Positive Life NSW Blog

Tommy Murphy's 2015 Candlelight Memorial

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It is an honour to be asked to speak at today’s Memorial. I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to the Elders both past and present.

Image: Lit tea-light candles

“I love sex”. Sex is at the heart of the matter.

“I love sex” is how my Dad commenced his ‘birds and the bees’ conversation. I love him for that. “I love sex, Thomas”. What a way to introduce the topic? Sex is a happy, joyful, and wonderful aspect of human life. He did love it; I’m the seventh of eight children.

Within months of Dad’s advice, perhaps earlier, perhaps slightly later, my older sister, Prudence, stood over a newspaper at our kitchen table. I don’t recall her exact words but Prue relayed that by the time I was an adult ‘AIDS’ could wipe out my generation. I was eight. It must have been late 1987 because we moved house a lot and I remember skipping through the exposed brick archways of that particular home singing ‘let’s make it great in 88’. It must have been late 1987 because the newspaper spread was framed by an illustration of the grim reaper.

Under another archway of that home, I quizzed a friend of my eldest sister. She wore a motorcycle jacket and to this BMX rider she seemed hip to the know. I was doubtful of her claim that men could have sex with men. I demanded to know how. She eventually whispered ‘in the bottom, they do it in the bottom’. It turns out she was right.

The reaper, the advice that sex is something that you’ll love and the woman in the motorcycle jacket reside together for me in the 1970s architecture that prevailed in Queanbeyan in the 1980s. If you are of a certain age – especially if you’re gay or bisexual – the story of sex and HIV have always shared the same page.

Today we tell stories. Each name we speak by candlelight stands for triumphs and struggles, loves and losses, lives cut short, legacies enduring, stories concluded, stories still being written, stories told and stories that warrant being told again.

As playwright and screenwriter I had the privilege of telling and retelling the story of two names on today’s list: Timothy Conigrave and his lover of 15 years John Caleo. I adapted Tim’s memoir for the stage almost a decade ago and I have written the screenplay for the film version, which we completed this week.

They are just two of the names. There are countless more, far more than those uttered today. There are new names every moment. This is global. It still decimates the world’s poor. The story of HIV AIDS has many chapters. We have arrived at the one best titled: ‘Hope’.

It is an accident of the numbers that Tim Conigrave’s birth made his trajectory align with the turning points in the broader story of HIV AIDS. In the sexual revolution, Tim and John were at school, discovering sex for themselves. At university, Tim joined with activists who by the early 1980s seemed to be winning their worldwide fight against oppression. He spread his wings, intellectually, artistically and sexually.

For Tim, as for so many, the personal crisis of HIV drew the individual to collective action. The lessons learnt in gay liberation were mobilised on the new front. Tim had volunteered at uni for the Gay Helpline and upon diagnosis went to work at the AIDS hotline. He became deeply involved in the work of ACON, repurposing his skills as an actor to youth worker through the Fun and Esteem program. He also volunteered for TwentyTen and the AIDS Bus. Tim’s ultimate act of outreach was to write his book and alert his readership to the crisis from within.

The disease seemed to feed on the patients’ strength. It devoured the muscles of John the footballer. Tim, the actor and writer, developed toxoplasmosis that preyed on his brain. He fought back; he recalled it all vividly and he wrote it down.

The postscript to Tim’s book is the reader’s realisation that the work is published posthumously. Tim completed the memoir on his deathbed. He died ten days later. It was 1994, just short of the time when combination therapies became available and saved many lives.

The epidemic entered a new chapter after Tim’s death. Some have described it as ‘the long silence’. It was no longer as visible. There was fatigue with the issue. People newly diagnosed confronted accusations that they should have known better. Silence was easier.

There was a generation, my own, who reached adulthood relieved. The foreboding of that 1987 newspaper article had been wrong – or it was correct and sufficient action was taken. The worst appeared to be over. The incoming generation was accused of complacency. I don’t think that is accurate. We turn to these stories with a deep craving to know what happened so recently right here. We endeavour to understand the battle that was fought and the living history that endures because of it.

Now we have arrived at a new chapter. New words have appeared on the page: “undetectable”, “treatment as prevention”, “the third wave”, “Prep” alongside the ongoing primacy of condoms as protection. Writ large across this chapter is the ambition to end HIV transmissions by the time the decade is done.

Knowing your status is key to prevention and it has never been easier to get tested. Yet fear still makes us hesitate even when there are drop-in clinics across the city and you get a result in twenty minutes. Even in that concentrated time span deep-rooted anxiety torments many of us because of a long held policy of vigilance through paranoia. We must get over that and face facts.

The Grim Reaper was an alarm, sounded in an emergency. It worked. We led the world. The response here was swift. It was scientific and bipartisan. The government listened to those most affected and most in the know: the gays, the injecting drug users and sex workers. The Australian strategy and the expertise it fostered are now exported around the world.

Today’s twenty-minute test was, once-upon-a-time, a stretch of agonising weeks. For the men and women we remember today a positive result was a tragedy. We owe it to them to keep our privilege and our history in perspective.

The story of HIV AIDS has many chapters but there are two constants. The first is fear. The other constant, the rescue from the first, is community.

How do we combat HIV today? We tell the stories. We make ourselves aware. We honour the past to inform the future.

This year ACON marks thirty years of promoting awareness and supporting LGBTIhealth. They sit among a stable of organisations, like Positive life NSW, that extend a legacy of care and embody our community at its very best.

They include people like my mate Nic Holas. He was the Assistant Director of the original stage production of ‘Holding the Man’. Like Tim Conigrave, Nic Holas responded to his positive diagnosis as an opportunity to unite with others. He cofounded a peer-run group for HIV positive people and he named the organisation “TIM”. It stands for The Institute of Many. Conigrave lives on in more than the name. He is present in their mission for honesty – because HIV has always demanded honesty - and in their determination to be a provocative voice lest silence return. T.I.M. supports its members to live openly because it’s harder to be afraid of people living with HIV when you know one.

To finish where I began, T.I.M declares itself ‘a sex-positive environment, from the white bread to the WTF. No Shame’. It believes that pleasure through sex is integral to our lives and the health of our community. Me too. “I love sex”. Thank you.

Tommy Murphy, Screenwriter ‘Holding the Man’, May 2015


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