Toye de Wilde - Activist & Showgirl - remembers the early days of QuAC
Toye de Wilde is an important figure in the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the formation of the Queensland AIDS Committee and is Patron of QuAC. As a showgirl and activist, she spread the safe sex message and told Brisbane’s gay men the facts about the epidemic. At 71, she tells Andrew Shaw it’s a message that needs reviving.
“I was born in Melbourne, grew up in Brisbane,” says Toye de Wilde. “I got a job in a bar, a gay bar, then the Truth [tabloid] got hold of the story and before you know it I was plastered all over the place. But the support I got from people in the community gave me the strength to go on. I was a shy person, but I became terribly outrageous, as shy people sometimes do. It was either that or run away from it.”
De Wilde is now retired to a southern Brisbane suburb, but by the early 1980s, in a Queensland crawling with door-kicking cops and a crippling gerrymander, de Wilde was a big presence in inner city bars, working up to management while performing in drag shows. She took over the sports bar at the Hacienda on Brunswick Street: “Within weeks the whole place turned gay, I’d taken upstairs as well.”
After a tour of Tassie, de Wilde moved to Sydney, worked at the Tropicana on Oxford Street then joined Les Girls, doing a national tour. She returned to Brisbane with fellow showgirl Jackie Monroe and decided to remain, back at the Hacienda.
AIDS at first was “terrifying” de Wilde says, because “no one knew anything”. Could you catch it from toilet seats? Was it safe to drink from a cup at an HIV-positive friend’s house? If that same friend cut himself, did you apply a Band-Aid or back away to a safe distance? When an HIV positive man who donated blood was linked to the death of children, the police began to search gay men outside the Hacienda, she says.
“They were taking registration numbers and contacting them. A karate school in the Valley was sending people to ‘practise’ on people in the gay bars. It was very frightening.”
The first AIDS focused meeting she attended was at the Alliance Hotel. “We formed the AIDS committee and they asked me to be on the first board with Bill Rutkin and others. There was no information. The Health Department had no information, they were coming to us for it and we were getting our information from the papers in America.” An early supporter of the committee was Dr John Patten, who is still involved in sexual health today. He was given a crash course in gay sexual practices.
De Wilde says the new AIDS Committee had “terrible problems with the state government”. “Guys that were living together were being raided by police. Politically it was really good for Bjelke-Petersen; at one stage he said there were only ‘one or two’ [homosexuals] in the state and they’d escaped across from the socialist south.”
She found her role on the committee as an educator; she possessed a microphone and a stage from which to spread the safe sex message. Gay men, mistrustful of the police, of doctors, of the government, would listen to someone they knew from the bars, someone they trusted. “At one stage, to try to get rid of QuAC, the old National Party opened up an AIDS clinic in the city,” de Wilde says. “But nobody trusted them. You didn’t know where your name and address was going to end up.”
Fundraisers were organised: “We did one show a month. By that stage people were starting to take heed of the safe sex message, because there were so many people starting to look extremely ill and dying. The venues were the only place you could get information.” As well as Dr Patten, de Wilde says help came through the Sisters of Mercy. The Federal Government sent funds to the Sisters, who passed it to the committee for office space and infrastructure.
De Wilde says what happened in the 1980s still matters now. She is alarmed at the increase in barebacking and doesn’t see serosorting as an answer, where HIV status is used as a basis for deciding on whether to have safe sex or not. “The virus keeps changing,” she says. “And having someone else’s virus pumped into you, as in added to what you’ve already got, is not helping you.”
On QuAC’s future, she says its biggest challenge is community support. “It’s so much bigger now and it’s difficult to channel that into a community organisation. I think QuAC needs to get more into the community of the party people, that’s where the problem lies. The scene is frantic, because everything is there for you. No one wants to be serious because you’re on whatever drug you’re on. But the people who work in the clubs, they’re the only people who are going to get through to the patrons. You know who the drug dealers are and you know the young people who are most at risk because they don’t understand what the scene is about. The bar staff and the girls, even though it’s not their job to do it, must take care of their patrons and help them when they’re out of it and doing something stupid, take them aside and ask, ‘You ok babe?’”
In 1989, de Wilde ran for the state seat of Merthyr. “We’d had a couple of round table conferences under Bill Rutkin and also Greg Weir, who was a teacher thrown out of teaching because he was gay. We needed law reform, we needed protection. We had a by-election for Merthyr and we had a meeting of this law reform group. So we said, let’s do it. I was sitting up the back. And it came to money, how would we fund such a thing? ‘We’d have to do fundraisers and barbecues and we wouldn’t have the money in time. No one will listen to us.’ So I said, they would if I ran, and everyone went – are you sure? I said, the papers will pick it up, the television will pick it up. I said if I do, I want to be assured you’re going to be there every step of the way.”
They raised the money, registered and held a press conference. De Wilde expected a couple of people from the uni press and Triple Z, but the location was swarming with commercial film crews when she arrived. She won 3.14 per cent of the vote. But the by-election saw a massive swing against the National Party, which lost disastrously in that year’s December state election. The tide had turned.
“We didn’t win, but we did win,” de Wilde recalls, sipping coffee in a Teneriffe cafe, self-assured and smiling at her memories. “Gay law reform was on the agenda.”
IMAGE: Toye de Wilde: ‘The scene is frantic, because everything is there for you.’ Photo: Andrew Shaw