Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reviews Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb
12:01AM GMT 03 Nov 2003
How do you pick out a gay man in a crowd? According to Dr La Forest Potter’s Strange Loves, published in 1933, “the average homosexual” differs from “ordinary men” in 10 easily identifiable ways: he has “large, easily aroused nipples”, “a mincing walk”, “sloped and rounded shoulders”, “thick, luxuriant hair”, “a hairless chest”, “soft, delicate skin” free of manly spots, a lack of “dogmatic energy”, a “peculiar swinging motion of the hips” due to anatomical defects in the spine and pelvis, “a considerable deposit of fat in the region of hips, breasts and thighs”, and – the clinching clue – “feminine buttocks”.
Clearly the author of Strange Loves was a little peculiar himself (how could he know that homosexual nipples were “easily aroused”?), but he is hardly an isolated figure in the troubled history of 20th-century attitudes towards homosexuality. From Raphael Kirchner’s 1908 German handbook, How to Recognise Homosexuals, to the two-page guide on “How to Spot a Possible Homo” published in the Sunday Mirror in 1963 (“shifty glances”, “dropped eyes”, “a fondness for the theatre”), it has long been popular wisdom that “one of them” is easily distinguishable from “one of us”. Whether seen as a choice or a compulsion, in everything from lifestyle to hairstyle, the assumption has been that homosexuality is a secret that simply cannot be kept. It is as if the world had been told that the root of “homosexual”, “homos”, is Greek for “same”, meaning that there are men who fall in love with other men, and had misunderstood it to mean that homosexuals are all the same.
Recently, much of the blame for this sorry state of affairs has been laid at the door of the Victorians. According to the most popular line of argument, although there had always been same-sex activity between men, only during the 19th century did the exclusively homosexual person emerge as a distinct social type. Both as a word and a concept, “homosexuality” was a Victorian invention. From the doctors who attempted to diagnose homosexuality (Ambroise Tardieu claimed in 1857 that the telltale signs in men included a corkscrew-shaped penis and a large bottom: “I have seen one pederast whose buttocks were joined and formed a single, perfect sphere”) to the politicians who attempted to legislate against it, the 19th century gave birth not only to “the homosexual” but to the repressive social forces that continued to echo through the 20th century.
This, at least, is the version of events, much influenced by Michel Foucault’s writings on sexuality, which is dutifully wheeled out by most histories of gay life. But then, Foucault was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good theory and, as Graham Robb’s revisionist account proves, the truth was rather more complicated and a lot more interesting.
Almost every page of this book reverberates with the sound of stereotypes being flattened. For example, the assumption that the Victorians were repressive in their attitudes towards illicit sexual behaviour hardly squares with what was accepted and even celebrated. Consider the case of “Fanny” Park, a drag queen arrested for using the ladies’ room at the Strand Theatre, whose acquittal on sodomy charges in 1870 – secured by his solicitor, the wonderfully named Mr Straight – was loudly cheered; or the tight-trousered rent boys (“mollies”) who were an established tourist attraction in both London and New York; or the odd couples, such as the “married” artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, whose unconventional households attracted some notoriety and a great deal of indifference.
Indeed, for a love that supposedly dared not speak its name, homosexuality was a surprisingly noisy part of Victorian life, less a subculture than a parallel culture that ran alongside and occasionally ran into the heterosexual mainstream. Even Jane Austen, who was hardly in the vanguard of permissiveness, allowed herself a sly joke about gay sex, when Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park discusses her knowledge of admirals: “Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”
Not that the 19th century was an oasis of tolerance and good sense. Most gay men and women remained strangers to the society that had the power to ostracise them or lock them up. Many also remained strangers to one another. It could be hard to recognise a like-minded soul, and Robb has some moving examples of the tactics needed to sound someone out about their sexuality, simultaneously leading on and backing off, without risking rejection or assault.
Even if this hurdle was overcome, there was no guarantee that two gay people, like any other two people, would have anything to talk about. Oscar Wilde cannot have been alone in finding it hard to reconcile his ideals of a pure Grecian love with the pimply youths he took to bed, like the two Cockney lads Frank Harris recalled seeing him with at the Café Royal, talking about the Olympic Games. “‘Did you sy they was niked?’ ‘Of course,’ Oscar replied, ‘nude, clothed only in sunshine and beauty.'”
Perhaps inevitably, such public displays in the period are rare; the history of Victorian gay life is less one of explicit confessions than it is of flirtatious hints and glimpses. Fleshing out these details into a rich and satisfying narrative, Robb is an ideal guide to the period – unfailingly intelligent, compassionate and discreetly witty.
His earlier biographies of Hugo and Rimbaud showed that he has a sharp eye for the way that real lives tend to resist the neat shapes we impose on them, and Strangers is crammed with statistics and anecdotes that succeed brilliantly in changing what we thought we knew about homosexuality, both then and now. In seeking to explain some of the messy and unpredictable workings of love, Robb has produced a rare thing: not just a book with ideas, but a book with heart.
How to spot a homosexual: A step by step guide – 11-07-2010, 04:56 PM
Homosexuals are amongst us. Every day, they discreetly pollute the Good Lord’s Earth with their filthy ways. Luckily, me and Dimitri, at the Domnino League Against Sodomites, have compiled a list of data that will assist you in telling whether your closest friends are secretly queers.
Eating and Drinking:
Whether at the bathhouse, drinking beverages (in appropriate amounts, as prescribed in Timothy 5:23) in the company of fellow Christians, or simply eating lunch on the truck roads of northern Siberia, eating and drinking habits of those within your group of friends will reveal whether or not they are Closetfags™. Foods consumed by men:
Anything with more than half a pound of meat.
Anything fried or deep fried.
Anything pie-like of the appropriate size.
Anything hunted/skinned yourself and cooked by your wife and/or daughter(s).
Foods consumed by homosexuals:
Anything that comes in small, faggy portions (Sushi, “Cocktail Snacks”)
Anything with a foreign name (Especially if in French)
Anything that is shared with other men (Tapas)
Drinks consumed by men:
Wine (Only if you are depressed. Wine must have a pronouncable name to avoid being mixed with “Faggy wine” [See below] ) Proverbs 31:6-7
Spirits (See Wine)
Beer (See Wine)
Anything produced by the Coca-Cola Company, except drinks which reference fruit. These are considered “fruity”, e.g. homosexual beverages.
e.g. Coca-Cola Cherry.
Drinks consumed by homosexuals:
Cocktails (Notice the name!) – Not a proper drink. Any drink that is a mixture of two or more normally separate drinks is considered a cocktail.
Faggy Wine – Wine made outside of own country, probably in France. The name is distinctly not-English sounding and the label will most likely have pictures of men holding hands.
Homosexuals can often be caught out by listening to their conversation.
Conversation Word Limit
Men talk to exchange information. If any man exceeds the standard limit of 20 words per minute (Unless he is recounting a glorious story of conquest, preaching or praying), he is surely a homosexual.
If you fear you are nearly exceeding this limit in daily conversation, try the following tricks:
* Cut down on words like “Sure.”, “Okay.”, “Nah.” and replace them with indistinct grunts, or glares in the general direction of the person with whom the conversation is occuring.
* Ignore questions, then reproach them for asking you the same thing twice.
Topics of conversation suitable for men;
Comparing engine/tyre/gas tank sizes
Car/truck/van mechanical problems
Comparing your current events (Awful times) to similar events occuring 1/5/10/20 years ago (Good, Holy Christian times)
Your wife/daughter’s inability to cook/clean/etc.
Most recent [manly sport of your choice] game.
Women (In appropriate Christian fashion)
Topics of conversation considered homosexual:
The Weather (In a positive manner):
e.g. “The stars are so beautiful today.”
‘Famous people’ you haven’t heard of.
Anything that uses the word “Gorgeous” or synonyms.
Indepth descriptions of sexual activities with other men.
Anything that is prefaced with “You’ll never guess what I saw in Vogue today!”
* In public toilets, a man uses a urinal next to your own.
* He often walks like a cowboy, but you have never seen him ride a horse.
* When you take a shower, he looks through your bathroom window.
Please add to our list if you find anything that is miss. Dimitri & I work very hard and will update once we discover more about this plague. If you suspect you have homosexuals in your neighbourhood, please seek professional aid and do not go outside alone.
Tim Alderman 2015
A 1985 fluff piece by Adam Carr for “Outrage” magazine. Adam was visiting Sydney to report on Mardi Gras, and was a friend of my boyfriend at that time, Damian Guy. We were living in Kellett Way in The Cross at the time, behind a strip club. He came to visit us for dinner, and the next thing we knew…we were an article! Again, a lot of editorial license is used, and it is quite a funny piece. For the record, there was NO pink in the flat – it is one of my hate colours – and NO mantelpiece of tiny ornaments lol. For the sake of identification, Damian became “Shane” and I became “Tony”. We had no idea he was writing it, and the look on my face when reading it in Outrage, and the dawning on who it was about, must have been priceless.
This is an interview on “life” with HIV that I did back in 1987 with “The Bulletin”. When I read it now, I cringe, as it seems so naive. The reporter, whose name I can’t remember now, knew absolutely nothing about HIV…or the gay lifestyle! As you can tell, his grasp of it was no better after talking to us, and editorial license is in full bloom, with distortions, misrepresentations, and fact twisting the order-of-the-day. However, the thinking of the time is evident if you read between the lines. At two years after official testing was introduced, none of us really expected to survive. It was party, party, party! At this time, I had already lost several friends. It was very scary times. Just part of my lived history now.
Tim Alderman (C) 2015
This poem contains strong gay sexual content.
Please DO NOT READ IF SEXUAL CONTENT OFFENDS
If you are not offended the password is 4590.
