Peter Rowland: Remembering his HIV treatment legacy, 20 years on

Across the globe, June is pride month, celebrating the LGBTI community.

But recent events, including the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, have thrust issues surrounding homophobia back into the international spotlight.

In Canberra, the month marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of a doctor who dedicated his life to treating and supporting those living with HIV/AIDS.

Dr Peter Rowland was shot and killed on June 25, 1996 during a robbery at his Gundaroo home.

But for people who knew, worked or were treated by Dr Rowland it seemed the motivation was something very different: gay hate.

A doctor for everyone

As an openly gay man living in Canberra during the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Dr Rowland founded the Interchange General Practice above the Civic bus interchange in the early 1980s.

One of his co-workers Dr Denise Kraus said the practice gave Canberra's 'fringe-dwellers' a safe and supportive space.

"One of the things that I always loved about the interchange was its diversity," she said.

"[Dr Rowland] didn't just see little old ladies with blue rinses, he saw dignified gentlemen in sports coats too who played golf.

"I remember walking in once and seeing a prince sitting next to a pauper sitting next to a homeless kid, sitting next to a monk, and I thought this is just the sort of practice I'd like to work in.

"And it's remained very much the same."

Former patient Kenn Basham described the interchange as "a beautiful mix of people who weren't given the opportunity to be as dignified and proud as they wanted to be".

Another former patient, Richard Allen, remembered Dr Rowland as someone who went above and beyond for those he was treating.

"With Peter he was always there for you, always around the clock," he said.

Contribution to HIV/AIDS fight

Dr Rowland's ethos of equality and non-judgemental treatment became incredibly important to HIV-positive Canberrans in the 1980s.

Dr Tuck Meng Soo, who started working with Dr Rowland at the practice only months before his death, said Dr Rowland realised early on that HIV/AIDS was not an issue confined to the gay community.

"He was seeing lots of people with drug dependency, seeing lots of transgender patients, we were seeing sex workers, he just welcomed everybody," he said.

Early in Dr Rowland's career he boarded with Bill Bowtell AO, the former chief of staff to Health Minister Neal Blewett.

"I was with Peter every morning at breakfast over this couple of years and as the problems and challenges emerged, Peter would brief me and talk to me and we would discuss every day what was going on," Mr Bowtell said.

"I wasn't a doctor, and I had no knowledge of these things first hand, but there I was trying to coordinate and organise the advice that would be going from all sorts of people from Australia and around the world to the Minister of Health.

"Peter was tremendously useful as an unsung hero, if you like, but he had a way into influencing the development of policy, care, treatment and research."

'His death was devastating'

Two men stood trial for Dr Rowland's murder and it was found he was killed after he startled them while they attempted to rob his house.

In his sentencing, Justice Jeremy Badgery-Parker said there was insufficient evidence to prove either man had planned to kill Dr Rowland.

One of the men was sentenced to 17 years and nine months jail, the other 14 years and eight months.

Former patient Kenn Basham said the loss of Dr Rowland was keenly felt throughout the community that had been brought together by his kindness.

"[His death was] totally devastating in a lot of ways. For a lot of people, his influence was very far-reaching," he said.

"There were a lot of rumours flying around and it was hard not to listen to them.

"The basic boiling down of his death was a hate crime, two young homophobic men decided to kill someone because he was gay and because they thought he had influence.

"That was the world we were living in at the time."

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