An edited version of this story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29-30 November 2014
On World AIDS Day one year I stood on Oxford Street selling red ribbons for the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation. The crowd’s goodwill was palpable and the atmosphere almost festive. But now and then I’d stop to think about my uncle, David Williams. Like Bobby, he was one of the first gay men to die of HIV/AIDS in Australia. And like Bobby, when he died his friends and family started a fund for people living with HIV/AIDS. While I sold ribbons on Sydney’s Oxford Street, volunteers on Melbourne’s Chapel Street were raising money for the David Williams Fund.
As Australia sends its first official team of health workers to West Africa to respond to the Ebola crisis, and as we mourn another young man, lost to us in a tragic sporting accident, it’s easy to overlook the epidemic we’ve been living with now more than three decades. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS estimates there were 2.1 million people with new HIV infections worldwide last year and 1.5 million deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. Many of the estimated 35 million people living with the disease are children, and many are living without access to antiretroviral therapies.
In Australia, 1235 new cases were diagnosed last year, and an estimated 26,800 are living with HIV. But as volunteers head to the streets again on Monday to raise money, let’s not forget World AIDS Day is also a time to commemorate those who’ve died.
My mother’s younger brother was a charismatic artist. He worked briefly as a high school art teacher before leaving for Europe in his late 20s. I often admired a series of abstract nudes he had left behind, and which hung in my family’s vicarage home (with the generous curves of breasts and bottoms clearly visible amid frenetically moving limbs, I later realised they must have been inspired by Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase).
He always greeted me with a bear hug and the words “Give me a squeeze”; I’d bury my face in his huge handlebar moustache and beard, and he’d hug me so tightly I momentarily stopped taking breaths. He could make you feel fantastic. I remember him admiring a new necklace I wore to a family Christmas one year: I don’t recall any presents I received that year, but I do remember walking on air for the rest of the day.
I have many vivid memories of my uncle, but I was still in high school when he died. As the years have passed I’ve only grown increasingly curious to know more about his life. And so earlier this year I sat in a small outbuilding on the roof of the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, talking to one of my uncle’s friends, the nurse Tom Carter. Now 60, Tom has neat short grey hair, a face that’s lined with age but open, and a ready smile traced with weariness. Back in 1984 Tom was a young nurse at what was then Melbourne’s Communicable Diseases Centre “when the rumblings of this new disease thing came in from America”. My uncle, he explained, was the night shift manager of the gay venue in Collingwood, Club 80. While there were calls to “lock up all the poofters and close down the gay saunas”, Tom joined the voices arguing to keep the venues open. And unbeknownst to health department bureaucrats, Tom and his partner, also a nurse, would visit Club 80 on Friday nights.
“We sat in a little room and left the door open a little bit. People would quietly come in, shut the door and quietly leave. We never got paid overtime, we just quietly took the bloods and we delivered them to the laboratory.”
Tom was testing married men and other people who didn’t want to be seen going into the clinic. “David understood that. He was very approachable and very warm. He would talk to countless men, men who were scared, men who were sick or men who needed to be educated about condom use.”
A number of men would use false names, Tom recalls. “I had Bob Hawke tested about 10 times, and I had Joh Bjelke-Petersen – he tested positive too.” For many months Tom found more HIV positive clients through blood tests at Club 80 than he did through tests at the clinic.
“After the blood tests were over, at 4 o’clock in the morning, I’d be having a coffee in the lounge area and David would come out and we’d quietly talk. He’d ask ‘How are you going, will you be all right?’ He was more than just a manager at the venue: I believe that those staff are at the front line.”
“At the beginning of the tidal wave of drama and crisis and death, he was like ‘OK guys, this is happening, we’ve got to do something. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ve got to do something’.”
Before he died my uncle lost a lot of weight very suddenly. When he started having trouble breathing, Tom said to him: “I believe you are HIV-positive.” He passed away after a short but horrific stint at Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.
“Do something for the boys,” he asked family members just before he died. And so, when friends and family gathered for a wake $1000 was raised for the David Williams Fund. The first client the fund helped was a mother flown from interstate to be with her dying son, who she didn’t know was gay.
When my conversation with Tom finished, I asked him if there there was anyone else I could talk to. Many of his good friends passed away years ago, Tom replied. In those early years of the epidemic funerals were held every week. When the first test for the virus became available, Tom and his partner tested at home with 11 friends. “All 11 were HIV infected, all died within eight months,” he says.
For many who died in those early years, there are few people left alive to tell stories about them. And so the task of remembering falls to rapidly ageing parents (if they are still alive), or to surviving sisters and brothers, or to nieces and nephews.
Recently my mother sent me a photo of my uncle with my brother and me surrounded by pigeons in Trafalgar Square – my mother was close to her brother and we’d taken our first overseas holiday to visit him. He’s wearing a cool black leather jacket and black jeans. I’m in a bright yellow raincoat, my brother’s jacket is only slightly less lurid. My uncle is looking down at the birds resting on his arms, I’m facing him doing the same. If I concentrate, I can just recall the day.
I think about my uncle when I look at his paintings that now hang in my own home. I think about him when I move house and pack up the jewellery he left me. Now, in one of those co-incidences that would give even a Richard Dawkins pause to wonder, my own children have a gay uncle David too: not an artist, but a graphic designer. And when my daughter holds his hand and says “I love you”, I think about my uncle.
On Monday when you see volunteers shaking buckets or selling red ribbons, give whatever you can. But also take a moment to remember those who are a statistic, who are a part of history, but who were also once people whose love could take our breath away.