Your thrusting flesh inside me
The pleasure only for me
Your mouth all over my body
Sweat pores down over shiny skin
Hair drips on face
Testosterone aroma pervades the air
I pummel into your body
I suck the love from you
Together in unison we cum
An ecstatic explosion of sex and pleasure
Male to male
As I watched the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade wend its way up Oxford St, I paused for a second of reflection as I saw the group for PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) marching up the street under the PFLAG banner. I admit to a tinge of envy as I pondered how proud both the parents and the children must feel at being able to express them selves so easily, and be so comfortable with each other’s sexuality.
This is not a privilege I have ever known with my own parents. Growing up as I did through the fifties and sixties, my parent’s generation was not given to liberal attitudes, and the prospect of having a gay son in the family would have meant automatic exclusion from the family unit, a prospect not many of us would have favoured. During the 70s, I had amongst my friends several gay men. Though not being out myself at this time, I enjoyed their company, finding them a constant source of amusement with their camp witticisms, and enjoying many social occasions at their homes. On the one occasion when one of them came visiting at home with a group of friends, my father told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was not to cross our doorstep again. This was only one of many rifts between my father and myself over the years. Thankfully, I was old enough to stick up both for myself and my friend, though making sure I did not ‘out’ myself.
My mother had left home when I was eleven years old, and shortly after my brother was killed. My mother accepted guilt for this happening right up to the present. She used the classic “well, maybe if I’d never have left…”, which is pretty inconsequential at this stage of the game. My mother was also part of the homophobe generation, though she seemed to have had little compunction about buying me dolls as I grew up, on the proviso that I never told my father.
My father killed himself in 1978, and I moved to Campbelltown with my stepfamily for a short period of time whilst the legalities of his death were sorted out. I accidently ‘outed’ myself to my flatmates when, on packing a bag for me to take down to my father’s funeral, they encountered some gay porn hidden in the drawers at home. So the cat was out of the bag in respect to that subject – at least with them. They weren’t particularly shocked, but told me I should tell my mother, who I had reconnected with only a short time earlier. The reconciliation with my mother had been shaky at best, and with her having remarried a man who reminded me very much of my father, I wasn’t really prepared to tackle the issue of being gay.
The opportunity came in 1980 when I went to live in Melbourne for a couple of years. I kept contact with my mother, and my old flat mates. While living there, I came out with a bang, and made short work of catching up on the life I had been denying myself, for all of my mature life.. There is nothing quite like the freedom you get from being far away from everyone you know. The flat mates kept telling me to be honest with mum. I kept putting it off. When mum found out I was gay, it wasn’t me who told her. My flat mates accidentally outed me.
When I moved back to Sydney, I never really set up an intimate relationship with my mother. I think all the years apart had played a role in distancing me from her. Anyway, she had established a life of her own with Ray, and produced a daughter. If we weren’t distant enough already, eighteen years between my half-sister and myself certainly didn’t help shorten the gap. I never really felt comfortable at their home in Toongabbie, and over the years my visits got less and less, until they were finally reduced to nothing more than phone calls. I did attempt a single reconciliation, and had my doubts about its success fulfilled . Over a very nice lunch in the city, a situation where I thought the two of us could discuss the issue of gay like mature adults, I gave up after having to sit through the old “it’s my fault you are like this…” line. I realised then that we were beyond reconciliation. But the saddest aspect of it for me wasn’t her inability to accept me as a gay person, but the fact that she would never really know me, the person I was, or the person I was to become. I wasn’t even really sad, just angry that she just would not accept things as they were.
In 1996, I became very ill, and ended up in Prince Henry Hospital, with a prognosis of about two weeks to live. However, new drug regimes and a lot of Capricorn stubbornness and determination turned the tables in my favour. I was released from hospital, and a whole new era of my life began.
My mother knew nothing of any of this. She knew nothing about my brush with death, nor the numerous operations I had over the next couple of years to try to save the sight in my eyes. She knew nothing of the thousands of injections I had been given, the litres of blood taken, or the 150 odd tablets I took every week to stay alive. Nor did I want her to know. Her reaction to me was that it did not exist. She lived in a vacuum- packed little suburban world, and things such as ‘gay’ could never break through the seal of that vacuum. Perhaps the saddest part of this was that she never got to be involved in my new life. She knew little of my community work, nor of my battle to return to work, of the success I was making of my writing, and my continuing attempts to reeducate myself so I could move in new directions. I felt particularly disappointed when I was given my UTS offer, and knew I could not share it with her.
The crunch came at the end of 1997. She had been having a number of tests, and had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. I thought it was terrible, but was still recovering from my own battles with ill health. She was admitted to hospital to have her bladder removed, and it came as quite a shock to me to find out she was there, as my step father never notified me. I rang him at Toongabbie to enquire about her health. He shocked me by demanded that I go out to Westmead and visit her. It was Christmas Eve, and I refused. I slammed the phone down. I knew he would go to the hospital and create a scene, whether I went to visit or not. As far as he was concerned, I should have been the loving, doting son. I wasn’t, and couldn’t be. I rang mum in the hospital, wished her a ‘Merry Christmas’, and that was the last time we ever spoke. She has never rung me, I have never rung her. I feel sad that it had to come to this, but I don’t have any regrets.
I envy those people walking up the street because they know how to love and accept what is. It may have been a battle, they may still not understand what it is all about, but they support their children in the most dynamic way, by walking up that street and declaring their support in public.
It was perhaps an odd anachronism that my partners’ family was more accepting of our relationship than my parents could even have considered. I have been accepted into their household, and I’m treated every bit as part of the family, though we are no longer together.
But I still wish that my parents had just taken the time to try to understand, not to be necessarily all over me about it, but at least accepting of me as being their child no matter what my sexuality. They have never allowed me the privilege of feeling like I ‘belonged’ to them in any sense of the word.
I know only too well that when my mother dies (if she hasn’t already), there will be no one to call me and let me know. To me, that is perhaps the greatest sadness of all.
I am not a misogynist! This piece is set in a particular period in the late 80s/early 90s when anti-discrimination laws were being set in place that brought about irreconcilable changes to the gay scene as we knew it! The attitude to women invading what had – to then – been male spaces was real, angry and palpable. I hope my female readers don’t take it to heart.
It was always dim in The O – as The Oxford was affectionately known – irrespective of the time of day, though at times like this, it could be an advantage. The twilight lighting helped to cover up dark bags under the eyes, and always made people look a little bit younger than they actually were. The DJ was in cocktail-hour-mode, and James looked up to see who was playing as he passed the DJ box. Patti Labelle’s ‘Oh People’ was playing, and James winced slightly. This track always reminded him of funerals these days. He moved to a table near the Oxford Street window, where Stewart was already ensconced.
‘God, I still feel like shit!’ Stewart muttered as he got up and headed to the bar. James smiled at his mate as the schooners were placed down,
“Cheers!” Said James, and they clinked glasses, then taking a sip of the beer..
Stewart looked like shit, though he got away with it by being casually dressed in a pair of jeans and a white tee shirt. He had made an attempt to tidy his hair, but it really wasn’t working. A cow-lick stuck up at the back. He looked harried, and had that puffy look you tended to get after a night of drinking.
James, was still fuming from his mornings episode with his ex-partner-now-flatmate Tommy, and quietly hoped that Tommy’s body puffed up twice as much as everyone else. It would serve him bloody right! Did he think fucking money grew on trees!Stewart straddled a bar stool, and settled himself in by stacking his cigarettes and lighter in a pile next to the ashtray. Looking off into space, he waved his burning cigarette over the table, missed the ashtray, and blew the ash that had landed on the table into James lap.
James scowled, threw Stewart “a look” and lit his own cigarette. ‘Well, to be quite honest, you look like fuckin’ shit. I hope you at least managed to get yourself a fuck. Would be the only appeasement for all the suffering you seem to be going through this morning…again,” James smirked. He would have loved a dollar for overtime this happened!
‘Well, lets just say I wasn’t alone this morning when you rang.’ Stewart turned his eyes upward andrepositioned himself on the stool, turning to gaze towards the bar a couple of feet away from him. ‘If we had sex, I certainly can’t remember it. I don’t even remember taking him home! Wouldn’t have a clue what his name was. I just called him Darl all morning. I don’t think he remembered mine either. He called me mate, if he had to talk to me at all, and there wasn’t too much yak going on, I can tell you. Thankfully, I didn’t have to chew my arm off this morning to get away from him.’ A smile took the puffiness out of his face for an instant. ‘I’m going to be conceited enough to assume that I was great sex. I still show a bit of fuckin’ taste, even when I’m pissed.’ Stewart looked pleased with himself, and James smiled at him across the tiny metal disc that supposedly passed for a table in the bar.
‘Seeing him again, are we?’ James quizzed.
‘Shit no, Jimmy. No serious relationships for this girl. I mean, I’ve got you as an example of how to make all the bad mistakes with men, don’t I?’
‘Thanks for reminding me of that. Want a drink, or is that a stupid question?’
James smiled again, loving the way Stewart squirmed when he had to try to recollect nights out – any nights out – when he had lost the plot somewhere in the interim.
“Yeah, I’ll have a hair of the dog that bit me. Get me a Gordon’s and tonic, will you mate.’
‘Is that mate as in friend, or mate as in ex-fuck,’ James couldn’t help himself.
‘You should be so lucky,’ Stewart retorted, poking out his tongue at his friend. James pushed himself off the stool and wandered over to the bar, blowing out a plume of smoke as he went.
‘G’day Jerry, give me two Gordon’s and tonics will you. Bit sad in here at the moment, isn’t it?’ he said to the barman, who was topping up the glasses from the post mix. Jerry had been the bar manager here for a couple of years now, and had helped get James his job here as a DJ.
‘It’s a bit sad in here at the best of times!’ Jerry sniped back, then let out one of the donkey brays he called a laugh. ‘That’ll be $4.50. I won’t charge you for the lack of atmosphere”.
