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Friday, June 27, 2008

Memory, Loss and Memory

The tragic suicide of Dr Matt Wildbore last week as well as the imminent publication of Dr Chris Brickell's new book "Mates and Lovers" made me think of a few things.

One thought that I keep returning to is the way our history, individual and collective, is so fragile.

For many younger men in Auckland, Matt Wildbore is not a name they'd know. For me, and I guess for my generation, he was a symbol of compassion, of care, of fun, of bravery and support through the worst days of the plague. He was vocal, he was courageous, he cared. The effort he put in, and also the efforts of many others, through those dark days when all you could expect after an HIV+ diagnosis was to get sicker and sicker and die, usually terribly, perhaps in your own shit, emaciated, blind, demented, unable to recognise those around your bed who loved you, it seems that history, that part of our culture, has been lost to some extent.

It's as if the generation coming straight after a terrible war had no idea of the struggles their parents had been through. Tragedy is now ephemeral.

Before, the stories of a culture's suffering and bravery, generosity and struggle, all formed part of the collective memory, something that could be referred to, something that was passed down from generation to generation. The essentially fragile, tenuous nature of gay culture and community makes this hard enough in the first place, but given that so many who did fight so bravely, who nursed, fed, wiped the arses of and cleaned up the vomit of their friends, lovers, or even strangers, or quietly looked after them as they descended into AIDS related dementia - these stories are now, it seems to me, largely gone, and certainly I think unknown by many younger gay men. They just don't know what it was like. And that is maybe a good thing. But somehow it seems sad to me too that the struggles and amazing bravery displayed in the face of such terror and hostility are so quickly slipping from our collective consciousness.

But then the work of Dr Brickell gives me heart. He has undertaken meticulous scholarship to find out the hidden history of gay men in New Zealand from the 19th Century on. He has taken active steps to recover our past. If we are to ever really have a gay community, if it is possible, then understanding where we come from, our whakapapa, our heritage, our past, is essential. Knowing that men in the 1860s or 1920s looked to other men for love, for sex, for joy and for support, just as we do, is a tremendously important thing for us all to take on board.

The stoic in me remembers the words of Emperor Marcus Aurelius - "So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone" and it is true - the world is full of unsung or forgotten histories and biographies that are filled with acts of love, bravery, sacrfice, joy and tragedy that have been forgotten and blown as dust to the wind.

But I want to remember - and I want young gay men coming up to remember too. I want you to know where we came from, what we went through, because it matters, because without all this we wouldn't be here today, and so you know a bit of what we had to do to get here, to this place where you are able to live in a level of social acceptance that seemed impossible to even imagine for me 30 years ago.

Remember. Remember all of it - the good and the bad, the extraordinary and the banal. It is part of us all, part of who we are and how we all got here.

Celebrate your life, love it, enjoy it, embrace it. But remember.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

How Strange Life Gets

A good friend, who at 44 is a couple of years younger than me, had a heart attack the other week (henceforth known as HAM -Heart Attack Man). Given that he smokes like a chimney, and in his drinking makes me look (at times) like a Salvation Army officer, perhaps it’s not surprising. Worrying, as I am very fond of him, but maybe not so surprising.

Another friend, also younger than me, but only by a few weeks, has been living with a nasty cancer diagnosis (henceforth known as CB - Cancer Boy) for the last 2 months.

Both of these guys, myself and another friend (let’s call him the 4th), were sitting chatting the other night on K Rd. CB and HAM were sort of swapping notes, while both were smoking still (I can be smug as I haven’t had a ciggie in weeks and weeks now) joking a little, when I asked the 4th if was ok, and he assured me he was, and he asked me if I was ok, and I said “I’m fine thanks, just fine” or words to that effect.

There was a slight sort of pause, then I said, “Well, apart from the AIDS thingy”.

And that’s the weird thing. My AIDS diagnosis really is such a small part of my life now. Just a “thingy” I have to deal with.

I received the news in 1988, 20 years ago now. As one Dr in London told me, “You’ve probably got about 2 years or so left, why not go home to New Zealand and be with those you love” - “Get Ready To Die” is what she meant. I neither came home then nor died. Another Dr here in Auckland gave me a year to live in 1995, when I was very, very sick and pretty well living in Ward 9C or Herne Bay House. Again, unless something very major has happened and I missed it and you have all been humouring me, I haven’t died yet.

Instead, here I am, middle-aged, worrying about my weight and waistline, wondering why I no longer seem to want to stay up dancing till dawn , wishing I had a good man in my life (applications for this post may be left in the comments section below) and trying to get a career going.

And getting seriously worried about the health of my younger friends with non-HIV related problems. Everyone use to be worried about me, and the rest of us poz people. Now I worry about my friends, and not for HIV stuff.

