Bruce Burnett - AIDS prevention pioneer
Bruce Burnett (21kb .gif)
Bruce Burnett was born in Avondale, Auckland on November 16, 1954. His father was a carpenter, and he learnt carpentry and building skills from him. His sister Robyn remembers that he was "a bright boy" with "lovely curly blond hair" and was "a wonderful brother."
He went to Avondale schools, then studied architecture at Auckland University and gained skill at drafting, but did not finish his degree.
His interests were eclectic, with deep roots in the "growth movement" such as Co-Counselling. In 1980, he was a member of the Auckland Gay Men’s Alternative Co-operative with two others, Geoff and Peter. "The group sees one of the most important attributes of group members as awareness of self, other co-op members and the environment."
He read widely, annotating and highlighting. A supporter of feminism, at one time he used the spelling "womin". He wrote "[Lesbians] have more to gain from feminism [than from the gay movement] - sexual freedom is a small part of lesbian needs." But to an article in ReVISION magazine saying "the Great Goddess’s initiation reintegrate[s] the holistic vision of the feminine archetype" he added "What about [triangle]?" To a 1984 Time article "The Revolution is Over" he added "Media hype!"
He went to Europe to study cuisine and returned to become involved with three restaurants and cafes, including owning the Patisserie in Parnell, before setting up the Just Desserts cafe with Christine Hertzog in a derelict brick building in Airedale St, formerly The Island of Real. "He basically got it off the ground" Christine Hertzog says. "I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it without him. He’d had enough of food, cooking and dealing with the public by that time. He was getting ready to go overseas and had time on his hands and he could see I wasn’t going to do anything without a push."
"He was a wonderful cook" Kate Leslie remembers
In 1982 he moved to the United States, living in Berkeley and then in San Francisco.
From July to October of 1983 he took a course as a Shanti Project volunteer and passed with a glowing recommendation: the Project’s Executive Director, Jim Geary, wrote that he "brought a sense of professionalism, dedication clarity, maturity, sensitivity and humor. ... He has a wonderful ability to work well with a wide variety of people, and is a person I have very much confidence [in] and respect for."
He returned to New Zealand in November 1983 with swollen lymph glands and a persistent infection of the intestine, suggestive of AIDS - although when he told his sister about "this terrible new disease" he didn’t mention that possibility.
He flung himself into AIDS prevention work, "literally working out of a broom cupboard, on a PEP scheme" says Christine Hertzog. (PEP: Permanent - ie two-year - Employment Programme, Government funded)
He set up the AIDS Support Network (with Bill Logan and Phil Parkinson), tried to set up a clinic in Auckland, prepared volunteer counsellors, sent out leaflets, wrote for Pink Triangle, wrote to papers and television programmes that published misinformation, and searched for funding.
In August 1984 he toured the country with a one-man "roadshow" attempting to interest gay men in prevention and raise funds. A meeting in Hamilton was cancelled for lack of interest. Yet in Palmerston North, Paul Buckley remembers he "electrified everyone by announcing that he had AIDS, contracted when he was in the States. (I don’t know whether he used the word but the impact was the same as if he had.) 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."
He told the Auckland Star he thought he had contracted AIDS through sexual contact: "I have no regrets."
People asked Kate Leslie, "in the era when people didn’t want to shake hands with us, much less hug us, ‘How do you do for food?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘It’s wonderful: he cooks it and I eat it.’ That wasn’t what they were expecting."
A turning point in AIDS prevention in New Zealand may have been a speech he delivered to a venereology conference in Wellington on October 26, 1984. (The programme introduced him as "Mr B".)
"If any of you find homosexuality very difficult to deal with at this time, it would be better for all concerned if you moved out of the STD/AIDS area. ... In New Zealand homosexual acts are illegal. You do us a great disservice to ignore this fact." And he ended with a call for law reform.
In Wellington he held a weekend workshop in Turnbull House. Paul Buckley was there: "What impressed me more during this weekend was his use of humour and his warm smile. He ran things with a light touch that never threatened the seriousness of what we were learning. There now seemed to be a spiritual quality that shone through, of someone doing exactly what they knew they should be doing and at peace with themselves. On the last afternoon as we were breaking up I asked for and received one last strong hug from a very vital man."
Bruce Burnett continued to work at least until May 16, 1985. He died on June 1, aged 30. (His temporary contract with the Health Department expired the next day.)
He is commemorated by the Bruce Burnett Clinic in Auckland (his Quilt panel is in the US, and has featured on posters), but his true memorial has to be the many gay men alive and well in Aotearoa today as a result of his efforts.
"The real thing he wanted to do in the world was make his mark," Christine Hertzog remembers.
Thanks to Paul Buckley, Christine Hertzog, Kate Leslie, Bill Logan, Robyn (Burnett) Mihaere, and Phil Parkinson and Roger Swanson of LAGANZ. Special thanks to Wayne Otter of the Burnett Clinic for actually unscrewing their picture of Bruce from the wall and sending it to us for copying. Written by Hugh Young. .
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