James smiled and turned to cruise the bar perimeter. Picking up the drinks he turned back to the table. It was always a bit sad in here early in the afternoon. Either people with hangovers from the night before, people coming down off their drugs, or desperados who never got a pick-up last night, and thought the hangover brigade may be easy pickings. God, queens were so desperate sometimes! It was situations like this that made James glad he had a couple of fuck buddies he could rely on if things got really desperate. He took a stiff drag on his smoke, coughed, and decided to ignore the disparaging ‘Fuckin’ smokers’ comment from the elderly guy standing next to him. Fucking old bores. Should be locked away in nursing homes. The thought of them chasing each other around nursing home gardens, trying desperately to pick each other up even though they couldn’t remember their own names, let alone get a hard-on, made him smile.
He looked back over his shoulder at Stella.
There was a time when Stewart almost ended up amongst the fuck buddy-brigade. The day he met Tommy was the day he thought he had finally lined Stewart up for a fuck. He had spent all afternoon working on him. Had him primed on alcohol and all! Jesus, how could he have swapped Stewart for fucking Tommy? Talk about making stupid mistakes. Stewart had been, and still was, quite a looker – well, at least he usually was if he wasn’t recovering from a night on the tiles – and he had this chatty way about him that James found appealing. A combination of brains, beauty and humour! That could do it for James every time. Well, whatever the attraction for Stewart had been, it had certainly been working that night, even if the lustre had worn off pretty quickly. Anyway, he and Stewart had ended up the best of mates, so something good had come out of what potentially had not been so great – meeting Tommy! James couldn’t count the number of times he had taken guys home, given them a good fucking, then been ignored by them in the bar the next day, like he didn’t even exist. Shallow pricks! Tommy had spoken to him the next day, which almost made him husband material, for starters
He finally picked up the drinks, and moved back to the table at the window nearest the main street. He and Stella (Stewart was called Stella more often than by his real name) would often sit here for hours. They just gossiped away, and watched the passing parade, laughing at the dero’s passing by and trying to get money off people, the really badly dressed queens who thought they were so cool, and the hunky guys running around the street in singlet and shorts, the bulges of their cocks making an obvious show to all and sundry. It was a good way to pass an easy afternoon, no hassles, and a lot of laughs.
‘Well, what are you going to do about friggin’ Tommy? This is becoming a bit of a fucking habit with him, isn’t it?’ Stewart said, taking a sip out of his drink, clicking his teeth against the rim of the glass in an annoying way. ‘It’s not as if he could still be lovesick for you or anything. God, Who would get lovesick over you! You know what I reckon? I think he just likes to give you the shits. He knows he can get a rise out of you, so he does these fucked up things and doesn’t count the bloody cost.’ There was a brief pause for another sip. ‘Does he still reckon he’s in love with Mark? I got so sick of hearing him go on about it, I just avoid him when I see him now.’ Stella stared at James, as if to make sure he was still listening. James tended to tune out when Tommy’s name came up in conversation. ‘If Trevor ever gets wind of it, there will be hell to pay. I don’t think they’re fucking, though Tommy likes to make out they are – but I don’t think Mark is stupid enough to fuck up his relationship. Shit, he and Trevor have been together for years! Almost enough to make a girl jealous! But only almost! I reckon Tommy just has a very fertile imagination, which is going to get him into big fucking trouble if he’s not careful.’ Stella picked up his drink again, and started to slowly spin the glass between his fingers, swirling the ice, which clinked as it churned around.
‘Yeah, exactly my thoughts Stella. I’m sure Trevor must have heard all the gossip by now. Shit, it’s all Tommy talks about when he’s sober. I don’t know what to fucking do about him. He’s not even a good flatmate! He never does any cooking, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lift a duster. He reckons he doesn’t want to break any of my stuff! So what’s he bloody do instead? He has a night on the bloody piss and does a rampage right through the apartment. All my Ching dynasty china is gone now, after last nights little episode. He’s too fucking expensive to keep, and too fucking expensive to get rid of, if you know what I mean! I guess in some ways, he’s almost too perfect. He pays his rent and bills on time, so he’s good like that. I don’t know! I guess the question is, can I be bothered with all the hassle involved in getting someone reliable to replace him, if I tell him to piss off.’ James stared back out the window, noticing the streaks that the window washer had left when cleaning them. Because of the dark, tinted glass they stuck out like a dog’s balls.
‘Ummm! A bit of a problem, isn’t it.’ Stella said, also looking out the window. ‘If John wasn’t still staying with me, you could tell Tommy to take over the apartment, and move in with me. We could do the sisters-together thing! We’ve always got along okay, and I already know you’re a fuckin’ pain in the arse, so I know what to bloody well expect.’
‘Thanks, I think! But I guess I’ll try to work things through with Tommy before I jump into the fire. He really needs to see a very patient counsellor, but I can’t bleeding well force him to do that.’ James lit another cigarette, and there was a few minutes silence while they both puffed away. James rhythmically kicked the table support with his foot, causing the table to vibrate slowly. ‘I mean, this whole thing with Mark is just psychotic! Tommy follows the poor prick everywhere. He waits until he hears or sees him leaving the building, then he’s out the front door like a fucking shot. Then he just has to come home and give me endless tirades about where Mark has been, who he’s been talking too, every single bloody word of conversation that goes on between the two of them. As if I fucking care!’ Another plume of smoke drifted out of his mouth. ‘Shit, I have enough hassles keeping my own life together, let alone worrying about anyone else.’
They both picked up their drinks and coasters as a bar useful wiped down the table and emptied the ashtray. They both cruised the shirtless, young hunk leaning over their table. They both checked out his tight arse as he moved to the next table. Stewart looked up and James felt him staring. He looked up quickly, in time to catch Stewart’s intense stare.
‘You’re looking really stressed, girlfriend. Is everything okay at work? You mentioned something last week about getting the shits with it.’ Stewart looked genuinely concerned.
James nodded his head. He managed a store on the strip, and DJ,d in his spare time. ‘The job’s really starting to shit me now. You know that fucking shop is my pride and joy.’ A look of exasperation crossed his face. ‘I’ve worked so bloody hard to get it where it is, and what happens? They send in new guys. That new area manager is a real cunt. We hated each other from first sight, and it’s just gotten worse from that point.’ James said, gazing out the window to the passing parade
James and the area manager had clashed from day one. James was used to really good rapport with his superiors, and the last area manager had been well aware that a store in Darlinghurst benefitted from having a gay manager, and had always been very supportive. But this new guy…big-time trouble! He didn’t like queens, and had made that really obvious. When he found out that James was a HIV+ boy, he really turned the heat up. Even took James aside for a ‘quiet coffee’ and told him that perhaps he should consider leaving the job – only for the sake of his health, of course! Prick! He had been on James’ back ever since, picking on every little thing, and generally making life as difficult, and as uncomfortable, as possible. James was fucking over it!
‘I’ll see how it goes. I might quit if things don’t improve, which doesn’t seem likely at this time. I wish I had a bloody witness for some of the things the pious prick has said to me. I’d sue the fucking bastards for every cent I could get.’ James drummed his fingers on the table top, then loudly slapped his palm down, causing Stewart to jump. ‘You want to know what really worries me, girlfriend? All the stress! It’s starting to knock my health around. Anyway, thanks for the thought, but that’s enough about my problems. How’s the bar job at Barracks going?’
‘Pretty bloody good, actually. I think they’re about to give me a few more shifts. Hell, the fucking extra money certainly wouldn’t go astray.’ Stella rubbed his hands together. ‘By the way, before I forget to tell you – as if I’d dare – it’s John’s birthday next weekend. I’m throwing a bit of a shindig for him at home. I have a little surprise lined up, so don’t make any plans. Get there late afternoonish, if you can. I could do with an extra set of hands.’ Stella pouted his lips and threw James a kiss across the table, ‘You know what my parties are like. It will probably still be going on Sunday night.’
Stella had a reputation for really over-the-top parties, and relished the reputation. ‘I’m setting up the porn room again. It worked really well at the last party, as I’m sure you’d remember. Slut! Never know, you might meet the next great love of your life – again!’ He threw James another smirk.
James didn’t take the bait. ‘Right! I’m sure my mother would love to meet a boyfriend I met in a porn room at a party. I can just see me trying to explain that situation to her. Shit! She’s a fucking romantic. She’d never understand this.’ A young twink wandered past the window. Obviously on his way home from the gym, he stopping to admire himself in the glass, little knowing that he was being observed from the other side of the glass. He distracted James for a second. ‘She has enough problems with the gay thing as it is. I think she actually gets off on the breast-beating and guilt trip. You know, mea culpa, mea culpa!’ James struck his chest three times. ‘Sometimes I wish my curiosity, to know what happened to her after she pissed off and left my brother and myself with my old man, had just stayed as curiosity.’ James looked serious for a moment, then turned back to the window. The twink had gone.
James and his mother had a very tenuous relationship. She had walked out on his old man when James was 11, and Kevin, his brother, was 6. They had got home from school one day, and she just wasn’t there. There had been no explanation forthcoming from their father, though he did issue an edict that, as far as everyone was concerned, she was dead. Fucking families, James thought. She had remarried in the early 70’s, and James had a half sister from that marriage. He tended not to have much to do with his step-family. Ray, his step-father, was a homophobe, and with an eighteen-year gap between him and his half-sister, they didn’t really share anything in common, other than the same mother. She had never been able to handle him being gay. And thought it was all her fault that James was “that way”, that if she hadn’t left home, it may have been different. He let her live with this delusion. James had never been game to tell her he was HIV+. She carried enough guilt already. He didn’t want to be responsible for adding to it. So he kept it a quiet lie. Fortunately, his mother lived with such a huge amount of denial that there was little chance that she would ever talk about HIV anyway.
