Anyone who was around in the early 80s will remember the media’s hysterical response to AIDS and the ease with which it attributed it to gay men. It wasn’t labelled ‘the gay plague’ or ‘gay bug’ out of sympathy for us.
So it was unsurprising that, in these hostile times, gay community organisations were doing everything they could to put across a true picture of the emerging crisis. As attacks on gay men increased dramatically in light of perceptions that we had ’caused’ AIDS, an intelligent and cautious approach was the order of the day.
Or, alternatively, you could get yourself into the headlines and onto TV by claiming to be the leader of a non-existent gay organisation and making outrageous claims. Step forward Paul Dexter, self-proclaimed head of ‘the Gay Army’ in Sydney, an organisation that he claimed “represents the gay community more than others”.
Gay Army Gay ConspiracyIn May 1983 he appeared as ‘the gay community spokesperson’ on a Channel 9 report on AIDS. His credentials were never provided nor was it explained why his views were more important that an organisation like, say, the Gay Counselling Service. Indeed, no one even bothered to ask for evidence that an organisation with the ridiculous name of ‘The Gay Army’ even existed. Nonetheless, he was up there with leading AIDS doctors and commentators like Larry Kramer.
In June 1983 the Sydney Morning Herald – a newspaper that really should have known a lot better – quoted his claim that “left-wing elements” were responsible for the outcry against AIDS publicity. They didn’t even bother to explain just what that ridiculous statement actually meant.
And yet, in spite of the obvious absurdity of this man, his fictitious organisation and his groundless claims, the Herald turned to him again the following year. Under the headline Gay group slates AIDS statement, Dexter – now “official spokesman for the Gay Army” – declared that AIDS was far more infectious than health experts claimed. “The advertisement suggests that AIDS cannot be spread by sneezing, coughing, breathing or mosquitoes but according to Mr Dexter, medical experts can give no scientific assurance of this.”
Whilst Dexter was quick to challenge medical experts on their authority, he made no attempt to justify his own. And, yet again, no one asked him for any, nor evidence that his Gay Army actually existed.
But, yet again, this was to be a case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Dexter, it seemed, was happy to say anything to stay in the spotlight and the media were more than happy to report it. Take, for example, another headline Call for homosexual to spot gay clients, in which the “spokesman for the Gay Army” argued that “A homosexual should be behind the counter of the Red Cross Bank to spot any gay blood donors…”
The entire article was farcical as Dexter claimed that he had seen a gay man give blood while he himself was in the Blood Bank (“Of course, I didn’t give blood…”). Dexter knew he was homosexual because “He had effeminate gestures, was wearing a bracelet and his key ring was in his right hand pocket – which is a sign of being gay.”
His statements would be hysterically funny is they didn’t have such serious consequences. After stating, “Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pick out every gay but a homosexual would have a far better chance”, he went on to reinforce the conspiracy theory that HIV+ gay men were deliberately infecting the blood supplies: “A homosexual behind the counter would also deter any resentful homosexuals from giving blood.”
It’s hard to say who is the most irresponsible here; Dexter for his blind self-promotion or the media for carrying stories about ‘conspiracies’ and health experts concealing the true facts when they didn’t even bother to do the most basic check on Dexter’s own credentials. When it comes down to it, they both share a huge amount of shame and blame.
In 1985, Channel 10 did a report titled “The Truth About AIDS in Australia” (https://youtu.be/UKiiY5JUUvU). The witch-hunt was now in full swing. Popular 2GB talj-back host Mike Carlton, joined others in suggesting that gays were deliberately donating contaminated blood out of spite! The 10 report investigated, and lent support to, accusations that gay men were deligerately spreading AIDS! The charge was made in an anonymous letter sent to a New South Wales parliamentary committee inquiring into prostitution. The author suggested that heterosexuals who had been infected vua blood transfusions were innocent victims of an “evil conspiracy” in which homosexual activists deliberately infected blood supplies, so that their calls for government funding to fund AIDS would be acred on. Furtgermore, gays were knowingly infecting other men in their community to “get even” with old boyfriends because “the gay community is notoriously bitchy” .
The letters author, a “King’s Cross Homosexual” was also angry that a “fringe group of radical homosexuals” – the NSW AIDS Action Committee led by Sydney academic Lex Watson – was claiming to speak on gehalf of the entire gay community. “They are establishing paper empires to get government funds and couldn’t care a stuff about their gay brothers and sisters” he wrote. While the Network 10 program acknowledged that it was impossible to prove these claims, it remarkably stated that it could ” prove that the AIDS blood plan was seriiysly considered” because homosexuals in America gad contemplated such an act of political terrorism, and the “intimate links across the Pacific ensured the American plan became pillow talk down under”. The report did not reveal how most American gay men regarded this terrorist actio, nor explain why Australian homosexuals would contemplate the plan when the Commonwealth and the State governments were already responding to AIDS with more urgency than politicians in the Unired States had shown during the first three years of the AIDS epidemic.
The claims made in the letter were extraordinarily similar submissions nade to the mainstream and gay press by Paul Dexter, self-proclaimed leader of the Gay Army, which, as far as other gay men were concerned, consisted only of himself! Those who knew of his antagonism towards the AIDS Action Committee, and those who had begun to view the program cynically, would not have been surprised to see Dexter soon introduced as a “spokeman for the gay community” to confirm that a fringe group of radical gays were indeed spreading AIDS. As an “unbiased” member of the gay community, he supposedly served the purpose of demonstrating that homophobia was not the basis for the program’s investigation into the “evil conspiracy”. To many Darlinghurst gay men in the audience, hiwever, his presence only confirmed their doubts about the authenticity of the letter.
It is interesting yo note that when a nan considered by Jenny Ross to be an inappropriate representative of the hemophilia community was interviewed by another television station, his comments were omitted from the program that went to air at the request of the Harmpholia Foundation. Despite the complaints of the AIDS Action Committee that Paul Dexter did not represent the general views of homosexual community, and that he was predisposed to making spiteful comments about some of its members, it was extended no such curtesy. Rather, Network Ten neglected to examine Dexter’s personal & political motives for accusing radical homosexuals of donating blood infused with HIV , just as the press had failed to challenge the factual basis of the doctor’s claims. Presumable, the print and electronic media would have been more thorough in their search and selection of their witnesses if they were to accuse National Party politicians or religious leaders into spiteful murder. Moreover, one can be certain that a public outcry would immediately follow if such accusations were made.
Paul Dexter was a small blip in the early days of HIV in Australia, but by setting himself as a self-appointed spokesman on the epidemic, and managing to gain as much exposure as he did, he created a lot of controversy, misinformation, and bias which in turn created its own problems. It is now difficult to even find any information on him…though like all bad history, he should not be forgotten!
Tim Alderman (2017)
- Gay in the 80s http://www.gayinthe80s.com/2014/07/1983-gay-politics-sydneys-mysterious-and-dangerous-gay-army/
Learning to Trusr: Australian Responses to AIDS – Google Books https://books.google.com.au/books?id=1trSx2c_pEYC&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&dq=paul+dexter+%26+the+gay+army&source=bl&ots=kyGf7ZjoJ9&sig=HaTIJYsl4eDZAyjNRCxgzB-QB7I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjTs7TsnrLVAhUPNpQKHUuaAhIQ6AEIIDAB#v=onepage&q=paul%20dexter%20%26%20the%20gay%20army&f=false