Bobby Goldsmith passed away on June 18, 1984 at the age of 38, one of the first Australians to die from an AIDS-related illness. His achievements in life were rich by anyone’s standards, while the foundation begun in memory of that life cut short has proven a lifeline for thousands of Australians living with HIV and AIDS.
Born in Forbes, NSW, Goldsmith was the younger of two children. He trained to be a teacher, but this did not eventuate; like many young gay men at the time, he made the move to Sydney. Here he went to work at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and grew to love Sydney’s beaches, which, in turn, nurtured his swimming talents. At the 1982 Gay Games in San Francisco, this out-and-proud gay man cleaned up, bringing home no less than 17 of the Sydney team’s 21 medals.
Already popular and prominent in the gay community of the 70s, Goldsmith had now risen to a certain level of notoriety. But for his eventual partner, Ken Bryan, it wasn’t Bobby’s medals that caught his eye. “I was reading all about this person Bobby Goldsmith and I just thought, ‘Gee, he’s really handsome,’” Bryan recalled. Bobby asked Ken out soon after they met at Club 80 on Oxford Street. He brought a rose to their first date. They were an item from then on.
Meanwhile, changes were afoot in Sydney. The mid-to-late 70s transformed the queer scene through protest marches, the lobby against homosexual decriminalisation, activist groups like CAMP and GSG, and, most visibly, the arrests at Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1978. But in the early 80s, all the community’s progress ground to a halt. Gay men were being struck down by a strange new illness. GRIDS – later referred to as AIDS – brought with it fear, confusion and discrimination.
In 1983, less than a year into his relationship with Bryan, Bobby developed shingles. “We’d obviously heard about this thing from America that was coming over we had to be careful of, and one night we said, maybe we should go and get tested for this AIDS thing,” recalled Bryan. “I just knew, you know, that there was something wrong.”
When Goldsmith’s diagnosis broke, he experienced all the prejudice of the time: not just from broader society, but from within the gay community. The mainstream media was printing and broadcasting outrageous AIDS stories. Paranoia bred hatred towards people who, with little time to live, deserved far more compassion and understanding. Goldsmith suffered discrimination even at the hands of hospital staff, with friends having to clean the food left on the floor after mealtimes because staff were reluctant to enter his room.
Goldsmith’s health was deteriorating quickly. By 1984, there was little else doctors could do, and he returned home to live out the rest of his days. With a few of Goldsmith’s friends, Bryan organised a fundraising event at the Midnight Shift Hotel in Darlinghurst. Bryan’s humble hopes of buying a video player and a TV stand for Bobby’s room, however, were overwhelmingly surpassed when masses of people turned out in support. After Goldsmith’s death the extra money was put towards a foundation bearing his name that would provide practical, financial and emotional support for people living with AIDS for the next 25 years.
“In the height of the 80s and early 90s, people did not have long to live,” says the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation’s CEO, Bev Lange, “[We provided] televisions, refrigerators, blankets – very immediate things.” Between 1984 and 1994, BGF helped more than 1,400 people. Today, they assist more than that number every year. Donations and major fundraising events, such as the annual Bake Off cake auction and the Glam Stand seating at Mardi Gras parade, all bring much needed revenue into this unique Australian charity.
What would Bobby, who would have been 64 this year, think of all this? “His closest friends said that they thought he would be extremely proud,” says Lange. Daniel Nour