Archiving HIV/AIDS in Melbourne

Adapted from an article by Michael Graf and Russell Walsh Michael in UMA Bulletin : News from the University of Melbourne Archives : Issue 35, December 2014. The full article is available here. 

Collections held at the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) offer insight into the partnerships between government, health professionals and Melbourne’s gay community, during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Australia. 

1979 saw increased visibility and social acceptance for gay men and lesbians, evidenced by the fifth National Homosexuality Conference taking place in Fitzroy. But that same year, Terry Stokes, a University of Melbourne student, was arrested in Collins Street for kissing another man. Stokes’ subsequent eviction from Graduate House prompted Julian Phillips, then Senior Lecturer in Law, to act as his legal counsel. Primary documents from the Julian Phillips Collection outline the controversial details of the Stokes case and its repercussions within the University and across Melbourne. 

 Professor David Penington, a clinical haematologist and the University’s Dean of Medicine, held key national positions during the early years of the epidemic, including Chair of the AIDS Task Force. His collection not only offers candid insights into decision making at senior levels during the crisis, but also indicates in its vastness the scale of the tasks facing government, health professionals and affected communities at the time. 

Colour photograph of John Foster and Juan Cespedes sitting side by side with their arms around each other.
John Foster and Juan Cespedes, c.1980, John Harvey Foster Collection 1997.0085 unit 5.

The John Foster Collection provides an intimate perspective of the gay community in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s. Foster, a Lecturer in History at the University, wrote the widely acclaimed Take Me to Paris, Johnny, a sober account of his relationship with dancer Juan Cespedes, a Cuban refugee whom he met in New York in the early 1980s. Cespedes came to Australia to live with Foster before dying of AIDS in 1987. Foster also died of AIDS in 1994, a year after his account of Cespedes’ life and death was published. UMA holds a large body of Foster’s and Cespedes’ papers, many of which describe the complications of Cespedes’ illness and eventual death. The Foster Collection also includes several drafts of the book and copious notes.  

Ephemera from the John Foster collection, including Juan Cespedes’ ballet shoes, 997.0085

Michael Graf is a Melbourne based visual artist. 
Russell Walsh trained in art history at the University of Melbourne. His doctoral research in Performance Studies was undertaken at Victoria University. 

Further reading: 

Transmissions: Archiving HIV/AIDS, Melbourne 1979-2014 https://www.afao.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/TRANSMISSIONS-and-Vital-Signs-A-glimpse-of-two-exhibitions-staged-during-AIDS-2014.pdf 

“When kissing was a crime” by Andrew Trounson, University of Melbourne, 2017 https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/when-kissing-was-a-crime 

“There has been us”: John Foster and Juan Cespedes
https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/librarycollections/2021/06/28/there-has-been-us-john-foster-and-juan-cespedes/ 

Homosexuality and the University of Melbourne, Graham Willett and Kathy Sport 
https://archives.unimelb.edu.au/resources/subject_guides/homosexuality-and-the-university-of-melbourne  



Conducting historical research through digital archives, courtesy of the ‘Scan & Send’ service

Noreen Minogue, early 1980s, Photographic series, (Control: AX36 PO4822), Australian Red Cross – National Office, University of Melbourne Archives

 

I recently completed my research thesis as part of the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) degree at the University of Melbourne. My thesis title, “The Inspiration Given To It By Women”: Noreen Minogue, Australian Red Cross, and the Development of International Humanitarian Law”, gives an indication of the nature of my historical inquiry. Considering the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the academic community, particularly for those whose research depends on physical access to archives and university spaces, I was fortunate to be able to complete my thesis at all. Countless students and researchers owe a great debt of gratitude to the Archives team and the ‘Scan & Send’ service at the University of Melbourne, who made our research and contributions to the academic literature possible.

The ‘Scan & Send’ service is a wonderful example of innovation in education and archive collection management. From 2020, a skilled and dedicated team of archivists and technical experts digitally scanned and sent materials to the University community. Though this process certainly posed different resourcing requirements and labour disciplines for the team, the service revolutionised access to historical materials for students at the University. In this blog post, I hope to share a few reflections on my experiences completing a research thesis relying entirely on digital records.