‘I’ll be at the party with bells on.’ James replied. ‘Want me to bring Tommy, ha! ha! He can fill everyone in on the saga with Mark. I’m sure everyone’s hanging out for the next installment.’
‘You bring him, and I’ll castrate you, boyo, sister or not! Want another drink?’ Stewart got up from the stool, then leaned down on the table, putting his head in his hands. ‘Might take a couple of hairs to get back to normal, I reckon. Back in a sec.’ He headed toward the bar. James, unconsciously, noticed that he still had a great butt. He shook his head, and looked back out the window. A druggie girl with a baby in her arms was attempting to elicit money off a passer-by, all to no affect. The baby wasn’t pulling its weight today! James briefly wondered what sort of life the baby would have. Her boyfriend – who looked like he needed a good feed, and sported a stained singlet, rat’s tail, and cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth – stood nearby with a battered stroller. James could hear a muffled string of abuse from the girlfriend as those passing by picked up speed and ignored both her and baby. She thrust the baby into the boyfriends arms. James noted that she was probably about 25, but looked 70. She stormed off down the street still hurling abuse. The boyfriend hurriedly stuffed the baby into the stroller and headed off after her. James shook his head. Stewart returned, plonking the drink onto the coaster in front of him
‘Thanks for the gin, Stella.’ He peered intently over Stewart’s shoulder. ‘That’s a bit of a cutie sitting over there. I might come back later tonight and see if he’s still around.’ James flicked his thumb toward a young guy sitting near the front doors of the bar, looking somewhat furtively around the bar. Too cute to be a desperado. Wonder what his story is? James mulled to himself.
‘Fuck me! You got a fuck from Paul (a fuck buddy) last night, and already you’re chasing the next bit of arse. What if Paul turns up tonight, eh? I’ll betcha I know what’d happen, and the cutie would be on the fucking losing end of the deal, wouldn’t he, sweetheart!’
‘Nah, Paul won’t be out tonight. He’s throwing a dinner party with that girl he flats with – Vicki, or Nicki or something. He has very unhealthy relationships with the female sex, have you noticed! He’s got more female friends than he has male!’Something strange about that!’ James screwed up his face as he looked at Stewart. ‘That’s another reason why I have had second thought about actually getting seriously involved with him. I don’t know that I want my social life dominated by women. They’re okay in small doses, but that’s as much as I can handle.’ The screwed up face took on a more sinister aspect. ‘Look at how they have managed to fuck up all the local nightclubs. They bring in their straight wanker boyfriends, and the next thing you know, it’s straight city!! Those fucking young queens who spend half their lives dragging fag-hags around are going to have a lot to answer for, one of these days.’ James was spitting venom by this stage. ‘They’re fucking it up for everyone. Why can’t us guys have spaces for ourselves? The bloody lezzo’s are allowed to have them. Those new bleeding anti-discrimination laws are fucked,’ James snarled.
Stewart sat quietly, lost in a world of his own. James, feeling pleasantly calmed by his little outburst plus a couple of gins, started some serious cruising with the guy he had noticed earlier. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but there was a something about him that drew James attention. Maybe it was his eyes, or the non-gay way he was dressed. Almost as if he didn’t realise he was in a gay bar. James shivered! Déjà vu, he thought to himself. This was the sort of naïve thing Tommy did when he wanted to attract attention, and which he had used to hook James on the night they met. That was exactly the sort of look that had sucked him in that night, and James certainly didn’t want that episode repeated. Yet, despite the similarity in appeal, this guy looked more together than Tommy had.
‘How’s Don going?’ Stella broke into James reverie. ‘Is he out of hospital yet?’
‘Yeah, he got out two days ago. He’s not telling the whole story, you know! He’s fucking sicker than he lets on. I’m not silly. I know when someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes.’ James looked at Stella across the table, a concerned frown on his face.
‘Mmm. I thought he’d tell you what the problem is. You two have been mates for yonks.’ Stella tapped his fingers on the table, then stuck a finger in his mouth and started to chew on a fingernail. ‘He’s lost so much weight, and he’s takin’ a lot of time off work. Do you think he’s got the dreaded lergy?’ Stella asked, a slight grimace crossing his face.
‘Well, that’s what I originally thought, but I can’t work out why he’d be quiet about it. It’s not as if it’s such a rare thing these days, and he knows so many others with this fucking virus,’ James said, chewing on a piece of ice that had not melted in the glass. ‘I don’t think he’d keep it to himself if he had it.’ He appeared to think about it for a few seconds. ‘Naw! It’s something else. He’ll tell me in his own good time,’ James replied, unable to hide his concern. He was really worried about his mate, but didn’t want others to know how serious he thought Don’s illness was.
‘Well, I hope he fuckin’ does. There’s enough guys dropping off the perch as it is!’ Stella threw his own concerned look across the table.
Another couple of minutes passed in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. James looked back across the bar, and caught the cutie looking across at him, then quickly looking away.
‘Catch as catch can,’ James smiled at Stella across the table, pointing his chin in the general direction that he was looking in. Stella turned his head and looked back over his shoulder.
‘Umm! Lining things up for tonight already, are we?’ Stewart exclaimed as he thumped his glass down on the table. ‘I can see where your priorities lie at the moment, trash bag!’
‘Yeah. That guy is acting a bit like how Tommy was acting on the night we met. A bit spooky, actually.’
‘Fuck, don’t want a repeat of that, do we? We never did get to fuck. That night screwed that up, didn’t it?’ James threw a quizzical look across the table. ‘Don’t look at me like that! I knew you were trying to get me into the sack that night.’ Stella returned his look. ‘I shouldn’t tell you this, but I would have been in it, if Tommy hadn’t fuckin’ well shown up!’ Stella had one of those looks on his face that made it possible to believe that he wasn’t being serious, but then again he might be! James hated those looks! You never knew where you fucking well stood. ‘Well, look on the bright side of it – I would probably never have respected you again – as if I ever did – so it’s probably just as well it never happened. I think you make a better fucking sister.’
‘You’ve known that for four bloody years, and never said a word to me! How fucking rude are you! Sisters are never supposed to know that you wanted to lay them. Some things are supposed to be sacred, you know!’
‘Oh, I guess I’m only slightly miffed about that situation. You’ve been one of the best friends I’ve ever had in this city. Look at how I trash myself, and slut around, and you never ever criticise me for it, though I sometimes wish you fucking would! Might pull me into line a bit,’ Stella laughed.
‘Wouldn’t do me much damn good anyway. You’re just a lost cause. Anyway, I don’t know if I’d like you to be pulled into line. I love you the way you are.’
James blew him a kiss across the table. ‘Take the good with the bad, I reckon. Finish your bloody drink and your fag so I can go home for some dinner. With any luck, Tommy will still be in bed. I’ll meet you here about ten o’clock.’ James stood up to go, rocking the table as he learnt on it.
‘Okay gorgeous. Hold your horses for a sec.’ Stella drained the remains of the gin in one gulp. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit chancy leaving me with the potential trade?’
‘That’s exactly why I don’t intend to leave until you do. AND I’ll ring you when I get home, just to make sure you haven’t snuck back.’ They both headed towards the door. Stella put his hand on James shoulder, and pushed him out the door.
‘That’s the problem with sisters. They know you too fucking well!’ he quipped, planting a kiss on James’s cheek before heading up the street.
Homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967. The treatment of homosexuals in earlier times is difficult to gauge as the historical record rarely exists for anything other than criminal activity. Early punishments ranged from fines, hard labour, hanging, and the pillory (a wooden frame with holes for the head and hands, in which offenders were placed and exposed to public abuse). From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries the court of Quarter Sessions dealt with any complaints and allegations of homosexual behaviour, frequently referred to in the court records as ‘an unnatural crime’.
In Surrey, there are several examples which appear in the records, although survival of all evidence from the arrest to the sentencing of prisoners is not complete. Many of the accused were acquitted through lack of evidence. In the cases found, punishment ranged from the equivalent of a good behaviour bond to the pillory, or imprisonment for up to two years in one of the local houses of correction.
Calendar of prisoners for the House of Correction, Newington, 1812
Prisoner No.54. is Edward Long, committed on 24 Dec 1811.
Following the oath of John Smith, Long is charged with assaulting him at St Saviour’s, Southwark, with intent to commit an ‘unnatural crime’. He was detained for want of sureties (i.e. no one pledged money for his good behaviour) but this was eventually secured.
Calendar of prisoners, featuring Edward Long, 14 Jan 1812 (SHC ref QS2/6/1812/Eph)
Calendar of prisoners, featuring Edward Long, 14 Jan 1812 (SHC ref QS2/6/1812/Eph)
Examination regarding an alleged assault, Southwark, 1716
This curious case involved David Dartnall, a carpenter of Brasted, who in his examination claimed that whilst sitting by the fire in the kitchen of the Greyhound Inn, Southwark, he was approached by Thomas Reeves and asked where he would lie that night. Dartnall replied that he was sleeping at the inn and Reeves declared that he would lie with him. The examination gives a graphic account of the activities that took place but Dartnall did not protest and implied that Reeves ‘never threatened or offered to turn him’. The examination finished with Dartnall declaring ‘the reason why he did not cry out was the reason of his greater surprise’!
Unfortunately, as the further evidence for this case has not yet been located we do not know whether Reeves was punished or not. Click on the image below to see a larger version.
Transcript of examination of David Dartnall, 1716 (Ref.QS2/6/1717/Eas/87).
