A summary of ACT’s history since its founding in 1983.
For nearly as long as HIV has been in Toronto, ACT has been here to help. Formed by a small group of community activists during the summer of 1983 as the AIDS Committee of Toronto, ACT was a response to the hysteria surrounding an unknown illness. Little was known about AIDS at the time, but a terrible stigma was attached to those who had it, and nothing was being done to help them.
Since then, ACT has grown to be Canada’s largest HIV service organization, benefiting from the devotion of its accomplished staff, thousands of committed volunteers and the many, many thousands of people living with HIV who have and continue to form the backbone of the ACT community.
AIDS had first entered public consciousness two years earlier, in the summer of 1981, as a “rare cancer” found in 41 gay men in New York and San Francisco. The first Canadian case was reported nine months later, in March, 1982.
A year later, epidemiologists began to warn about the potential for the outbreak to rapidly increase the number of AIDS cases in Toronto. In response to this and the growing panic, the Hassle Free Clinic and Gays in Health Care sponsored a forum at Ryerson that was packed, welcoming over 300 people to here from community leaders and look forward to what should be done. This forum would eventually lead to the founding of ACT.
Doug Elliott, a lawyer and one of ACT’s first board members, recalls when AIDS was little more than a rumour: “Like a lot of people at the time in the gay community in Toronto, I really did think AIDS was a remote American problem and did not have much to do with my life… what perhaps had been blown out of proportion by the religious right, who were using it as just another stick to beat up on the gay community.”
Gay men in Toronto were beginning to fall ill with AIDS. With little recourse to effective, supportive health care, they often died quickly. As local media began to publish more fear-mongering articles about AIDS, The Body Politic, a gay and lesbian news magazine in Toronto, decided to mount a response. Gay activist Michael Lynch and epidemiologist Bill Lewis began writing articles to counter the misinformation.
One of the first stories The Body Politic published about AIDS was titled “AIDS: discounting the promiscuity theory.” Written by Lewis, it was a radical departure from the messages provided by U.S. gay activists, some of whom were promoting the idea that men were overloading their bodies with common sexually transmitted infections through multiple sexual encounters. The theory went that this eroded their immune systems.
Lewis believed this was morality dressed up as science — bad science. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, hadn’t been discovered yet, but there was enough evidence to know that AIDS was being passed through blood and through needle use. If that was the case, it meant that a single exposure might be enough to spread the disease.
In March of 1983, Ed Jackson, the editor of The Body Politic, received a call from the Canadian Red Cross. The Red Cross wanted to know what message they could provide to people about AIDS and blood donation. Recognizing that much-needed leadership on the issue of AIDS in Ontario would have to come from civil society, Jackson decided to call a meeting. He invited Michael Lynch, lawyer Harvey Hamburg, Dr. Robert Coates, Robert Trow of Hassle Free Clinic, and five others.
At this meeting, this group of ten formulated a public statement about blood donations, but they also began to plan for some kind of entity that would provide ongoing support for people with AIDS. This meeting became, de facto, the first meeting of what would become the AIDS Committee of Toronto.