Adjusting to digital research and the importance of building strong relationships:

For those used to poring over papers, photographs, documents, and materials from physical record collections, the transition to working with digital archives via ‘Scan & Send’ poses a challenge. I certainly missed the sensory experiences of examining dusty parchments, the thrill of physically discovering and holding important documents which shed new light on the past, and the camaraderie of working within an academic community in person.  The Archival team were incredibly helpful (and patient) with me on my learning curve, as I wasn’t particularly adept at navigating archives in the first place. Email, phone calls, and infographic explainers were helpful to generate a deeper understanding about the system and processes to successfully conduct archival research through solely digital means.

Requesting materials:

Finding, requesting, and accessing digital records proved to be a more challenging process than when we were able to physically attend archives or reading rooms, where issues that arose could be trouble-shooted or worked through in person. Given the time-critical nature of the research and the significant workload on the Archives team, I found it particularly effective to triage materials by prioritising tranches of materials for the archivists, using the highlighter function on Excel. Having identified the priority boxes and materials, it was then a matter of requesting them via the request management system Aeon, where after the relevant records were scanned by the digital team and sent via CloudStor (a cloud-based file management system for researchers).

 

File Management:

The Archives team sent me large quantities of material. As such, it was crucially important to download and store these big and extensive files in an accessible and secure way. I used Google Drive to back up my files and sync them to my desktop, which allowed me to make digital notes, highlights, and comments on the archival materials as I progressed through them. File management is incredibly important. My advice: ensure you keep a master list of all documents you have on file, and correspondingly name the document files so that that they are easy to find and reference in future against the master list. I kept a ‘research log’ in Google Sheets, which included all critical information and high-level notes about the item numbers and materials I processed for easy reference.

Wellbeing, Reading and Writing:

Reading and taking notes on such large quantities of digitised archival records can be intimidating at first. It’s important to look after yourself while doing so, by ensuring as far as possible that you have access to an ergonomic chair, desktop monitors, and that you take regular breaks from the screen to preserve your eyesight and concentration. I found it helpful not to read the digital archival documents like a novel – i.e. end to end – unless I absolutely knew it was something that would be useful to my avenue of inquiry, which I discerned through headings and scanning paragraphs. Using the ‘control+f’ function to find key words worked on certain PDF formats, and saved a lot of reading time. Given the large quantities of digitised archival records, I found my research was ultimately a lot broader and deeper than it might have been from in-person research, and that I was able to process materials more quickly than usual. The most critical aspect of reading and research is taking well-referenced notes so that you can trace your materials back to the original source. Take down the file number, item title, and page number at a minimum to ensure you have everything to hand when it comes time to writing your thesis, referencing, and developing your bibliography.

Although moving to digital-first archival research is certainly a significant adjustment initially, I eventually came to enjoy the economy and flexibility of the process, which enabled me to tell a unique story using archival records that had not been previously utilised. There are certainly challenges to the digital-only approach, but these were outweighed by the goodwill and cooperation of the digitisation team, researchers, and supervisors.

Nick Fabbri

Nick Fabbri works and volunteers at Australian Red Cross in Emergency Services and is a part-time law student at the University of Sydney. He writes and podcasts at www.nickfabbri.com


A Public and Private Life: June Barnett

June Barnett and Kay Keightley, c1950s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

June Barnett was the daughter of a Methodist social reformer who in the 1930s campaigned for improvements to Melbourne’s inner city slums. June joined the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Airforce in the late 1930s. During the war while still in the auxiliary she joined the Communist Party and was active in the Party branch at the University of Melbourne where she studied after the war. She resigned from the Party when she took up a post in the Australian Public Service in Canberra in 1948.

In 1953 she reported to ASIO that a Party functionary had approached her with a request to steal documents for Russia. She was then made a witness at the Petrov Royal Commission into Soviet spying, although she never disclosed the name of the person who approached her.