The examination of David Dartnall of the ville of Brasted in the said County, carpenter taken upon oath this 16th day of March Anno D[omini] 1716 as followeth viz:
This examinant saith upon oath that on Thursday the seventeenth day of this instant March in the evening as this Def[endant] was sitting by the kitchen fire at the Greyhound Inn in the Burrough of Southwark in the County of Surrey, Mr Thomas Reeves of Cowden being there asked this Def[endant] where he lay that night, he answered him he lay there then the said Mr Reeves said you shall lye with me David, who was contented and accordingly went to bedd together and that as this Def[endant] was saying his prayers the said Mr Reeves putt his hand upon his breast and soo down to his private parts and took hold of them and said he would make him spend and did make him spend. And then said to this Def that he had had a whore who told him the said Reeves that he never had had one in his life, who said he had, and then gott over himin the bedd several times and at last he rubbed himself against one of his thighs and spent against the same and the gott over him and went to sleep – and soo continued the ret of the night; but the said Mr Reeves never threatened or offered to turn him And the reason ehy this Def[endant] did not Cry out was by reason of his greater Surprise.
[signed] David Dartnall
Jucat die et Anno superdictam
S lambard Jeff. Arnhurst
The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual act illegal, even in private.
Section 11 of the Act stated that any man convicted ‘shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour’.
Controversially, this part of the Act was inserted at the last minute after being drafted by the MP Henry Labouchere. It did not fit in with the rest of the Act, which dealt with sex crimes relating to young women, but was still passed by the House of Commons.
The amendment was described as a ‘blackmailer’s charter’ as it effectively outlawed every form of male homosexuality. It prompted a number of prosecutions, most famously Oscar Wilde in 1895. Wilde served his sentence in Reading Gaol.
The Act was repealed in England and Wales in 1956, but homosexuality was not fully legalised until 1967. In Scotland this did not come into force until 1980, and in Northern Ireland, not until 1982.
The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 allowed transsexual people to change their legal gender.
Current legislation bans some anti-gay discrimination, as well as religion-based hate speech against homosexuals.
It was just after testing positive to HIV in 1985, when testing begun. It was done anonymously through the Albin St Clinic, and took a nerve-wracking two weeks for results to come in. Despite saying I probably wasn’t positive, my mind was saying otherwise, and the latter proved correct. So, my first disclosure, along with a lot of others guys who were undergoing the same process was at the bar at “The Oxford”, and was to a group of friends, some of who were also HIV+, some HIV-, and some who either didn’t know or didn’t want to know. Disclosure was imnportant at that time, as with a two-year survival period dangling there like a sword of Damocles over ones head, it was important to let everyone know that the supposed death sentence had been passed, then move on. It gave time for it to sink in both with myself and the friends I was closest to. They now knew what to expect – we had already experienced the quick decline of other HIV+ friends, and knew that the future was not something to look forward to. So let’s party! It was, I have to say, easier than I thought it would be to disclose.
The most recent time I disclosed was to a gym buddy and friend when we weree out for dinnerv one night. He asked me what I was doing these days, and I replied that I was doing some freelance writing for a couple of HIV magazines, and had been doing it for some time. That then led on to a conversation about how things had changed and you rarely heard of anyone dying from HIV these days. There was really no reaction from him at all – it was just a friendly chat about what we were up to, and HIV didn’t seem to register as anything devious or insideous in any way whatsoever.
In the interim between the first disclosure and latest, things haven’t quite always been that easy. Generally when cruising the bars for trade, I used to disclose as a way of getting rid of guys who couldn’t handle it, thus getting rid of the dross. It was also a way of picking up other HIV+ guys so that use of condoms could be dropped. We both knew where we stood. Though there was one negative guy who said it wasn’t a problem – at least until we were home and the jeans were down, thankfully at my place. He baulked, started to throw a drama and found the front door being held open to hasten his exit. That is the one and only person I have ever thrown out of my home.
The second problem disclosure – at work – was a big problem. Not for me, not for my staff, not for most of upper management. However, for one area manager it was a big problem and he bullied and harrassed me until I decided it really wasn’t worth the hassle anymore. I gave in notice, but didn’t let him off the hook that easily. I ensured that I gave notice at the most inconvenient place, at the most inconvenient time that would cause him the most hassles and problems. He didn’t speak to me for the two weeks of my notice period, and he didn’t say goodbye. Yeah, I was really upset about that. Not! I still have no regrets about disclosing on that job – I did the right thing by my staff, and if it cost me my position and my job, perhaps I didn’t want to be there anyway.
I have disclosed mid-fuck, as nothing had been said about condoms (we were at his place), and at the moment the evil deed was to be consummated I yelled out at him that I was HIV+ – several times, and it didn’t even cause a glitch in the proceedings. He disclosed nothing, and to this day I have no knowledge of whether he was pos or neg, though I did assume he was positive. It was all a bit too casual and nonchalant for him not to be.
As far as my everyday life goes these days with neighbours and new friends and the ilk I tend not to say anything, nor do I see any need to. Like a lot of people with health issues I
consider it my business, and it’s not as if I look ill or anything. It doesn’t affect my diet, my pill taking is done in private, and I just want life to toddle on without any hassles. As far as my local community goes I am just Joe Blow from next door or over the road, and that’s how I want it to stay.
In 2001, while doing my writing degree at UTS, I submitted a 13,000 word tome for evaluation, titled “Cleo’s Reflection” – my recollections of my past to my hairdresser as he did up my wig for my final drag appearance. My tutor, a tiny Asian fag-hag (love or hate the phrase), was ecstatic about it, and on questioning the class on what the story represented, and getting the usual crap replies that you would expect from 20-year-olds, enlightened them to it being ” A Sydney story!”, which actually gave me goosebumps.
I have done a couple of edits over the years, but recently decided it was time to get to the bare bones of what “Cleo’s Reflection was really all about. I do intend to publish the full-length tome, but it has bern sitting around for 13 years now, and I imagine a few more won’t matter much. So, here in a nutshell – sort of – is the chopped down version of “Cleo’s Reflection”…”The Evolution/Devolution of Cleo”.
My writing tutor at UTS called this a “Sydney story”, but as I got right to the root of what Cleo was (escapism, flipping the coin, daring) I realised more and more just what a “gay” story it was, and perhaps more importantly – for Cleo was born at the very beginning of the HIV era, and bowed out at its height – that it is a “HIV” story, and of its time..
Cleo’s persona was born, so I like to say, out of pure curiosity. In late 1983, ‘she’ made ‘her’ first public appearance at one of Sydney’s annual parties, called Sleaze Ball, put on annually by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian community. It was a daring move for me, and a move into unexplored territory.
I have had a fascination with ‘gutter drag’ since coming out in 1980. Drag has always been synonymous with the gay community here, though usually more in a serious vein than as send-up or parody. ‘The Oxford Hotel’ opened in 1983 on Sydney’s gay ghetto of Oxford Street, and become an instant hangout for the city’s clone brigade. Simultaneous to the growth of the clone phenomenon was the growth in popularity of gutter drag, and several troupes routinely plied their talents between bars along the gay strip. Most famous of these were ‘The Planet Sluts’, and many a Saturday night out was brightened up by their sudden appearance in ‘The Oxford’.
They had a look that I was always slightly envious of, in that they were cocks in frocks, an over-exaggerating of the femaleness of drag without losing the masculine aspects. It was a phenomena that could only have happened in the gay community and though there were mixed reactions, permission was granted for its continuance. It was a look that I wanted to try – badly!
One minute I would be having a quiet drink with friends in the bar, and a bit of a bop to the music, and the next thing I knew, all hell had broken loose. These four guys would barge in from the street. They would have wigs backcombed to within an inch of their lives and absolutely huge; totally over the top make-up; and frocks that would have been the envy of even serious drag queens (sort of!) – tulle for days, and totally outrageous. But what really made it for me was the fact that they shaved neither faces, chests nor arms and legs, and that was what gave gutter drag not only its name, but also its appeal.
So Sleaze Ball 1983 was the first time I decided to attempt to emulate this form of drag. I have to admit it wasn’t terribly successful! My flatmate (who was also my lover at that time) had done a bit of drag during the 70’s. I didn’t really want to spend a lot of money on this one particular occasion, and asked him if he would do the wig up for me. Mistake number one! The poor wig ended up looking like a poor relation to Dusty Springfield, but he had done his best, and I felt it was unwarranted to criticise his efforts. Mistake number two! Choice of frock. It was a Marilyn Monroe crepe Halston style rip-off, and by the time the whole outfit came together, I looked like a bloody society matron heading off for a Sunday luncheon. It also didn’t go down well at the party, especially considering the look was nowhere near the Planet Slut look that I wanted to achieve.
The Sydney parties in those days were small affairs (5,000 – 6,000 gay guys), not the huge extravaganza’s they are now, and needless to say, I would have slutted around and slept with at least half the party-goers. My reputation as an aggressive little bottom was ruined, and the message columns in the local gay rags ran hot with malicious gossip about me for the next couple of issues. Undaunted, I decided to forge on!
That night, Cleo was born. She may only have been a name, but the seeds of creation were planted.
My next attempt was in the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras parade in 1984 – it had not become The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras at that stage – and it wasn’t much better than my first attempt, except that I did myself up so that nobody would recognise me this time around. The floats in the parade were all pretty tragic. The Mardi Gras organisation had not set up workshops in these early days, so organisations and businesses just put floats together as best they could, with little taste, and no artistic direction. The one I was on was exceptionally tacky, with everyone on the float being workers for one of the local sex shops, (Numbers Bookshop), and the owner giving us a zero budget to work with. The back of the truck was covered in aluminium foil – very flashy indeed, with a sound system that only worked when the mood took it, which wasn’t very often. The manager of the store, who went under the drag persona of Miss Phoenix had a fairly over the top drag style, though a bit too serious to be gutter drag. Still, he managed to outshine the rest of us on the night, who looked like aliens out of the early days of Dr Who, and I was rather thankful for the anonymity that It afforded me. No photographs exist of that tragic episode in history…I am so glad to say!
