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Counting down to 30 years: remembering Bruce Burnett

Fri 12 Jun 2015 In: Hall of Fame View at Wayback View at NDHA

We’re readying for 30 years of Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand by marking some of the milestones along the way. This month marks 30 years since HIV prevention pioneer Bruce Burnett died. Bruce Burnett: an HIV/AIDS educator crucial to New Zealand's early response Bruce Burnett was an Auckland-born and raised activist who had been living in San Francisco when HIV and AIDS began to emerge among the gay population there. He returned home in 1983 to begin educating New Zealanders about what little was known about the ravaging disease, as the world scrambled for answers. Now-retired infectious diseases specialist Rod Ellis-Pegler has recalled to first meeting Burnett in 1983. “He had lived in San Francisco and had seen at first hand the ravages of this epidemic as young gay men there were dying in quite extraordinary numbers. He did not want to happen here,” he remembers. “Bruce and I talked a lot over the following months. My office was attached to Ward 9c, what was then the Infectious Diseases ward, and Bruce soon became the first coordinator of the AIDS Support Network, the precursor of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.” Burnett set up the AIDS Support Network with Wellingtonians Bill Logan and Phil Parkinson, prepared volunteer counsellors, sent out leaflets, wrote to papers and television programmes that published misinformation, and sought for funding. He toured the country attempting to interest gay men in prevention and to raise funds. At one meeting he announced he had AIDS, and as recalled by Paul Buckley to Queer History NZ: “suddenly the disease was made very personal and very close to all of us. He made an impassioned plea that we must act now to stop its spread in New Zealand. “Our view about AIDS could never be the same again. He raised our consciousness in a way a thousand pamphlets or radio bulletins never could. He made it totally personal." An early safe sex pamphlet Burnett also stridently called for homosexual law reform, seeing a clear link between allowing men out of the closet and ending discrimination and fear, and educating with facts about HIV and AIDS. Despite religious and political conservatives of the day ranting that legalising homosexual intimacy would unleash a tidal-wave of AIDS upon the nation, the link remained unbroken and government bureaucrats and the politically and socially aware even leveraged the fear of HIV to successfully promote law reform. Burnett had returned to New Zealand with swollen lymph glands and a persistent infection of the intestine. Ellis-Pegler had become his doctor and recalls, “he developed initially intracerebral lymphoma which rapidly disseminated around his body and he died very quickly, of course as a complication of the still undefined and undiagnosable HIV infection.” Ellis-Pegler says he came to admire Burnett's courage, both in health and in sickness. The hardy campaigner had worked up until just weeks his death in June 1985. It came shortly after the newly-formed AIDS Support Network (eventually to become the New Zealand AIDS Foundation) received its first Government grant of $490,000 towards staff, and for running a major HIV prevention campaign. One of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation’s pioneers, Tony Hughes, says because of the great work of people such as Bruce Burnett, the organisation started off with an AIDS support programme before there were many people who had the disease. Prevention was already being pushed, as it was clear to many like Burnett that HIV was sexually transmitted. Bruce Burnett continues to be honoured in the name of the NZAF’s Burnett Centre in Auckland, a testing and counselling facility. He was just 30 when he died. Listen to a Pride NZ podcast where Kate Leslie remembers Bruce Burnett here       Jacqui Stanford - 12th June 2015

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Friday, 12th June 2015 - 9:55am

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