New Plymouth
New Zealand/ Aotearoa
Pukekura Park Boatshed Lawn Taranaki AIDS Memorial Tree since 1 December 1998
without names
Taranaki memorial reclaimed as 40-year legacy of Aids crisis remembered
It is almost 40 years since Taranaki recorded the country’s first death linked to Aids. On World Aids Day, Deena Coster reports on how the disease, which touched all parts of the globe, has never gone away.

New Zealand's first death linked to a virus that has claimed the lives of more than 36 million people was recorded in New Plymouth in 1983. On Wednesday, December 1, which is also World Aids Day, the life of that young man, and others, will be remembered at a Pride Taranaki/Rainbow Youth-organised event at the Boatshed Lawn in New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park. It was historically the place where candlelight vigils were held to mourn and where, in 1998, a kōwhai tree was planted and a plaque unveiled in remembrance.

However, Pride Taranaki members Helen Lindley and Lisa Ekdahl only recently became aware of the memorial spot, and in preparation for Wednesday’s get-together park staff have tidied up the area around the plaque, making it visible again. Just as the memorial was rediscovered, Ekdahl said the event was a chance to highlight and honour the work others had done over the years to raise awareness about HIV/Aids.

New Plymouth MP Glen Bennett hoped the occasion would be a way to “reclaim the space”, celebrate the ground made regarding LGBTQI+ issues and promote hope that diagnosis does not end in death. “We need to talk about it to take away the stigma, so people can get help, and we can eliminate it,” Bennett said.

In the four decades following the first case of HIV (which untreated causes Aids or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) in 1981, the global death toll of Aids-related illnesses sits at about 36.3 million. Taranaki District Health Board chief medical advisor Dr Greg Simmons said there are 29 people living with the disease in the region. “While there is still no cure for HIV infection, with an early diagnosis and appropriate antiretroviral therapy most people with HIV will not develop any Aids-related illnesses and will live a long and healthy life,” Simmons said.

New Zealand Aids Foundation data said 162 people received an HIV diagnosis last year, the lowest figure recorded since 2012. Currently, 2839 people in New Zealand are receiving treatment. But for those newly diagnosed, stigma and discrimination still loom large.
In a 2020 Aotearoa/New Zealand People Living with HIV Stigma Index, 188 people, aged 20-75 years, were interviewed, with some describing how worries about others finding out about their HIV status resulted in them delaying a decision to start antiretroviral treatment. The report said three quarters of respondents either found it difficult to share their HIV status, while others hid it. It also outlined how some of those interviewed had high levels of “internalised stigma”, including feelings of shame, guilt and worthlessness.

For artist Fiona Clark, these feelings were all too common among the friends and community she spent time with in the mid-1980s. When HIV/Aids emerged in New Zealand, it was a time of great fear and paranoia, where people went to get tested at unmarked clinics or met in support groups using pseudonyms. “It was all really undercover.” With homosexual activity still illegal, prior to legal reform in 1986, Clark remembered how people were living a “closeted existence” at the time they were diagnosed. “All of a sudden they have to talk to families about their sexual identity.”

And with no cure or treatment, Clark knew of people who resorted to injecting high volumes of vitamin C to try and stave off the virus. Others downplayed it, she said, along with the dangers posed by unsafe sex practices. But what could not be denied was the reality of what getting HIV, and then Aids, meant back then. “It was a death sentence.”

The lives of four people coping with the diagnosis was the focus of Clark’s series of photographic albums, which form a body of work praised for being trailblazing in terms of covering LGBTQI+ issues. Called Living with Aids, the works are displayed like family photo albums, with the viewer having to touch and turn the pages. The 1988 work was released at a time when some believed HIV could be caught from shared surfaces, and the photographs were not well received, Clark said. But being able to document the lives of the four was a “privileged position to hold,” she said. One of the men wanted others to learn from his experience, and he pushed the message of safe sex. “It was like a political act for him. He had to speak out and leave that legacy.”

For Clark, there is still more work to do in this area. “There is still a lot of education about risky behaviour to happen, in all communities.” She is still contacted by people who have seen her photographs on show and recognise a long-lost relative. It was the first image they saw of their loved one as an adult after they were “disowned” because of their sexuality, she said. For Clark, who is going to the memorial service, it is this part of the story which should never be forgotten. “It should never happen again. Never, never again.”

The public event will start at 5.30pm on Wednesday, on the Boatshed Lawn at Pukekura Park. The wet weather venue is the Brian Bellringer Pavilion. Anyone is welcome to attend.

Photo © Vanessa Laurie Staff
A memorial plaque under a kōwhai tree near the Boatshed Lawn in Pukekura Park was first unveiled in 1998

30 November 2021
Deena Coster, New Plymouth