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