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Opinion: Honouring Bruce Burnett is the right move for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation 

Today, the New Zealand AIDS Foundation has a new name, Burnett Foundation Aotearoa. It signals a shift not only in strategy for the foundation, but also a recognition of its legacy and founder. 

When I was coming out in the mid-1980s in New Zealand there were two big issues facing my generation – the AIDS epidemic and Homosexual Law Reform. In reality, they were intertwined with one another. The epidemic was killing thousands of gay men around the world, and this country was feeling its impact as well. 

AIDS was used by both opponents and supporters of homosexual law reform, and the issue was one of the crucial deciding factors in the outcome.  Those who were implacably opposed to decriminalisation raised the spectre of disease running rampant as a cudgel in their attempts to scupper the bill. 

Those backing the law change knew the only way of stopping the epidemic was to remove sodomy from the statute books so that men who have sex with men would come forward, test for HIV, and seek treatment. 

Eventually, reason prevailed and in mid-1986 homosexual sex acts were decriminalised. This allowed the nascent New Zealand AIDS Foundation the freedom to reach out even further into a traumatised community. 

The organisation, initially called the AIDS Support Network was formed by a group of dedicated volunteers, both gay and straight. Their leader was a young gay kiwi health worker called Bruce Burnett. He had spent years in San Francisco, helping care for those living with and dying from AIDS. 

He knew firsthand the trauma and danger that comes when governments, politicians, and even health services, ignore illness due to prejudice. 

In 1983, he returned to New Zealand.  He was living with AIDS himself and was determined to make a difference here by creating a nationwide support organisation for those living with the virus.

To be ‘out’ in 1983 took courage, and even more to admit you were infected with HIV. It was a time of huge angst over the epidemic. There was little information, and virtually no support for those infected. There was also a great deal of prejudice against gay men, and especially those with AIDS. As the law reform period began in 1985, the hate-filled and disgusting vitriol aimed at gay men intensified. 

Bruce’s courage and determination spearheaded a truly national effort within, what was at the time known as, the gay community. So many people joined the fight, both queer and straight. They lobbied, donated time and resources, and literally set up the structures that were needed to help blunt the epidemic, and support those who needed it. 

Now almost forty years later, Bruce Burnett’s legacy and vision mean that New Zealand has one of the lowest HIV infection rates in the world. Yes, we lost many of our community to the epidemic, but it could have been so much worse. 

Bruce didn’t act alone, he was supported by countless other people who kept the vision going after he died in 1985. But he began it, and we can all be grateful. 

In a time when AIDS is not the feared killer it once was, new strategies and ways of promoting health and wellbeing amongst the community centred on the New Zealand AIDS Foundation are needed and are happening. 

Renaming the organisation Burnett Foundation Aotearoa is a fitting tribute to the brave man who launched it, and who epitomised the values of courage and compassion that were sorely needed in those early days of the epidemic in Aotearoa New Zealand.  As the foundation moves into a new future, they have wisely chosen a name that acknowledges its proud history. 

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