After I agreed to tell my story on the Staying Negative website I starting having second thoughts about exposing my life in public. But I went to see the stage version of Holding The Man recently: and it brought back so many memories of that time that I felt I had to do it. I lost a partner to AIDS too. So, here goes!
I was born 1941 in war-torn Europe. My family moved around a lot during the war and when the bombs stopped falling we found ourselves in the American occupied sector of Austria. We were classified as DPs (displaced persons) by the United Nations and spent four years in International Refugee Organisation camps in Austria and Italy.
We came to Australia in 1949 and spent two years at Cowra Migrant Camp before settling in Canberra where I attended St Edmund’s Christian Brothers College. After leaving school I first worked in the Public Service and then as a buyer in a department store. I also had fun and adventure in the RAN Reserves for four years; it was either that or do "nasho" (national service) in the army for six months.
I left Canberra in 1964 at age 23 and spent the next ten years working in the, at that time, infant computer industry, in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney; during that period I had two serious relationships. I returned to Canberra in 1974 at age 33 to spend another eleven years there studying full time for my degree and working at two of the universities.
In 1985, after an emotional drought of more than thirteen years, I fell in love again. So at age 44 I moved back to Melbourne to be with him. And I have been here ever since, but it turned out to be more without him than with him.
The first time I had sex, I was 15 and he was 19. It was at a wedding: he was the groom’s brother. I was bored and sitting outside with a drink I’d managed to grab. He came up and sat next to me and after a while started talking about sex. It literally got to, "You show me yours and I’ll show you mine". We went to the toilets at the back of the reception centre. It was just mutual masturbation. We tried anal sex but we were both inexperienced and it wasn’t successful. It was exciting, because it was my first time, but it was frustrating as well because we couldn’t accomplish what he thought we should be doing. I was terrified that someone would find out. I think I stopped going to confession after that!
The second time.
The first time I really had anal sex I was 16. He was 21. I was at Central Railway Station in Sydney. It was about 7.30pm: I was killing time before going to the pictures browsing through a copy of Adonis at a newsstand.
Adonis was this funny little pocket-book-sized magazine full of grainy black and white photos of men modeling in ridiculous posing pouches. It was called 'art' - they weren’t promoted as gay magazines, because you couldn’t call them gay in those days, but that’s what they were. It’s amazing how many well-known actors of the late 1960s and early 70s regretted ever posing for that magazine in their younger days. There were some gay novels around in those days as well, cheap pulp fiction, but they all had to end tragically, with the gay person getting killed or the relationship ending in some disaster, in order to get past the censors.
Thinking back, there would have been predatory guys hanging around that newsstand just looking out for someone like me (16yo, crew cut, 28 inch waist, naïve country boy) to come along and start poring through Adonis! This guy came up to me and said something like, "Great mags aren’t they!" and we started to chat. My undeveloped gaydar went PING!
We went back to his place and he gave me a pornographic story to read that had been typed out on a piece of paper and probably passed on from one person to another – that’s what it was like in those days. It got me all excited; he jumped me and I spent the night there.
That was that.
It changed my life: I felt completely different afterwards but he just hustled me out in the morning and that was that. I went home to Canberra and it took me more than a year before I was picked up again: I just didn’t know where to go or what to do.
A year or so later I was picked up for a third time. He was great; he was a corporal in the New Zealand Air Force attached to their High Commission. He would have been about 22. I was in a cinema in Canberra watching a film of the opera - Eugene Onegin – not the sort of thing many 18-year-old straight kids would be going to! The cinema was almost empty. He came and sat next to me and started rubbing knees. It was thrilling because I knew what was going to happen next. We went back to his place, where I helped my country in cementing foreign relations. I never did see the end of that damned film, so if anyone has a copy...
That was the beginning of my blossoming. I started to meet people in Canberra after that and have a real social network. Things were very closeted in those days with very few people identified as 'theatrical' at mixed parties (that was the polite euphemism used by straights), There were frequent small gay parties with the same two-dozen or people at every gathering, but because I was the youngest I had first dibs on any ‘new face’ in town!
In the old days in the larger cities, if you were young and cute, you’d build social networks through going to a bar and standing outside with a couple of bottles of beer under your arm on a Saturday night and you’d get invited to a party – that’s how you did it. The bars would close at 10pm in those days. And then you’d go to parties with 50 to 100 people at them. They were in private homes.