Reminiscences of travels to Spain, c1980s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

She stayed in the public service and became one of the first women to be posted overseas as an official member of the diplomatic corps, when she was appointed to the high commission in New Zealand. She was active in the campaign for equal pay for women public servants.

Her life is documented in a small collection of six boxes predominantly made up of the records of her decades-long relationship with her partner Kay Keightley – including hundreds of photographs, travel documents, correspondence and, finally, the cremation certificate for Kay. Alongside these are correspondence relating to the Royal Commission, documents from her public service career and a few marriage proposals from prospective male suitors.

It is somewhat rare to hold such a complete collection of a long-term lesbian relationship that dated from the period before homosexual sexual relations were even legalised, let alone accepted by broader society. The shape of the collection seems to suggest that even in such a public and eventful life, for June her relationship with Kay was a constant and central focus.

Telegram to June Barnett, c1950s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

Finally, back to records that tease the researcher with bygone meaning, is a photo album of June’s time in the WAAAF, that contains a photograph of a naked woman presumably about to go swimming, and what appears to be cross-dressing party costumes. A lot has now been written about queer sexuality and gender identity in the armed forces in World War 2 (see the references below), and much of it speaks to the need to interrogate sources. Evidence of queer sexuality was often suppressed because it was thought to cause embarrassment. What evidence remains tends to focus on male same-sex relations.

WAAAF album, c1940s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

WAAAF album, c1940s. June Barnett collection, 2011.0020

The WAAF photo album in June’s collection may be read bearing in mind her later relationship. Also the very act of inserting a photograph of nude women in an otherwise fairly predictable album speaks of an intentionality that should not be ignored. But what more might be said?

So, even a collection in which queer sexuality is quietly but confidently commemorated there are questions that endure, the answers to which might be said to remain private.

References

June Barnett collection

Graham Willett and Yorick Smaal, ‘‘A homosexual institution’: Same-sex desire in the army during World War II’Australian Army Journal, vol.10 i.3, 2013

Yorick Smaal, Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939–45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Andrew Stephens, ‘A secret history of sexuality on the front’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 DEcember 2012

Frank Bongiorno, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History, Black Ink Books, 2014


“There has been us”: John Foster and Juan Céspedes

From 1970 until 1993 John Foster was a lecturer in history at the University of Melbourne, specialising in German and Jewish history. He met Juan Céspedes, a dancer and refugee from Cuba, in New York in 1981 and the two began a relationship the same year that the first reports of young men contracting PCP and Kaposi’s Sarcoma in Los Angeles and New York foreshadowed the AIDS pandemic. The two men battled prejudice, immigration restrictions and differences in class, race, language and age to bring their lives together.

Ephemera from the John Foster collection, 1997.0085

Juan died of AIDS in Melbourne in 1987 in his early 30s. As Juan lay dying, he despaired at his life, telling John “I have accomplished nothing” to which John replied “There has been us”. In that spirit in the seven years he had left, John wrote and published a memoir of Juan called Take Me To Paris, Johnny.

The memoir won acclaim, with literary critic Peter Craven calling it a “literary masterpiece…Unparalleled in Australian letters…Makes most fiction, here or elsewhere, look paltry by comparison”.

The John Foster collection is another memoir to their relationship; intimate in its materiality. It includes two pairs of Juan’s ballet slippers, a recipe book written by both of them, and more. It is full of the ephemera of a relationship.

The collection, and of course the publication document a tragic time that shaped the gay community in Melbourne and across the world irrevocably, not least because they evidence the love and longing on which that awful disease fed and spread.

Feature image: Juan Cespedes ballet slippers, John Harvey Foster collection, photography by Peter Casamento, Casamento Photography

References

John Foster, Take Me to Paris, Johnny, (2nd edition) Text Publishing, 2016.

John Rickard, ‘On John Foster’, Australian Book Review, no.381 May 2016

Peter Craven, ‘Introduction to Take Me To Paris’, Text Publishing blog, 2016


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