Living with Hope
Gavan grew up in country Queensland and Rockhampton before moving to Brisbane in the early 80s. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, when he was 17.
Gavan found delight and fulfilment in music after seeing Les Smith DJing at The Terminus on an Australia Day Long Weekend and soon after became a VJ at the Unicorn Hotel in Sydney. After this move to Sydney he returned to make Brisbane his home. Here, he speaks with Andrew Shaw about the changing face of HIV since the 80s and today’s attitudes to positive people.
Gavan, we were talking earlier about the way you were treated by people when you were diagnosed.
I think most of the fear was because the disease was sexual. Because it was a sexual disease there was a lot of stigma associated with the infection, a lot of moral blame – it was our fault for the lifestyle we chose to live. At that time very little was known and I didn’t know about HIV or the risk it posed until I had my diagnosis, that was in 1987.
What about the medical support?
Certainly the people like David Orth, who gave me my diagnosis at Allen St, and other specialists such as Hugo Ree, who worked with lepers, [they] didn’t have that level of stigma. But it was certainly in the health department and other departments you’d be referred to. I think that fear of HIV has been reduced now in the community and HIV is somewhat normalised.
What happened when you were diagnosed?
There was a big thing about contact tracing. I had to go through and remember everyone I’d slept with. They wanted me to go back as far as I could and I got up to three sheets of paper and I went, “Got any more paper?”
The other thing I found that was abnormal was the sense this was terminal, that there was no hope. I find though this journey that one thing that’s always stuck with me is there’s always hope with HIV. Hope is a stronger motivator than the current fear based education campaigns of the LNP. I would rather have HIV than diabetes, because there are many options to treat HIV, unlike diabetes.
It’s not a hope that there’s going to be a cure, or that there might be a vaccine, it’s just a hope that I can survive this with the support of a united LGBTQI community and that if I look after myself, don’t drink so much alcohol, abstain from recreational drugs then I can help look after my body. I set about doing everything in moderation and I think that’s one thing that saved me: I didn’t end up dead in Ward 17 South because of some self-destructive part of my body wanting to end my life.
That all changed when I got an AIDS diagnosis in 95. My doctor, Cassie Workman, said, well love, you need to go and sort out your life, you’ve got three months tops to live. Then she went off to the International AIDS Conference and she came back with three suitcases. She’d thrown her clothes out in Canada and filled her suitcases with protease inhibitors, the new line of drug that some drug rep had given her.
She calls me up in the middle of the night and says: “Get down to my surgery, now.” I get down there in my pyjamas and there waiting are the other gay men, all blurry eyed. One by one we were given these drugs and within a month I started putting on weight and my diarrhoea stopped. I started feeling better, my T-cells were going up. By the third month you would have never known I was on death’s door. This is what they called the Lazarus Effect.
The advantage for me was I tested early and started looking after my diagnosis and I started treatment at a time when I really needed it. Some people who don’t go and get tested, they don’t have these options. Because by the time they get the diagnosis, no medicine is going to work.
Gavan. Photo: A Shaw
What about attitudes today within our community around HIV?
I have even had the outside of my home spray painted with hate slogans. More recently, two years ago I’m at Tropical Fruits and just finished work volunteering behind the bar and I met what I thought was this nice South African man.
Up comes this other guy who I’d disclosed to and had been to my home socially. This guy then went up to [the South African] guy and I came closer to hear what was going on. I heard this guy tell him, “He’s got AIDS!” Then the guy said to me, “Hey mate, fuck off!” I said, “What have I done?” and moved closer. He said, “Don’t fuckin’ come near me you AIDS-infected poofter.” Then he spat on me.
I went back to my tent, crying and upset because this was not the way the community supported PLHIV as I once remembered it during the early days of the epidemic. Sero-sorting only divides the community, it doesn’t open up a discourse about loving each other and acceptance no matter what side of the HIV divide we may be on.
On a recent trip to Sydney I was at a club and the guy was really interested. I said, “Look mate, before we go anywhere, by New South Wales law I have to tell you that I’m HIV positive.” He said, “So what, who isn’t?”
Here in Brisbane you don’t have to disclose that you’re HIV positive if you’re having safer sex, but I usually always do. For me, I use it as a way of working out the riff-raff, the good and bad. Like, is this guy really going to like me for who I am and do I really want to share my body with this person if they’re not going to accept this fundamental part of who I am? This defining aspect of my life? Is this a person who can see the rewards and life fulfilment from loving and caring for someone living with the virus?
Once in Brisbane I met a guy and I told him. He said, “You shouldn’t even be out, mate. What are you even doing at The Wickham? You don’t even have the right to be out here.” I said “Excuse me, I have every right to have a fulfilling sexual, long-term loving relationship with anyone who wants to love me in return. Having an HIV diagnosis does not turn me into Maria, a celibate nun!”
How do feel in yourself, you seem great.
I have moments. My AIDS plays up sometimes.
Your AIDS plays up?
People don’t like it when I say that.
It’s not politically correct…
I’m sorry, but I’ve got the certificate that says I’ve got AIDS and I should be able to use that word any way I want to use it. It’s a funny little antidote for me to make light of some of the hideous experiences that I’ve gone through. And maybe one day my AIDS will play up so badly that it’ll get me. But I’m not worried about that. As I have hope that as a community we can support PLHIV, accept us as equals, and stop this divisive ‘Clean’ vs ‘Unclean’ stereotype being used as a poorly constructed risk reduction strategy.
Thanks to medications there is now hope for sero-discordant relationships, in which one partner is HIV positive and the other is HIV negative – there is hope they can have a sexual relationship without barriers. For the whole community there is hope that for those living with HIV their lived life experiences and the struggles of our community will not be relegated to the pages of history as the LNP currently are implying.
PLHIV are not the subject of history, and on this World AIDS Day we have hope that our community can start to heal from the attacks by community leaders towards the funding of QAHC, and the destructive effects of such politically motivated rationale.
With the power to shape gay affairs comes a responsibility to use that power responsibly. It is not a legal responsibility, but a moral and ethical one. The public has entrusted that power to our gay public figures and our gay and lesbian owned companies because they expect positive leadership; if there is a violation of that public trust, then the public will take that power away. We have the power to move this state’s GLBTQI issues forward despite those who actively work against us; we must use this power in a responsible and meaningful way.
We can no longer simply define ourselves by the behaviour that we oppose; we must start to define ourselves by what we wish to see in the future. We see this in the way the community has rallied behind Brisbane Pride Festival and in less than 12 months got itself out of debt. Or the female management – past and present – of The Wickham Hotel who quietly donate six figures to community based organisations without blowing their trumpet and putting it in print.
Sero-discordance is something like marriage. Hard work at times, but you do the hard work because it is worth the reward. Not always easy, but it takes commitment.
I think sero-sorting stems from anger. Understandable anger. So much anger, everywhere, everyone, life is complicated. But hope is easier to accept as it’s born from love for each other and faith that we can overcome this second wave of HIV.