(This article was originally published for World AIDS Day 2005. It is, with no modesty, the most powerful piece I have ever written. Written with love, it took me the longest time – about 2 months – to write. It is also the piece I have shed the most tears over. I received a huge amount of positive feedback from it, and nearly everyone who has read it has cried. I don’t know that the tears were over my stories so much, but rather that they had similar stories invoked by the writing. I have always hated the introduction to the snippets, and have taken this opportunity to totally rewrite it.)
Anyone who has been observing or participating in the Lost Gay (Insert your state) groups on Facebook would realise the immense value of collective memory. Writers, historians and archivists can churn out volume after volume on gay history, but nothing can match the real stories that come from individuals who lived within the community through its various phases. I personally submitted a tome of comments, stories, reflections and recollections – not to mention a plethora of photos – on other peoples submissions to the Sydney group. It was an energising, amusing, often happy, sometimes sad experience reliving what was, for me, a formative part of my life, and a period of gay history that was positive and empowering as a community.
No recollections of the 80s and 90s can skirt around or avoid the impact of HIV/AIDS on our lives. Indeed, reading through the groups posting on lost friends drove home the nightmare, the immense loss, the sorrow and the stories flowing from those of us left behind. It was a beautiful experience, and more than a few tears were shed. It also informed some of losses they had not been aware of. A friend of mine actually died during this period and his memorium was in real-time instead of being enclosed in the pages of a local paper.
HIV/AIDS was relentless and soul-destroying. There is nothing more helpless than being in the midst of all this obliteration and knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do. Many of us stood, stunned, and watched our entire social circle written off the face of the earth. It didn’t discriminate, it offered no mercy or compassion. Death and dying became an event that, even for those who left for nether regions, could not escape from. To write this piece, I have had to dig into photo albums not opened for years (with photos of groups of friends where not a single person is still alive), delve back into long buried memories. It was like a dam breaking. I cried, and cried and cried. Perhaps long overdue, it proved cathartic.
But the same question was being asked as I wrote – what of those who survived the carnage and live with its aftermath? However we have managed to come to terms with it, we are all scarred. Triggers are never far away – a photo, a memory, a casual conversation can produce a flood of emotion. So we learnt to tuck it away, to cope, to avoid. But how do we really feel about our survival? How do we place ourselves? What role have we adopted as a coping mechanism? Are we “long term survivors” (Like or lump the terminology)? Do we have “survivor guilt”? Are we in denial? “Victims of circumstance”? Or was it just “the luck of the draw”! Or have we found other ways to redefine ourselves! How ever we see ourselves there is one thing we can’t deny – we are the holders of all our departed friends memories,; the secrets that endeared them to us; their little irks and quirks. I have come to define myself as a Storyteller, and as a writer I could write tomes on all my departed friends lives, i could bash your ears for hours, and bore you to the point of sleep. But I won’t.
I have chosen the lives of three close friends to write about “in a nutshell”. This is not a biography about them. It is a random thought, that one thing that springs to mind when their name is invoked, that short story or snippet of their lives.
These are three people I love, three people I deeply miss. There memories are jewels in my mind, are stars at night. I hope they glow and twinkle for you!
Andrew Keith Todd
4 February 1962 – 26 December 1986
“I am white lightening and protecting you all.”
Andrew was, to give a modern comparison, a Hobbit. He would laugh uproariously if he knew I had drawn that comparison.
I met Andrew when I was the manager of ‘Numbers’ Bookshop, which was one of ‘those’ sex shops on Oxford St. He didn’t actually work for me, but for the ‘Hellfire Club’ – later to become ‘The Den Club’ – a Club 80-style sex venue next door to ‘Numbers’, both owned by the same guy. I can never recollect seeing Andrew when he wasn’t smiling, or laughing, or doing someone a favour. He was one of those easy-going guys who was liked by everyone. He was also one of the first people I knew to become seriously ill from AIDS. We knew so little about it back then that I don’t think anyone, including Andrew, was particularly perturbed. Over a period of about 6 months, we could see his health slowly deteriorating, weight loss being the most frightening symptom on someone his size. Shortly after that, his hospital stays started – or in his words, “just going in for a bit of a rest”. He was in and out quite regularly for the 6 months leading up to his death, with each outstay getting shorter and shorter. Several months before his death, the stay became permanent. There was no dedicated AIDS ward back in those dark days, so he would be placed in a ward for a while, then if the bed was required by someone else, he was moved down to A&E (St Christopher’s ward) until another bed became available. He had the dubious distinction of being one of our first HIV guinea pigs, suffering the discomfort of loads of antibiotics to try to help the PCP, and dozens of lumbar punctures as medical staff tried to work out how best to treat him. His back looked like a pincushion. By December 1986, we all knew he didn’t have all that long to go. Despite his constant good humour, his downhill slide was becoming more and more obvious. He looked dreadful! A Christmas lunch had been arranged by friends living at Glebe on Christmas Day that year. We called into St Vincent’s on our way there to deliver Christmas gifts to him. ‘I won’t die today,’ he said to me as we were about to leave. ‘I don’t want to ruin your Christmas’. Christmas lunch was a quiet, tense affair with everyone jumping every time the phone rang. But he kept his word. I had to work on Boxing Day – sex doesn’t recognise public holidays. The rest of our friends were at a party in Darlinghurst. I received a phone call in the early afternoon to say Andrew had died, and then had to put a dampener on the party with a phone call. There was a huge wake that night at “The Oxford’, the first of many to come. His funeral was held at Eastern Suburbs Crematorium, and at the exact moment that the curtains were closing in front of the coffin, every door in the crematorium chapel suddenly slammed shut.
