By Benjamin Law

Holding the Man and AIDS in Australia

Tracing the origins of HIV and AIDS is a slippery task. You can always go one step back. For Australia, HIV was an American import, helped along by gay men who frequented cheap Skytrain flights between here and San Francisco in the early 80s. Before that, there was so-called Patient Zero, a gay and promiscuous French-Canadian plane steward who knowingly and unapologetically infected hundreds of men around the world, triggering off a global epidemic. And we can go even further back than that, to the moment of first transmission: most likely an African hunter who contracted a simian version of HIV by accidentally mixing his blood with a chimpanzee’s while slaughtering it for food.

Whatever its starting point, Australia recorded its first official death from AIDS six months after I was born: July 1983 at Melbourne’s Prince Henry Hospital. The man was 43 years old. He was the first Australian casualty and wouldn’t be the last. Being 29 means I’m old enough to vividly remember the Grim Reaper advertisements from 1987, but young enough not to have known a single person who has died of AIDS. When I think of my boyfriend and gay friends our age, it’s unimaginable to think of us all having to fight our way through what Stephen Dunne once described in the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘that awful time’. Dunne wrote:

Australia’s experience of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s is thus ancient history, and so much of that time is gone: a time of the dead and the dying; vigil shifts at ward 17; watching brilliant and beautiful men sliding into garbled dementia; polite efforts to avoid funeral scheduling conflicts; two full pages of obits in the Sydney Star Observer; anger and love and screaming horror at the waste of so many lives.

Still from the film adaptation of Holding the Man (2015).

It’s a litany of horror, but it’s the detail about ‘funeral scheduling conflicts’ that really unnerves me: the idea that so many of your friends could die in one hit that you would have to prioritise and schedule their funerals in your diary, like so many terrible lunch dates.

All these things happened while I was alive, but the realities of that era were largely lost to me until I saw Tommy Murphy and David Berthold’s stage adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man in 2008. Over six nights, the play sold out each evening, with over 500 people in the audience at every show. By the final scene, the only thing you could hear was the muffled sobs of every person in the room, my mother, siblings, boyfriend and me included. It was as though the entire theatre had become a funeral, strangers bound together by grief over the lost lives of these two men – Timothy Conigrave and his lover John Caleo – who were both real people, and would have only been in their early fifties now if they’d still been alive. I had never experienced anything like it. Then I read the book.

Holding the Man was first published in 1995, only a few months after Timothy Conigrave died. It’s a monumentally loved book: just mention its title and it’s enough to trigger off a wave of people’s recollections of first reading it and the emotional toil it took on them. It won the UN Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995 and was issued as an orange-and-white Popular Penguin in 2009. Somewhere along the line, Holding the Man unexpectedly and quietly became an Australian classic.

As much as the book is about losing your lover – and, ultimately, yourself – to HIV and AIDS, Holding the Man is fundamentally a love story. It has the kind of premise that would sound unbelievable if it had been written as fiction. In the mid-1970s in Melbourne, high school student Timothy Conigrave meets John Caleo at their all-boys Catholic school. Timothy, a burgeoning theatre fag, falls hard for John, the captain of the football team, who has incredibly long eyelashes. Tim writes:

On the far side of the crush I noticed a boy. I saw the body of a man with an open, gentle face: such softness within that masculinity. He was beautiful, calm. I was transfixed.

It’s an unlikely pairing – Caleo is Best and Fairest of the rugby team, for Christ’s sake – but the boys fall for each other and the relationship works. As school progress, Tim and John’s relationship is subject to their parents’ ferocious disapproval – especially John’s – but some of their friends almost barrack for them. One scene that has stayed with me is where Tim and John’s straight male friends give them a friendly, blokey round of applause after they’re caught having sex together. It’s something I can’t imagine happening amongst Australian male high school students now. Teachers who discover the boys’ relationship have reactions that range from muted to tacitly supportive.

After Tim and John leave school, they build a life together and pursue their careers: Tim goes to NIDA; John becomes a chiropractor. And like most gay couples at the time, they begin to test and play with the sexual boundaries of their relationship. This all coincides with news of a gay-targeted disease, initially called ‘the gay cancer’, which becomes GRID (Gay Related Immune Dysfunction), which is then finally recognised as HIV. John and Tim are both diagnosed as positive in their mid-twenties.

Tim started writing Holding the Man in the early 1990s, after John had died. At a New Year’s party in St Kilda, he ran into the writer and editor Sophie Cunningham, who was then working as a publisher at McPhee Gribble. When Tim told her about the manuscript he was putting together, Sophie told him that she worked in books. For months at a time, Tim and his friend, playwright Nick Enright, would refine the chapters of Holding the Man closely before delivering them to Sophie. ‘It was in rough shape, but I knew I was onto something special,’ Sophie says now. ‘There was something about the voice, clarity, humour and directness of it. It’s the book I’m most proud of having published.’

At the Adelaide Festival in 1994, Nick met up with Sophie and said that although Tim had nearly finished the manuscript, he suspected that when it was finally done, Tim would be too. In September that year, Tim delivered the completed draft to Sophie over lunch, then died a few weeks later. ‘It’s like he held himself together through sheer force of will,’ Sophie says. True to his character, the last thing Tim ever said to Sophie was that she looked good blonde, and should keep her hair that way.

Filmmaker Tony Ayres – another person Timothy Conigrave befriended before his death – once said in an interview: ‘If the story of the impact of AIDS in Australia was going to be told in a mainstream way, [Holding the Man] was a very good way of telling it. Because even though it’s a tragedy, it’s not a dark tragedy. It’s accessible. It’s a love story, it’s very moving and one that wouldn’t alienate a straight audience.’ Ayres is right. Holding the Man might be regarded as essential queer reading now, but Sophie Cunningham remembers that upon its release, all sorts of people in Melbourne were reading it: straight men; gay women; mothers-in-law. ‘It wasn’t big straight away,’ she says. ‘It was more enthusiastic in a low-key way and never stopped. It didn’t become a bestseller. It was actually quite a Melbourne book, at first. There was a sense of slow and steady sales which actually just never stopped. It’s quite an unusual sales pattern, really.’

