoing commitment to the dismantling of settler colonialism.
Hamilton’s fierce advocacy for organizing across multiple issues shone through in her involvement with AIDS organizing. In response to British Columbia’s 1980s quarantine legislation, sex workers and drag queens came together with lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and others to fight it by forming the Coalition for Responsible Health Legislation, visiting the city’s fourteen gay bars on weekends to do awareness campaigns, mobilize, and to fundraise. Observing that, initially, it was predominantly gay men who were getting sick, Hamilton remembered thinking that “This isn’t right that they can be locked up and quarantined”, and noted that upon remembering sex worker’s “own battle,” having felt “this amazing connection of solidarity” (T48/8). Hamilton recalled thinking, “Like, we’re not going to allow our brothers, and then later women as well, to be treated in this manner. Because we remembered how we were treated, as well” (T48/8).
As a community mobilizer and organizer, Hamilton remained cognizant of the violent impacts of isolation on those for whom mainstream community organizing was inaccessible and unaccountable. In particular, Hamilton’s interview problematized the isolation of trans AIDS patients in Normandy Hospital, away from the broader LGBTQ community, which she observed was a key factor in their mistreatment. Hamilton recalled that
“Then at one point our trans community were – and I don’t know why this happened – they were being placed at, you know if they had AIDS, they were being placed at this private hospital way out in the West side on Arbutus Street called the Normandy Hospital. And it was awful … you know, I’d visit a friend or two in there, and it was just very alien for them, you know.” (T48/9)
She explained further that,
“Still to this day I don’t understand why. I realize there wasn’t much, but we could have worked together, put our heads together. And why Normandy Private Hospital was chosen as a rest home? It didn’t make sense. It was way out of the downtown core where our community is.” (T48/9)
In response to the isolation of members of the trans community, and the mistreatment and violence they were consequently subjected to away from the public eye, Hamilton began raising “awareness around trans issues and AIDS…,” simultaneously educating trans people on the use of condoms, while fighting their isolation by ensuring their inclusion in broader 2SLGBTQ AIDS organizing (T48/9). Her interview reflected her ongoing commitment to fighting isolation, ensuring that those sent to Normandy Hospital were included in the process of documenting AIDS activist histories.
Hamilton’s work against the isolation of trans AIDS patients was part of her broader commitment to resisting erasure, systemically as well as at the level of the everyday. She emphasized the importance of intergenerational dialogue and coalitions, underscoring the need for subsequent generations of activists to learn from and build on the work and strengths of their predecessors, stating that “I think you need to respect the elders, and learn from the elders” (T48/18). Hamilton’s resistance to erasure was driven by her deep commitment to maintaining active communities that are ready and mobilized to respond to new and ongoing attempts at all levels of systemic erasure, explaining that “at any time things can change, policies can change. We could have another quarantine legislation. We could be threatened with it. You just never know who the lawmakers are going to be… [sigh]” (T48/18). The urgent task for future generations is to learn from our predecessors—not solely to acquire the skills and tools needed to do anti-oppressive work, but also to learn to think collectively across multiple issues and generations in doing so.
Jamie Lee Hamilton was a vital force in building the sense of collectivity needed to resist so many attempts at the erasure of sex workers, Indigenous peoples, trans people, and broader 2SLGBTQ communities. Towards the end of her interview, Hamilton expressed that “We’ve lost so much of all that history. In a way, I’m happy that I got to be around it in the heyday. I just don’t want to see complete erasure” (T48/19). It is not possible to fully commemorate Hamilton in writing alone. What is possible, however, is her commemoration through action—that is, by learning from the wealth of knowledge she generously gave in words and in action, and using it to build and nurture the “connections of solidarity” that drive and sustain us (T48/8). Rest in power, Jamie Lee Hamilton.
Médecins de Coeur [Doctors of the Heart] is a National Film Board-funded documentary that focuses largely on Dr. Réjan Thomas, one of the co-founders of the first STI clinic in Canada in 1984. This clinic would become what we know of today as Clinique médicale l’Actuel in Montreal, one of the leading STI and HIV prevention and treatment centres in Canada. While the film builds its central narrative following Dr. Thomas to and from classrooms, clinics, and international conferences where he educates the film’s viewers about HIV/AIDS, activists and protests provide a rowdy backdrop to what is otherwise a somewhat monotonous two hours of talking heads.
Two other notable AIDS activist-related scenes in the film include: Douglas Buckley-Couvrette, who is remembered lovingly by many Montreal AAHP interviewees, leading an ACT UP Montreal demonstration commemorating the murder of Joe Rose; the Amsterdam VIII International AIDS Conference where sex worker activists launched the Global Network of Sex Work Projects—and in fact you can see a young Andy Sorfleet amongst the picketing sex workers in the footage.
Lastly, of note, is the constant discussion of the cost of medications to treat HIV and opportunistic infections. That is because this 1993 documentary precedes the 1997 Quebec national pharmacare program brought in by the recently elected Parti Québécois in late 1994. ACT UP Montreal launched a multi-year campaign to include HIV-related treatments under the maladies sur pieds social welfare program to no success under the then-Liberal Party provincial government. This program was designed to provide funding for treatments in order to keep people with chronic illness medicated so they wouldn’t constantly be at the hospital or in a clinic. The push to add HIV/AIDS to the list of illness treated through the the maladies sur pieds program likely helped in the push for a national pharmacare plan in Quebec, claims Michael Hendricks in his interview with AAHP.
Thirty years ago, in February 1988, AIDS ACTION NOW! convened its first public meeting. Arising out of a fierce and fabulous gay liberation movement that had already consistently confronted police violence and state oppression, their activist work has been absolutely vital in the fight for health justice in the Canadian context. At the AIDS activist history project, we have learned so much from interviews with activists in Toronto about the important early years of their work. George Smith was a vital part of that origin story, and we are delighted to lift up and explore a bit of his work in this feature.