And if you weren’t cute? You’d have a cute friend and you’d be a package deal! And that’s how you’d have sex: you’d pick someone up at the party and spend the night with them and do the same thing with someone else the next weekend. If you wanted sex during the week you’d go to a beat, but it’s much more pleasant to meet someone at a party. It’s a big rush to chat to someone and realise he likes you. It’s the thrill of the chase!
My first serious relationship.
My first serious relationship was in Perth; it lasted nearly two years. He was the best catch in Perth – I always go for quality! He was 22, very good looking, blond, a great dancer. The first time I saw him he was dancing on a coffee table to ‘River Deep Mountain High’ at a party in nothing but a pair of cut-off jeans: I fell in lust straight away! We dated for a month before we had sex; I really enjoyed that. I think I was scared that if I had sex with him he’d take it as a one-night stand and disappear forever.
I told a few members of my family that I was homosexual when I was in my late teens; I had to tell someone. When you realise you’re gay you just want to tell everyone, well I felt that way. I told a school friend, an aunt and a cousin. That was no big drama; they were like, "Who gives a shit?" And my aunt wanted to know if it was ‘tighter’ with men than it is with women; I told her I had no basis for comparison. After that initial rush of liberation I started to develop a (unreasonable) fear of rejection and sort of went back into the closet for more than two decades. However, I’ve been very lucky over the years that no-one I’ve been close to or worked with has been homophobic or abusive towards me.
During the 1980s, when I was in my forties, I decided to come out of the closet completely, so at a family dinner I announced that I had something to tell them. My brother said: "What? That you’re gay? Oh we’ve known for years, we just thought if was polite not to mention it until you were ready talk about it". I had to come out because I needed a security clearance for a government job. It was OK for employees to be gay so long as they weren’t secretive about it, as that would have made them vulnerable to blackmail.
When I was 22, in the early 1960’s, I attended a very social party in Canberra. There were a lot of important people there including cabinet ministers. I met this interesting little 19-year-old number there – I don’t know who invited him, but there were plenty of queens there.
A Canberra social dragon.
I dragged him upstairs to a bedroom and we proceeded to engage in displays of mutual affection. Unbeknown to us, one of the Canberra social dragons had gone upstairs in search of a toilet and popped her head around the bedroom door and saw us in the act. We were so engrossed in what we were doing that we didn’t even know she’d seen us. She was so shocked she ran downstairs screaming and told everyone what she’d just seen.
When we had finished and returned downstairs to the party no-one would make eye-contact with us; everyone suddenly seemed to have found something absolutely fascinating on the wall to stare at - seventy or so people were all looking at the walls! The host grabbed us and dragged us into the kitchen, a taxi was called and we were told to go home. I had no idea what was happening. A couple of days later the host summoned me to a fireside chat, told me what had happened and thought perhaps Canberra was too small for me and that I should move to a bigger city.
Australia’s Christine Keeler!
You see, homosexuality was still illegal in those days and my little tryst had caused some concern to members of the Cabinet who were at the party. About 70 people knew it had happened and, if it ever got out later that that these people were aware of it but hadn’t reported it, it might have embarrassed the government. Some unkind person referred to me as Australia’s answer to Christine Keeler! After that little incident I moved to Melbourne; Canberra was just too small for me apparently!
Actually, I left Canberra in a completely unrelated blaze of infamy: I organised a couple of commercial teenage dance parties (they were called ‘stomp parties’ back then) at the YWCA Hall. I charged 7 and sixpence to get in and ended up with two Corey what’s-his-name type party riots on my hands – you know, 500 kids rioting in the streets, police cars, the works! The Canberra cops put a ban on my holding any more parties after that, so I came to Melbourne to lead a quiet life. If you don’t believe me just check the newspapers from early 1964!
Moving around – and this was before HIV – I was able to have lots of sexual partners. I’m lucky that the only thing I ever picked up was crabs. I’ve had them probably five or six times. The first time I had them I thought, "What the hell’s going on?" My flatmate, who was a lot more knowledgeable, sat me down on a piece of newspaper and sprayed me in the crutch with Mortein!
Long before saunas opened, there were always beats. There were open beats, parklands and shrubbery. You’d know where to go by word of mouth. I have been poofter-bashed twice over the years, both times at beats. The first time it happened I was waking through Rushcutters Bay Park at about one o’clock in the morning when I came across three sailors – as one does - sitting on the grass drinking. I joined them, lured one of them away from the others and had sex with him.
I went back to the other two and lured a second one away. Just as we started having sex, he and the third guy bashed and robbed me. The first one was practically crying and apologising while they were doing it. The moral of the story is don’t be greedy!