In late 1984 I met my next lover, Damien. Frank, the one who had been the creator of the first Cleo wig had been very unceremoniously dumped. Damien was a pretty boy, and a bit of a devil, and liked to think that I didn’t know about him trashing around behind my back. His longevity as a partner was terminated after he faked a suicide attempt. However, before I pissed him off, he talked me into doing drag with him on two occasions, and still I could not get the look together. In fact, the first time I went out with him in drag, I was mistaken for his mother! Really! Not impressed! What was I doing wrong, I asked myself? I knew how I wanted to look. I had the mustache and hairy chest and legs, but somehow my image kept coming across a little bit too seriously. The realisation slowly dawned that I had to stop myself from holding back, that I just had to let my head go, and revel in the whole concept of being a cock-in-a-frock, instead of trying to look like a man dressed as a woman.
In 1985, I met Stella, a.k.a. Stuart. I also met my next lover Tony. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning for a new relationship, as I was trying, as I had been trying for many months, to get Stuart into the sack. On this particular afternoon, success was within reach, with Stuart in an apt state of inebriation for seduction, and me moving in for the kill. Well, almost moving in for the kill! Tony sort of got in the way. He had been eyeing me off for most of the afternoon, and I had already gathered that he was a new boy in town – the spider moving in on the fly. He proceeded to start talking with me in the middle of the Stuart seduction, and came over so cute and naïve that by the time night settled in, I had him at home instead of my original quarry.
In some respects, I don’t regret that it happened that way. Tony ended up as my lover for the next four years – and was the main reason for my getting tested for HIV in 1985, and coming up positive (which had nothing to do with Tony) – and though he thought it was the perfect relationship, he was the only one who ever saw it through rose tinted glasses. This time, it was me who plated up…and got caught out! As for Stuart and I, well we ended up good friends, and became drag buddies after Don died – but I am getting ahead of myself here. I will introduce you to Don shortly, and more on Stuart a bit later.
By Mardi Gras 1986, Cleo’s evolution had started. I hunted around the second-hand stores, and eventually managed to find the perfect wig. It was as white-as-white, and it could be hammered into just about any style that you wanted. The wig quickly became my signature, and many years later when I gave up gutter drag, many people would not believe I had stopped until I told them I had given ‘Cleo’ – as the wig also came to be called – away.
I made a huge fishtail frock for that Mardi Gras, in the most gorgeous Thai-silk green fabric, and for the first time – though not the last – got a hairdresser friend in to style the wig. He loved working with it, and had it pulled and stretched into this fantastic wild, white storm. The frock looked great, and there were huge plumes of emerald green ostrich feathers pouring out the back of it. I did the make-up myself, and though in the transitionary phase, it looked better than it ever had before. Add a profusion of diamante jewellery, stiletto shoes, and fishnet stockings, and it was all starting to happen.
Unfortunately, the one thing I hadn’t counted on that year was rain. Mardi Gras night has traditionally been a night when you are never quite sure what the weather is going to do, and this one was no exception. Half way through the parade, the rain poured down. I decided to go home and get out of the sopping wet frock and into something dry before going on to the party. Well, my lovely emerald green ostrich feathers decided to run, didn’t they! I had skin in the most subtle shade of green. It took hours to scrub it off. I gave up feathers after that. Much too risky!
Later that year, a DJ mate of mine who worked at ‘The Oxford’ invited me to his annual colour-themed party. That year, it was ‘Green with Envy’. The object of these parties were that if you decided to go, you had to wear the specified colour, and you had to wear drag. A little leather mate of mine called Andrew was also given an invite. We all got quite a laugh out of this, as Andrew was a leather munchkin – through and through. None of us could ever have envisioned him in drag. But he wanted to go to the party. Andrew. was one of the first in my circle of friends to contract AIDS, and he spent most of his time then going in and out of hospital – more in than out. He told me he had never done drag, and he didn’t want to exit this world feeling that there was one experience that he had missed. However, he didn’t want to do it seriously, and I had to couple with him. I agreed, and together we put together this rather macho little drag number, with green wig, and army boots, and this tacky little skirt. He looked a hoot, and had the time of his life. I’m glad I spent that night with him, and I’m glad I helped him get that whole ‘thing’ together, even if my own outfit was an abomination. I hated wearing green, and decided most definitely, that if Andrew was going to look bad, I was going to look worse. I succeeded beyond all expectation! He ended up back in hospital shortly after that party, and he didn’t come back out this time. He died on Boxing Day (December 26th) that year, and I’m sad to say that he was just the first of many.
Cleo was defined by the time Sleaze Ball 1986 rolled around. She had come into her own. A persona – and for many years an icon (Yeah! Right!) – was born. Surprisingly, I didn’t wear Cleo for this event, opting instead for a no.2 buzz cut, jelled straight up into the air, and sprayed bright red. The make-up matched, with lots of red, and very unsubtle use of other bright colours. But the outfit was the defining point, and was to be how Cleo was to be seen up to the day I finally decided to hang up the heels. I spent a fortune on a leather corse – not an easy item to obtain in Sydney back in those days – and teamed it with a leather garter belt, fishnet stockings and stilettos. The jewellery was all huge and red, and over all, the effect was beyond even my expectations. That year, I was photographed at every turn, and ended up in a Sleaze Ball montage in one of the gay rags. My boss was so smitten with this sleazy, slutty, trashy look that he used the pictures in the shop’s advertising the following year. Three ‘British Airways’ boys whom I had regular threesomes with when they were in town fell in love with the ‘new’ Cleo, and proceeded to not only give her picture pride of place in a return flight to Britain, but proceeded to stick her photo up on lightpoles from one end of England to the other. This was notoriety, and I relished it!
Needless to say, for the next couple of years, I took every opportunity to put the new Cleo on show, and she created her own demand!
I was not to be a solo act for very long. The story of how Don and I came to be partnered is odd, and was a lesson for me in how easy it is to misjudge people. He was a friend of another couple I knew, Steve and Geoff. Every year, they held a large party in their Glebe terrace called ‘The Annual Port and Cheese Party’. It was a much looked-forward to event, and to get an invitation was to be ‘in the right group’,though not in a snobby way. I had met Don at ‘The Oxford’ on several occasions, and he was one of those people who on a first meeting , comes across as loud mouthed, and rather crass. It was for these reasons that I had spent a considerable amount of time avoiding him. He was one of the privileged who got an invite to the ‘Port and Cheese’, and he wanted to go in drag, so Geoff rang me up and asked me if I would make a frock for him. Now, I should point out that Geoff was someone who it was very difficult, if not impossible, to say NO to. He was one of Gods true gentlemen, and a kinder, gentler, more generous man I have never met to this day. What could I do? I gritted my teeth, and said yes!
So a couple of nights later, Don showed up on my doorstep with an armload of gold lame. As I was to find out over the next couple of nights, he was not the loudmouth that I had originally imagined him to be. Sure, he was loud, but he had a heart of gold, and a great sense of humour. He was also a bastard to fit with a frock, as I soon found out. He wanted to look really elegant, but he had this damn gut, and trying to fit him into even my largest pattern just wasn’t going to happen. I ended up making the frock to the pattern, then inserting this huge gusset into the back of the frock to get it around his stomach. I told him he might have to wear either a corset, or a longline bra. He just laughed. I also told him that I had this great hairdresser,and offered to lend him some jewellery (this was his first time in drag, after all!), but he insisted that he knew what he was doing, and he had the rest of the outfit at home. I should have argued a bit harder! He turned up at the party looking great in the frock, but the wig looked like one of his mothers rejects after a wind storm, and he wore – wait for it – plastic jewellery! I never let him live that down. Plastic jewellery on a drag queen! I mean tawdry is tawdry, but plastic is stooping too low even for gutter drag. He accessorised a lot more carefully after that party. This was also the night that I was photographed in The Oxford…and made the cover of The Star Observer!
He and I did a few drag outings together after that. There was one occasion when I stupidly allowed him to make his own frock. I never let him do that again either. It was hideous! And it was all everyone at the party we attended could do to not tell him to his face. Oh sure, they had the time of their lives behind his back, but not even an under-the-breath-mutter to his face. I have to admire queens sometimes. They’re not always bitchy! I think the most memorable of our outings was ‘The Oxford’s’ 5th birthday party in 1987. They had a themed party every year for their birthday, and that year they chose Egyptian. If you were one of the ‘regulars’ at the hotel, which meant pretty much drinking there every day and night of the week – which we did then – you were invited to a private reception with free cocktails at 2.00pm. The pub was officially opened to the general public at 3.00pm, so you made sure you got there at dead on 2.00, and got as many drinks in as you could before you had to start paying. Don and I decided to do Egyptian drag, and spent the whole night before the party putting together these fabulous Egyptian outfits from gold lurex, with lots of gold fringing and braid, and got the hairdresser over in the after noon to do the wigs up, complete with intertwined gold serpents. We really looked great, and made quite a spectacle walking from Don’s place in Darlinghurst to the pub. Nothing like a bit of street theatre in broad daylight! The look was almost perfect. Almost! Nobody warned me about the non-photogenic aspects of gold grease paint, which I had covered my entire face in. It looks green in photographs, and you can imagine my horror when the first photos appeared after the event. I looked like I had green fungus growing all over my face. Tony never let me live that little mistake down. I’m so glad he had a raging hangover the next morning. Little prick!
Don and I did a disastrous cocktail party at a serious-type drag queens place shortly after that. Same party was seriously marred by some stupid queens passing around spiked joints without checking what they were spiking them with. The party came to a very abrupt end after everyone either tried to cram into the very small toilet to throw-up, or passed out on the hostesses bed. Ah, good old 80s parties. Nothing like them for disaster, and humiliation. We were so out if it that we were caught not looking glamorous at one stage. I know! Unbelievable!
