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”.
In 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.