This article was first published in the Queer issue of “Vertigo”, the student newspaper at the University of Technology Sydney in 2002. It was published “as is”, though I have edited and cleaned it up since.
I’ve spent most of my life sitting on the sidelines of a radical’s playing field
It’s not that I’ve never had opinions; it’s always been more a matter of having different opinions, and a strong urge not to end up affiliated with the unpopular (read losing) team. So, I’ve shut up and put up where I shouldn’t have; sat back and listened to endless tirades of bullshit sprouted by individuals who have no idea what they are talking about; held a glass to the wall while the downfall of sanity was planned in another room; and watched people selling off or ignoring the weight of sane idealism. White-collar elitists undermining the structures of a blue-collar world!
Perhaps I could carry on like this; perhaps I could continue to use my soapbox as a storage devise for my now unused vinyl collection; arse-end my megaphone and convert it into a vase; or start a petition to sue the growers of marijuana for being inept at keeping me (us) permanently stoned. Nothing can change the fact that these days, I am getting fucked off by just about everything going on around me, and fucked off by having allowed myself to keep quiet for far too long.
When I crashed out of the closet in the early 80’s – at the grand old age of 25 – it was into the perfect environment for a potential dissident – the gay liberation movement. Yeah, let’s hear it for gay rights! Sure, if you can find the time between checking out the latest bar, and keeping your cock in your pants long enough to fight the good fight. Naturally, I sympathised with all the boys out there trying to make life easier for us, and sure, I had an opinion. I just didn’t want the opinion to stand in the way of a good time. Oh, I did write a letter to ‘Campaign’ (newspaper, not magazine back then) defending the rights of guys to look like clones if they wanted to – and accused those who didn’t like it as being ‘cloneophobes’. Nothing like inventing a word! Did I ever feel guilty about this lack of radical action? Sure I did, as someone yelled ‘faggot’ at me as they drove past in a car, or I read in the latest gay rag about the increase in gay bashings in the local ghetto. I even determined that I was going to the next rally, or the next kiss-in, or signing the petition that was sitting in my local pub. The problem was that I had to manage to get past the pub door, or get up before midday, or say no to a bit of trade to accomplish any of these things. So I left it for those guys to do. You know who those guys are! They are the ones who wander from club to pub with the petition that you should sign, but never seem to remember. The guys who always had their photos in the gay papers, as they tried to rally a community to action. The guys who always had letters published in the same gay rags, defending us all against the rantings and ravings of the vocal minority, who saw fit to hold everyone ransom to every other standards of morality than those we accepted as right. Yep, those guys! I admired them, I supported them, fucked if I wasn’t even just a teensy bit envious of them for being so out there, but I mean…I was just a 25-year-old male bimbo with a life to burn. I’m sure they understood!
So, the 80’s passed me by. I never did get to any of the gay rights marches, or the kiss-in arranged by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on the steps of government house, or the first march, that political pivot point, that was to become Mardi Gras. I did, however, manage to work my way through three relationships, got the clap no less than four times, and found myself trapped in a frantic lifestyle that generally left anyone caught in its vortex an alcoholic, a drug addict, or dead! Even I, from my ivory tower of intellectual snobbery, sprouted from a bar-room stool, should have foreseen the next chance at radicalism – a bigger stage that I could have acted from, another soapbox to yell rousing, unrhymed verses from, finding uses for milk crates other than what we annually used them for – viewing a parade!
No, not even I foresaw HIV. No one knew the devastation, the heart wrenching desolation, the sheer bloody mindlessness of this pandemic like those of us in the middle of the fray. Behold, another opportunity was handed to me, and still I sat back, still took the easy road, still tried to pretend that tomorrow I would do something, tomorrow…
Sure, like many others I put up the pretence of radicalism. I joined the fringes of the AIDS groups, at least long enough to say that I had done my bit, I shouted members of ACT-UP a drink if they happened to be in the same bar as me after a demonstration; I unfolded quilt panels; attended auctions to raise money; visited the sick and dying in hospital; ranted, again, that everybody was doing something except those who should; then took myself off to the local and again, got my priorities right from my bar stool in the corner. Let it never be said I didn’t have an opinion – it was just aimed at the wrong ears. When I realised it was no longer good enough to fight this battle this way, it was almost too late, and the white-collar elitists had almost kidnapped the whole epidemic to their own benefit.