By far the best night out that Don and I did was Anzac Day ’87! We both decided to go out as Army Strumpets. So this involved mini skirts, with belted army shirts, fishnet stockings, leopard print socks and gloves, stiletto’s, and our trademark wigs with forces caps. For my part, I decided to wear a set of blue plastic inflatable tits under my shirt to make sure the boys had something to look at. Thankfully, I crammed the pump into my handbag! The night started very quietly in The Oxford…not! We both got stuck into the shots. By the time we teamed up with the rest of our battalion – my flatmate, Steve & Geoff, and another friend James we were strumpeting along nicely. It was around about this stage that I realised my tits were not going to stay fully inflated for the entirety of our bivouac. Geoff jumped in, took control of the pump, and made himself official titty pumper for the night. So just before we were about to enter any venue, we would stop outside, I would unbutton my army shirt, flop the saggy blue plastics out, and Geoff would pump them up, shirt would be rebuttoned…and we would enter said venue. And it was a long march…The Flinders, The Albury, The Unicorn, and The Paddo Green – who definitely weren’t pleased to see us due to the “macho” image of the pub…though I was mates with the owner, so a wink was exchanged, and it was “fuck you boys…we’re out for fun!”. We returned to The Oxford at some stage, in some condition only to be told that The Flinders had been looking for us as we had won a costume prize there! We never did claim it, but it went down as one of the best nights out I have ever had in Sydney.
Don only did one solo drag outing after that. I suspected that he was ill, but he was a lot worse than he let on to any of us. For once, it wasn’t HIV, which in a very perverse way a lot of us were glad about – a reality-check that people were still dying from ordinary, everyday diseases, instead of the dreaded lergy. Don was dying from stomach cancer. We worked together in the sex shop at this stage, and I often filled in his shifts when he was too ill to get in to work. I finally managed, after getting a very frightening phone call from him one night, to get him to admit himself to hospital. Most of us thought it would be a long period of palliative care for him, but as I was about to go and visit him the following night, I ran into a friend coming back from the hospital. Don had just died. I was quite devastated, as we had become quite close over the short time we had spent together, and we had so much fun doing our gutter drag together. I suddenly felt very lonely. We gave him a fitting, gay send-off, and I and another friend scattered his ashes in the Mardi Gras parade that year. We sieved all the chunky bits out, and mixed him with glitter. Nobody was aware of what was going on, but Don would have loved the thought of being sprinkled over people in the parade. He had always been a real party boy. My only misgiving was coming home from the party the next morning. I was wandering down Oxford Street, and suddenly saw the street sweepers going up the parade route. I thought to myself, with a sudden feeling of horror “My God, poor Don’s ended up in a bloody street sweeping machine!” Fortunately, and to their merit, everyone saw the funny side of it. I regaled many a dinner party with THAT story.
Stuart – or Stella to most – and I buddied up shortly after that event. Seeing as we both worked in the sex industry, we decided to throw a sex toy party at my apartment in Darlinghurst, using stock from the store to put together what might be called a deviates version of a ‘Tupperware’ party. About 200 invites went out, but with it being held on a Saturday night, we thought everyone would be too busy doing other things to turn up. Wrong! About 108 people crammed themselves into my apartment. Drag shows that we had planned – we both wore drag, naturally – had to be cancelled due to a lack of space, and we didn’t even have a table available to be able to do the dildo and vibrator demonstrations that we had planned. People flocked in from near and far to purchase sex toys of every shape and size, blow-up dolls, leather goods of every description from the shortest cockrings to the longest stock whip, S/M & B/D gear and devices, and lubes and condoms in every size, shape and flavour imaginable. We made a small fortune out of the night, and it was a good way to show the boss how good merchandising can really work.
At the end of ’88 I did a ‘Port and Cheese’ party in a Cleo-goes-punk type outfit. I had made a corset for a friend out of some black vinyl, and as payment for the job, which wasn’t difficult, he told me to keep the leftover vinyl. I made a full circle skirt with a plunging neckline corset top out of it, with a matching collar attached to the frock with chains. I spent about a week at work studding the damn thing, and I have to say it looked great, and was a huge smash at the party.
Toward the end of that year, Stella and I attended a charity party for The Far West Children’s Home at a friend’s apartment in Bondi. On a dare from another friend, we performed live, doing both a Christmas carol, and the Pointer Sisters ‘Dare Me’. Well, we brought the house down, and I don’t think many of us had laughed so much for quite a while. HIV had really taken a heavy toll on most of our lives, and many, including myself, found it best to hide all the sadness under a veneer of happiness, and a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol. That at least made it bearable. Stella borrowed my punk frock for that party, and I never did get it back off her. Bitch! She wore it everywhere for a while after that, and I’m glad she got so much enjoyment out of it. She deserved the good times.
Our last outing together was in mid ’89. I made Stella this fabby frock out of royal blue velvet and taffeta with these huge jewelled shoulder pads. I had a mile of red loose-thread Lurex at home, and made myself this huge bubble frock with a silver and black Lurex top. We got made-up in my apartment, and as we waddled our way over to The Oxford for a drink before going on to a party, two lesbians followed us down the street, flattering us with compliments about how great we looked, that real women could never get it together to look as good as drag queens, and how well we walked in heels (it’s a weight thing, I swear!). Well, if that didn’t put the night off to a great start! Who would ever have thought that lesbians liked to see men dressed as women? Gives you something to think about, doesn’t it? Anyway, after this old guy chased me around the bar for about an hour, harassing me to go home with him for a fuck (there always has to be one, doesn’t there! I mean, if I was half ways attractive in gutter drag, I could understand it, but…) we decided to leave for the party. Halfway down Oxford Street, the next thrill for the night is about to happen, apart from dancing briefly with two police men who were silly enough to smile at us as we giggled and staggered about. Yes, the ultimate drag queen delight – a tour bus full of Japanese tourists! I don’t know who was more thrilled – the driver, or the tourists. Everyone knows that Sydney’s Oxford Street is the home of gaydom, but you just can’t expect to drive up the street, and see two drag queens coming toward you. Well let me tell you, didn’t Stella and I put on a pose-and-vogue show for all those clicking cameras. Just to think, drag photos of me not just in Britain, but in Japan as well. My image has traveled further than I have, for Gods sake! Well, we did make it to the party, but it seemed a bit of a let down after all the other events of that evening.
I have photos of Stella from that evening. The ones taken at the party show a happy, fun-loving, carefree boy. The ones at home as he is getting changed show something else entirely. I think Stella knew that night that he would never be doing this sort of thing again, and for just one instant in time, the camera caught the look that said it.
About two weeks later, Stella was admitted to the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst. I went to visit him just before the end. He was really doped up, but was really glad to see me, and I sat on the bed and held his hand, and we reminisced about all the good times we had together. As I left his room and headed towards the elevator, I had this sudden urge to turn around. Stella was sitting up in bed, watching me leave. Our eyes locked for a second, and I knew that I would never see him again. I cried all the way home. He died the following night.
His death absolutely tore the heart out of me. First Don, now Stuart. I felt as if everything was falling apart around me. I attended two functions in drag after that, but the fun was sort of missing without a mate to share it with. Don’t get me wrong…I had a great time…after all, I was with friends. A progressive dinner with three couples – 3 in drag, 3 in dinner suits was a welcome panacea after all that had gone on. The itinerary for the night was cocktails in Glebe, entree in North Bondi, main in Bourke St Darlinghurst, and dessert in Goulburn St, Darlinghurst. The first signs of the night going down hill rapidly occurred when one of the drag artistes – for some unknown reason – decided that in the absence of hairspray, they would spray there wig with hobby glue. Naturally, the fumes from said glue caused the artistes eyes to run copiously…which resulted in make-up running everywhere. So there were frequent stops in bathrooms to repair damage…only to hav.e it happen again et al. I had not stopped to think of how hard it would be to prepare a main with nails on. I admire anyone who can, so that took forever. Heedless to say, ,copious amounts of alcohol were consumed at every stop, so by the time we got to dessert in Darlington Towers we were totally sloshed. Evidently we made so much noise that someone in the building called the police! All us girls screamed, and disappeared into the bathroom giggling drunkenly, leaving the butch (not!) boys to handle the cops.
The final party I attended with “the group” was in Glebe, and was a 50s party. Two of my ex’s decided to stir me up by both attending together in drag. That was a laugh. A friend attended as “an orphan baby dumped on the doorstep”…literally. I’m glad I went. I had a great time but there was a sadness in the air, a feeling of something completing its course and coming to an end. Geoff died not long after this, so life as we had known it at Glebe ceased.
My 36th birthday was in early 1990. I decided to throw a party to sell off all the drag and costumes that I had accumulated over the years. My health wasn’t the best at the time, perhaps because I smoked 100 cigarettes a day and drank myself into oblivion every night, or perhaps because HIV had decided that it was my turn. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t maintain my weight, and my energy would give out very quickly. I hoped that I would see my 40th birthday (at that time, 50 definitely seemed out of the question), but even that hope was in doubt. I dressed myself in drag for the last time, using all borrowed items except for the famous wig. By the time the last person left my apartment that night, there would not be a scrap of drag, a single accessory, shoe, bag, piece of jewellery, fragment of fabric or a pair of laddered pantyhose left in the place. A friend called Philip (or Phyllis, as he preferred to be called) was the last to leave, and as he went out the door, I yelled at him to come back for a second. As he turned around, I pulled Cleo off my head, and threw her to him, saying simply “Give her a good time. She deserves it”.