He still managed the last laugh. In his will, he bequeathed me the books I had lent him to read in hospital.
Andrew was 24-years-old. He has no lasting memorial.
Stuart “Stella” Law
“Riding in my pink Cadillac”
My dear friend, how I still miss you! The mental image I have of you dressed in miles of pink tulle frou-frou, trying to not slide off the bonnet of that pink Cadillac as you were driven up Sims St in Darlo, to the sound of Stephanie Mills belting out “Pink Cadillac”, will stay with me forever. How we laughed! You were always such a ‘laydee’!
I had originally tried to pick Stuart up in ‘The Oxford’ one afternoon, but we had spent ages chatting, and the next thing I knew…we were friends. We proceeded to spend the next couple of years doing gutter drag together. How we turned this town on its ear! For those not familiar with the term ‘gutter drag’, imagine huge wigs, over-the-top make-up, miles of lurex and tulle, and body hair for days. Never one to shun the spotlight, he could be seen doing mime shows at ‘The Oxfords” Egyptian-themed birthday party in 1987, and doing an impromptu performance at my ‘Nuns, Priests and Prostitutes’ party in 1988. My dining table centrepiece was never quite the same after that performance. We did our last drag gig together in 1990. There was something wrong, and Stella wasn’t letting on! When he had to quit work, he finally told me he was HIV+. He became a regular at the ‘Maitraya’ Centre – a forerunner to the Positive Living Centre – and he was not one to say no to a free service! This was a bad period for all of us. In 1992, far too many died. Stuart was placed in the Sacred Heart Hospice. He looked as though he was just wasting away. I went to visit him one night, and lay on the bed with him, just holding him. There wasn’t a lot else we could do, even then. The hospice cat paid a fleeting visit. It came time to go, and I started walking towards the elevators. I remember this overwhelming compulsion to turn around. Stuart was watching me through the door, and suddenly I just knew that I would never see him again. I never did. He died that night.
Stuart’s life is celebrated on AIDS Quilt panel 057006.along with others from Maitraya
Geoffrey Gordon Smith
7 June 1943 – 9 June 1991
“The Sentimental Bloke”
.Famous for their ‘Port and Cheese’ parties, Geoff and his partner Steve were the Hosts Supreme, and entertained many of us in style from their converted shop in Glebe. Geoff was without doubt the last of the true blue gentlemen. With never a bad word to say about anybody, he always had a joke to hand out, a smile that never stopped, and was generous to a fault. Need to move house? Geoff would be there in a flash with his van. Need a lift? Just give him a call. At one function at their home, a stray cat suddenly appeared on the roof overlooking the yard. We managed to coax it down using Cabanosi and cheese, and noted that it was undoubtedly a stray, as it was very thin, and had some sort of skin ailment. Geoff spent all afternoon trying to shoo it away – if only he’d known that we kept coaxing it back with little tidbits. Later that night, Geoff rang me at home and said the cat was still hanging around the yard. A week later, the cat had been taken to the vet to get its skin cleared up, and had taken over one of the chairs in the lounge room. That was Geoff through and through. He and Steve as The Minister and Mrs Smith made several appearances at parties over the years. The minister was always well behaved, but Mrs Smith had some problems with the sherry. In early 1991, in an attempt to control the rapidly on-setting symptoms of AIDS, Geoff went to a quack – used in its literal sense – dietician, and was presented with a diet that was principally meat with little else. I didn’t really approve, as I couldn’t see the benefits of it, but Geoff insisted that theoretically it could work, so it was left at that. His health deteriorated quite rapidly from that point. I stayed over at Glebe after his funeral, and late that night Steve climbed into bed with me and cuddled up. ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do,’ he said. ‘I just miss him so much’. All these years along and he is still missed. I am privileged to have had a hand in helping to make his quilt panel.
His life is celebrated in AIDS Quilt panel 037004
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