There is nothing quite like a degree, nothing quite like a network of those in the know to give people a sense of wisdom beyond that of everyone else. It was time to act! Enough of pub politics, opinions whispered into the crotch of the latest bit of trade, the mind numbing importance of yet another drink – like I really needed it – or another joint, or another tab of acid. Life leeching away at the speed of the next line of coke. I had a frightening experience – I got ill. I had another, more life altering experience – I survived the illness. I had the most frightening experience of all – I got older! When I think of all the frightening things that have happened in my life, perhaps the latter was the most frightening of all. Years flying past at the speed of light.
So, like Lazarus, I arose from the dead, marched from the hospital ward and back onto the streets. It’s too late, I kept thinking to myself. It’s too bloody late and you’ve missed the fucking boat. But no, it’s not too late. In an age of complacency and burn-out, there is time still for a yet-to-be-a-has-been radical. I find myself at a rally in support of equal age of consent for gay and straight men, not quite comprehending what makes one sector of the community more irresponsible than the other in terms of sex. All I really find is that the era of great radicals has passed, and no one seems to be moving up the ranks to fill their Doc Martens. The rally leaves me feeling flat, wondering where all the great bullhorn vocalists have gone! Even the turnout is small compared to those of the 80’s. There was no value in rallies and parades anymore. As far as these forms of radicalism go, perhaps I have missed the boat.
I join the underground world of working groups, sub-committees and networkers, and at last started to find the missing flame of righteous indignation. The written word is something I am more than proficient at, and my letter writing on anything from ugly McDonalds advertising to condom use – and misuse – becomes prolific. I discover the hidden world of ‘the article’, and start to churn them out by the zillions. I discuss, initially, disease and its impact on life, but soon find myself drawn to the palliative issues of illness, and how best to survive in a world that barely recognises your existence. Public speaking is my next step up in this alien world, and I suddenly start to realise that it is not too late to be a dissident. You just need the right soap-box at the right place and the right time. Being there when something is happening doesn’t mean that you have to act on it. Sometimes, coming in through the backdoor can be much more beneficial.
Now, as I enter the noughties, I am finding the dissident gene that I thought was missing for so long. I joined groups, both community and university orientated, and feel that in some small ways, I am making a difference. Perhaps more importantly, I am no longer just focused on the smaller issue of HIV, but see potential for being a voice in all areas of disability. What achievements and benefits I obtain for myself I also obtain for others, and vice versa. Make a difference? You bet your balls you can. Shout, yell, scream, demand. Send emails and annoy people until they are sick to death of the sight of you. By the time they reach this stage, they are willing to listen to what you say. Be patient, be diligent, be aggravating. Trust me on this. I do it regularly, and yes, things are happening – perhaps not as quickly as I would like, but they are happening. In many respects, it has given me an alternative view. I used to wonder what the attraction was – name in the paper, photographs at rallies, police record – and like most others, I thought they really just craved attention. Now, when I see a set of stairs being marked so vision impaired people can see them clearly, when I see adverts for note-takers in lectures for the same people, when lighting is fixed in badly lit areas, or just an advert in a lecture about a disability meeting in a faculty, I know what it was that they obtained from all their vocalising and protests. It is that feeling of having done something for the greater good, and that is something you can do whether you are 16 or 60, gay or straight.
Feeling peeved? Pick up your soapbox. Find a patch of grass or asphalt big enough for a captive audience. Raise your megaphone high…and SCREAM!