So Cleo hung up her heels. It was time to exorcise some of the past, and move on. I had spent too much time feeling disempowered. It was time to empower myself, and get my life back into some order. There was a group of eighteen of us that used to hang out in one corner of ‘The Oxford’. It was our corner, and if we were around, nobody else would come near it. Well, there were only six of us left at that stage. Fucking virus! It was a sure means of depleting your social circle. There were still times when I wished I didn’t have to remember people and things, that memories were more like a curse. I wished I could just leave everything in the past where it belonged. Life just didn’t happen that way. Then I thought it was maybe my gift to remember them, to tell all their stories and keep their memories alive in some way. You see, none of them ended up with headstones, and none had books written about them. This was perhaps the only testament to their lives. I think those memories were my tribute to their fun, their love of life, and their bravery. Without them, I would never have been the person I was, and I would never have experienced life the way I did. I realised then that none of us is the sum of our whole existence; we were the sum of a whole lot of people who floated into our lives, and floated out, and profoundly changed things forever. If I had ever been afraid to die, I no longer was. Through dying, I would have been meeting up with them again, having a good old gossip, and discussing what frocks we were going to wear to the next party. I firmly believed that. I believed that after you died, you were reunited with everyone and everything you had ever loved. At least I had that hope to hang onto.
Fuck, I needed it!
And now I need a fucking drink!
FOOTNOTE: It is now mid 2001, and I am still alive. I have seen my 40th birthday (just!), and am only three years away from 50. It hasn’t been an easy time. I have been disabled by AIDS, and was whisked (literally) from the arms of death in 1996 when they started me on the then new combination therapy. I have never done drag since that final party, and I don’t think the peripheral neuropathy in my feet would take too kindly to me levering my poor toes into stilettos these days. But I have all the photos (and all the memories) from those days, and I often look through them for both a laugh and a cry. I am attending The University of Technology in Sydney at the moment, hoping to finish my Graduate Diploma in Writing around my 51st birthday. Part of my writing has been to put the memories of these people onto paper. They were wonderful friends, and a true inspiration, and I want their memories to live on. This is my tribute to them.
And as much as I hate to admit it, there is in the life of every gutter drag quean those rare occasions where errors of taste and sins of design occur. Not one to want you all to think it was a life of glamour – I offer you Cleo’s blooper reel * Cringes and hangs head in shame*.
If tears could pay our debts
If with our tears we could buy you an indulgence from all pain
If by weeping now we could do all your weeping for you
Then we would cry until our eyes were washed away
Excerpt from Wilbur Smith novel
For World AIDS Day 2003 I wrote a piece titled “The Storyteller – Stories Almost Lost In Time”.It was a synopsis of the lives of three close friends who had died from AIDS before successful treatments – as we know them now.
As someone who is accustomed to writing – in fact have a university degree in it – I find that writing flows quickly and naturally from the smallest of seeds. I have to admit that writing “The Storyteller” was one of the two toughest pieces of writing I have ever done. It took me a month to nut together 750 words, a month of anguish and more tears than I have cried for some time. It was an emotionally difficult piece to write. It was hard enough trying to decide whose lives to use for my stories, let alone revisiting photos and eulogies.. The prologue to the piece came easily, but I delayed the writing about Andrew, Stuart and Geoff for as long as possible. It made me realize just how unreconciled to their deaths I actually was, that despite everything that had gone on over the twenty seven years since the deaths started, I had never really allowed myself a period of mourning – not just for them but for all the people I knew during that period who had passed on. The unfolding of the AIDS Quilt had, for many years, served as an outlet for grief during this intense time, a way to ‘get it out of your system’, but that doesn’t happen anymore, so I store the grief, hide it away in a dark corner where it sort of sits and mocks me. The writing of “The Storyteller” was almost like a venting of 20 years of grief. I can’t go back and read it, despite being its author. It hurts too much, and I end up crying – yet again!
What I found very empowering from the experience of writing that story was the reaction of people to it. It was almost like giving people permission to grieve, almost like telling them “It’s okay to cry even now, it’s okay to relive these people’s memories, it’s okay to tell their stories”. Some found the article profoundly beautiful, some used it as a way to communicate to partners and friends exactly how that period of HIV had affected their lives. Some, like my partner David didn’t even know the people in the stories yet related so strongly to it through his own experience that he could not read past the first story. Others said they wished I had warned them I was going to do it. It cut deep, it opened wounds not just for them but also for me. I wish I could have written about every single person I knew over that time who had died, but articles do have their limitations.
In fact, the writing of this piece and a piece I did in university for an assignment in personal writing made me aware of my own mental and emotional toughness, my own ability to cope with intense grief by just cutting myself off emotionally and putting up a wall to block it out. Of course, these things always creep up on you in the dead of night, but there is never anyone to witness that vivid flash of memory, that tear that hides behind the eye, to catch you in a moment of weakness.
My capacity to block out these things is, in many regards, a product of my upbringing, and the experiences of life in my younger days.
Like many of my generation I was raised in the dysfunctionality of families recovering from the effects of World War II. My parents – let’s call them Joe and Betty, as mum and dad are now alien words – raised me in the conservative ways of parents of that period, in the idyllic environment – at least at that time – of Sylvania. Lots of skeletons rattling around in Sylvania, I can assure you! Joe never came to terms with the post-war period of the 50’s and 60’s, and despite a thin veneer of normality in our household, as I grew older I realized all wasn’t as it appeared. I had a younger brother, Kevin. He was to be the subject of a university assignment 40 years after his death.
When I was 11, Betty up and left. No word of warning, no hint of departure. There in the morning making breakfast, gone when Kevin and I arrived home from school. Within several months of her going, Joe bought his mistress into the house under the guise of a housekeeper – we must retain a respectable appearance, despite anything that was happening. Joe had a seriously bad temper, and both Kevin and I experienced his wrath with a strap huddled in a corner. The housekeeper – herein referred to as the bitch from hell – hated Kevin and I almost as much as we hated her. Kevin was five years younger than me and suffered from ADHD. This was enough for the bitch from hell to make him her direct target, and she made his life a total misery. There was little I could do to protect him. Her vengeance for taking her on was to go to Joe with exaggerated stories of misdemeanors, and as we knew – punishment for transgressions was severe. She finally pushed too far, and on the evening of the 8th December 1965 Joe took Kevin out to The Gap at Watson’s Bay and jumped over with him in his arms. Joe survived. Kevin’s body was found two days later floating towards the sea near Broken Bay.
From that day to the time of my university assignment 40 years later this subject was never discussed within my family or otherwise. It was like it never happened. Joe got off on a plea of manslaughter. I had to live with him for another 10 years, but any vestige of trust or feeling had been destroyed.that December night. I never trusted him again, and always guarded what I said, and how much I let him know about my life. I closed off. I became hard. This affected my life for a long time after, and gave me the capacity to survive. The bitch from hell never shed a tear or displayed any emotion regarding Kevin’s death. It was as though he had never existed. By the time we left Sylvania at the end of 1966 we had changed the family name. The bitch from hell had managed to alienate us from all our friends and neighbours, even our direct family. Joe committed suicide in 1978. I shed the obligatory tears and moved on. I’ve never forgiven him, and I never will.
Writing the university assignment in 2003 opened a whole Pandora’s Box for me. I had never investigated Kevin’s death, had never wanted to revisit the wound. However, in June 2000 “Sunday Life” magazine ran an article on The Gap, and the bones in the closet rattled very loudly. Among the synopsis of sad events that surround The Gap was a brief entry for 1965 – “Frederick Pickhills of Sylvania, tells Vaucluse police, “I have been over the gap with my son. I had hold of his hand.” Pickhills was charged with the murder of Kevin Pickhills, 7. Pleading guilty in court to an emended plea of manslaughter, Pickhills was released on a five-year good behaviour bond.” (NB there have been two name changes in the family over time. One to Phillips, which was initiated by Joe so his past wouldn’t follow him, and the second to Alderman by me so that my family could never track me down after the fiasco they called a funeral). For the assignment I scanned all the papers from the time – my tutor was quite concerned about the emotional impact of following up such a closeted and traumatic event – and pieced together a nightmare I had all but blocked from my memory. It was almost a feeling of freedom to finally piece it all together, and lay the bones to rest.
After Joe died, I came out. I was 25, a very later bloomer. I came out with a bang, not a whimper. I had always wondered what Joe would have done if I had told him I was gay, and sort of knew that it wouldn’t have had a good outcome. I may have left it late, but at least it was safe. I reunited with my mother. We communicated for 19 years until 1997, when I finally severed the threads of what turned out to be a futile attempt to try to reconcile some sort of relationship with her. It was never destined to be. Another set of bones laid to rest.
What I wasn’t to know when I came out was that my life as a gay man, and my life as a HIV+ man were going to run in a parallel line, were going to be intrinsically tied together. So this was what the hardening, the hiding away of all emotions had prepared me for. It proved handy I have to say. Always a strong shoulder to lean on at funerals, and to cry on at wakes. I sort of prided myself on this toughness, on this capacity to turn off. But I payed in other ways, as I found out when I wrote “The Storyteller”.
Not only have I given other people permission to grieve, I’ve given myself permission to grieve, to flush out 20 years of pent up emotion and sorrow. But not just that either – I’ve finally given myself permission to grieve for many things. I have finally relaxed the hardness, finally given in to the emotions. I’ve already ruined enough relationships with my inability to give – though mind you, it wasn’t always just me – and when I met David after a 18 month break from the gay scene due to recovering from AIDS I was at a point where I realized I needed to rely on other people, and I needed to give. I needed support, I needed to love and I needed to share. This is the relationship that is making up for all the shit. This is totally open but very secure ground for me. No more secrets, no more closet rattling skeletons from the past. I’m not quite sure if my experiences have made me functionally dysfunctional, or dysfunctionally functional. Whatever the answer, I’m now taking better care of myself emotionally, allowing these feelings to spill out rather than bottling them away, or pretending they didn’t happen. When I get to write my families story, its going to be a hell of an account.
So light a candle at home for all your lost loved ones on World AIDS Day, and tell their stories. And cry! And grieve! You have permission to perform this act of love and remembrance. After all, we don’t want them forgotten. They deserve better than that.
There is the full story of my brothers death, in all its frightening facts, at the end of my blog, titled “Kevin Pickhills – The Unspoken Name” should you be interested.