It is all rather disorienting you see, as I spent a lot of time and effort getting ready to die. I was determined to die well, to have “a good death” and had even chosen the music (several times in fact, always totally different) for the whole thing. I did Buddhist meditation, I went through Kubler-Ross workshops, I beat phone books to shreds with garden hoses (long story), I studied death in Western Society, hell I even lecture at University on it! And yet, I still have to pay the rent, find something to eat, and remember to put the rubbish out. I’m still here. The world is still turning. And dear and good friends are coping with their own health problems that could well see them pop their clogs before I do at this rate.

I’m not complaining mind you. But this Friday night sitting on K Rd, it really brought it home to me. For most of us with HIV, if you do what your Dr tells you, take your meds properly and take reasonable care of yourself, well, we’re likely to be around a fair while. Long enough to worry about friends with cancer or coronary problems.

Who’d have thunk it?

Question for You

Here’s a question for you: Do all immigrants to New Zealand, or any country, share the same issues? I mean, do a multi-millionaire French immigrant and his American wife settling in Marlborough and running a vineyard have that much in common with an IT peon from Shanghai in Wellington? How much does either one share with a Samoan wife joining her husband and his family here in South Auckland? They all have to adjust, they all come from somewhere else, they’ll all feel a bit different here, for a while at least, but their social and material conditions are vastly different, and this will affect how they adjust to life here.

I ask because from among the mailing lists I’m on, I received one the other day that had this acronym - GLITTFAB = gay, lesbian, intersex, transgender, takataapui, fafa’afine, asexual, and bisexual. What an assortment! And why on earth are we all grouped together? That’s what I don’t get. As a gay man, I think I do share a few interests with lesbians. We get to wear a few of the same labels and get some of the same shit thrown at us by wider society. But otherwise, my dyke friends and I often see things differently, where they mainly come at political issues from a feminist perspective, and I don’t nearly as much.

Thinking of my ACT supporting gay male friends who base their politics in libertarianism, they just want all and any regulations regarding adult sexual behaviour removed. But they sure as hell don’t share my lefty feminist influenced ideas on sexuality. And they take more drugs than I do. Which they also want deregulated.In fact they want pretty much everything deregulated.

Transgender? It’s not the same thing as gay – nothing like it in fact. It’s an entirely different issue. Whether FTM or MTF, they’re not gay men or lesbians. They aren’t same-sex attracted and I honestly don’t see what interests we share. And some of the MTFs I’ve met just seem like heterosexual men in a dress. They cling to old pre-Feminist ways of being “a lady”, some stay on with their wives, and some I can think of even beat their wives up still, but then claim they’re oppressed. It’s not the same sort of oppression though, is it

Intersex – well, I accept that the issues facing those born intersex are real and serious, but don’t really speak to or impinge on my life as a bumboy I’d have to say. They occupy a difficult place in society, and I’m supportive of them, but do we really belong in the same group? I don’t think so

Asexuals? Please! Fucking and who and how we fuck is one of the key characteristics that sets us fags apart – asexuality doesn’t really speak to this side of life at all. Just don’t have sex – is that really that hard? Does it need a civil rights based political liberation movement behind it as gay rights did? Really? When was the last time someone leant out a car window and screamed “Asexual pervert!” or they got denied a job or a flat because they aren’t into sex? On a subjective level, I’m sure it matters to them, but I have to say not so much to me.

I know some Maori gay men who entirely reject the label takataapui, and find Maoritanga completely irrelevant to their lives, they relate to the world and themselves as gay men first, and I know others who rate being Maori first, and put their sexuality down as a minor issue.

For some reason we’re all expected to be adequately addressed by being in this grouping. Doesn’t work for me. (apologies to Mr Herkt)

It’s not that I’m blind to the difficulties or oppression that others who are outside the sexual norms of society have, far from it. But to lump us all together as one, as this seems to do, is starting from a false premise: to me it’s saying that just because we fall outside the bounds of heteronormativity we all have a shared set of political, material, social or cultural issues. I don’t think so. And to some extent it is defining ourselves by heteronormative terms.

I blame the academic rubbish heap known as Queer Theory for this. Theresa de Lauretis is usually credited with coming up with the term “Queer Theory” in a 1989 (I think) paper. I don’t think that where it has gone now is necessarily where she envisioned it going, but that’s by the by – academic theories often get picked up and run away with by all sorts.

Yes, there are many ways of being sexual (or even asexual) humans outside the restrictive norms of mainstream society. But just because we’re not sitting in the majority doesn’t mean that we all share common interests either. This grouping moves from biological categories (intersex) to arguably more socially constructed ones (gay & lesbian, though the nature/nurture debate on that still isn’t closed by any means) and one only made possible via modern medical technology (transgender). We can all be labelled “queer” but I think that masks more than it reveals. And by doing that it silences some.

In New Zealand today, the oppression that used to rule over so many of us has lessened considerably, especially if you’re a gay man or a lesbian. And we got those rights through concerted political effort made over decades.

Am I unsympathetic or politically unsupportive of the rights of intersex or transgender people? No, not at all – but do we all fit into the same category? I think not.We’re just as varied, just as diverse in where we sit in society as the group of immigrants I listed above. As they are, we’re from minorities within a larger society, but some of us are going to be able to settle in with far greater ease than others.