The second time I got bashed was at Manly during the day. I’d been cruising at the beat on the beach and I was just leaving a stretch of coastline when a bunch of teenagers punched me, threw me to the ground and stole my money. They were calling me poofter while they were doing it. This was like four o’clock in the afternoon.
The only reason I’m not HIV positive is pure bloody luck. I moved out of Sydney at just the right time – I had just moved to Canberra to do a full-time degree. Given the kind of things I used to do in Sydney I probably would have caught HIV if I’d stayed there; but living in Canberra there just wasn’t much action.
Back then it was that mysterious disease from New York. There were all these crazy explanations that people invented about it - that it started from a bowl of contaminated peanuts in a bar in New York, for example! Maybe it was something that amyl did to your blood – we just didn’t know.
In the 1980’s we were all anxious to find out what was causing HIV. Within a year or two, though, we all knew how it was passed on - from semen to blood. We started exercising precautions in about 1985 – using a condom for anal sex, I mean.
I had my first HIV test in 1985. I fell in love with a man based in Melbourne. I tidied up my affairs in Canberra and moved to Melbourne and then he told me he was HIV positive. I was shattered. I went to have a test and it was negative. From then on I have had a test once a year; I’m still HIV negative.
When they called me in and told me I was HIV negative I just broke down and cried because my being HIV negative complicated the relationship. I wasn’t afraid but he was so terrified of passing it on to me - even with protection - that we split up after about three or four months; it was just too difficult for him. Boy, did I carry a torch for that guy for a long time.
Five years later when he became sick we moved in together again and I looked after him for a couple of years until he died. Before I moved in I went to have a chat about it with Dr Norm. He asked me if I knew what I was letting myself in for. I said: "Yes". As it turned out, NO I didn’t! It was soul wrenching and a challenging experience; but once you commit there is no backing out. Although I had no idea of what was really letting myself in for it’s amazing how humans adapt to circumstances and learn that the mind can adjust to almost anything. I grew to feel privileged in being given the opportunity to look after him. Some of his last words to me were: "You know I really do love you".
Shortly after that my oldest friend got sick and I was looking after him three or four times a week for several months: there were three or four of us doing 24-hour shifts. I was with him when he died.
By the late 1980’s HIV stopped us in our tracks. People I knew were having less casual sex. ‘Friends with benefits’ became important. I started to have less sex. If anyone wanted sex without condoms, I walked. Even though most of us had friends who’d died of AIDS and were very aware of it you’d still get strangers who weren’t – men from the country, or closeted men who didn’t identify as gay.
In the 1990’s I almost stopped having sex altogether. I just couldn’t reach a climax – sexually it was an emotional block. There were just too many losses from AIDS. I was getting older as well, but that decade of losing so many friends put such an emotional weight on me - and I really felt that guilt that many survivors felt. There were sick people everywhere; it was terribly depressing. I was looking after these people but I wasn’t looking after myself.
I was about twelve kilos overweight. I actually had a stroke and a heart attack in the 1990s as a result of all that stress. After about five years of more or less living in a cave I started going out again. I decided to get healthy. I started getting out and volunteering: I was involved in the Film Festival, in Red Ribbons, the Quilt Project and I joined the Gay Rights Lobby. I’ve been a volunteer for over ten years now. Volunteering put me in touch with humanity again.
The last few years, staying HIV negative hasn’t been very difficult - once you reach a certain age, you know! From time to time I go to a cruise club. I’ve tried ads in the paper and it’s just not good.
I think I’ve had sex only once through a newspaper ad, and I don’t feel comfortable using the Internet. When I went overseas a couple of years ago I got in touch with quite a few people through Gaydar but out of that came only one sexual experience; although I must admit it was fucking brilliant.
Probably less than 20% of the sex I have at SOPVs is anal sex. The other times it’s just oral or mutual masturbation. I always use condoms for anal sex, without a word being said. There are two very memorable occasions when the other person was adamant about not wanting to use condoms: once I walked out and the second time he walked out in anger because I said no. Good riddance, I hate having sex with idiots! I don’t discuss my HIV status with casual partners and I don’t ask them theirs. We just assume one of us is positive to be on the safe side. Given what I’ve been through there is no question of engaging in unsafe sex.
I’m retired now. Looking back, the AIDS epidemic has changed my psyche completely. I look at life differently now; I hope I’ve become less self-centered. I’ve had a very interesting, eventful and full life, I have experienced deep sorrow, but I have had times of great joy and I’m determined to enjoy the rest of it.