In the 17 years since its release, there have been very few criticisms of Holding the Man. It’s generally harder to criticise memoir: it feels mean-spirited to dissect the written account of someone’s own life, since any attack feels personal. Those complications are of course amplified in a book like Holding the Man, a book written by a dead man, about his deceased lover. Any feelings we have towards the book can’t be disentangled from what we feel about what Tim and John had together, then lost.

One enduring criticism of the book is that it’s too simply written, or that it reads like YA fiction – as if that, in itself, is somehow a sign of bad writing. In a sense it’s true: sentence by sentence, Holding the Man is not a challenging book. It’s the type of uncomplicated read that you can finish it off in a single Sunday afternoon, given the time. But that simplicity in style doesn’t equate to simplicity in subject matter. The topics Conigrave unravels in Holding the Man – for instance, the guilt that comes with knowing you possibly infected and killed your lover – are difficult to wrestle with. The book might be romantic, but it doesn’t romanticise. Some claim it reads too much like a fairytale, but I struggle to think of a fairytale that regales readers with all the confronting mechanics of sex (semen and shit included). Recently, Tony Ayres told me that the fairytale quality of the book was exactly what he loved about Holding the Man. ‘[Holding the Man] is a fairytale,’ Ayres told Outrage years back, ‘but so was Tim’s life. He met a boy when he was 15 and they stayed together until they died.’

Sophie Cunningham says she still gets emotional about the book: she essentially read the manuscript for Holding the Man as Tim was dying in a room nearby. Timothy was the first person to whom Cunningham had been close who died. ‘The shocking thing about the AIDS epidemic was just the sense you could get a fucking epidemic,’ she says. ‘Suddenly thousands of people are dying. Yes, they happen to be gay, but next time it could be another demographic. It was that sense of having a disease where no one knew what it was. It was shocking to everyone. Still, I’d hate for Tim’s story to be seen as a kind of fairytale horror story of What Did Happen, because to some extent this stuff still happens. It was more extreme then.’

It does still happen, of course. The first time HIV properly came onto my radar in any real sense was in Brisbane during the early 2000s, when one of my boyfriend’s flatmates – a handsome and obscenely young gay guy, only in his early twenties – came back from the doctors with a HIV positive diagnosis and broke down in front of the entire household with the news. It was a massive shock. But looking back, this was also a period in which HIV rates amongst young gay men drastically spiked in my home state of Queensland. Here, HIV infection rates rose by 50 per cent in the past year alone, rivalling figures from the mid 1980s. The difference is, of course, that HIV is not the death sentence it was then. There is still no cure, but at least we know what we’re up against now. Back then, in Tim and John’s era, we were all just soft targets.

Everyone projects their own stories onto Holding the Man. Like Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo, my boyfriend Scott and I knew each other in high school. When I finished reading Holding the Man for the first time, it was 3am in Brisbane and Scott was away in New York for what would be three months. The book struck me as both beautiful and horrible, the way it demonstrated that so much of our luck – and our survival – depends entirely on the era and circumstances into which we were born. If Scott and I were contemporaries of Tim and John’s, it’s likely the both of us would be dead too. Wrung out and wracked, I tucked myself into bed after reading the book and silently cried myself to sleep. Part of the grief people feel when reading this book is over Conigrave and Caleo, but I suspect it’s also for themselves. Holding the Man might be a love story, but it’s also a book that forces us to confront the fact that all love stories – including the ones to which we belong, in real life – must end in death.

Still, Holding the Man is not all misery. It’s a funny book and easy to love. It stands as a reminder of our victories, too. By the time Timothy Conigrave died, Australia had resoundingly won a huge public health battle against HIV. While other developed countries saw HIV’s spread as a reason to ensure homosexual sex, sex work and intravenous drug use remained criminalised, or to restrict those practices even further, Australia’s then Health Minister Neal Blewett worked across partisan lines to implement strategies that engaged with at-risk groups to ensure gay sex, paid sex and injecting drug use could continue safely without spreading HIV. Public education about safe condom and needle use was staggering. Our AIDS situation was effectively cauterised by a bipartisan urgency rarely seen in politics nowadays. The Australian Model is still regarded as one of the world’s swiftest and most successful responses to HIV. It’s a history of which more Australians should be proud, but so few of us even know it happened.

It’s one of the reasons why I wish there were more friendships between Gen Y queers and their older counterparts, especially ones who lived through HIV and AIDS. There is something about mainstream gay culture that almost tacitly discourages interaction between gay men from different age groups, or at least considers it suspect. It’s a shame, because there is a lot to share. I only have a handful of gay friends who are in their forties, fifties and sixties, but I’m making more of them as time passes, and I value how our conversations educate, humble and embarrass me, revealing how appalling little I know about my own community.

One of my newer friends, George, recently recommended a book to me called And the Band Played On (Randy Shilts, 1987). I still haven’t finished it, not because it’s boring, but because it’s so engrossing that it could possibly take over your life if you let it. It’s a blow-by-blow account of how the AIDS crisis developed in America and the world, and it reads like a thriller. It includes a dense cast of characters at the start, as if the book is an operatic play or an epic. It’s the type of book that’s so huge that it could kill someone with a well-aimed throw to their head. That’s what history is: big.

And here’s one final shameful admission. When a mutual friend introduced me to Dennis Altman some years ago, I didn’t even know who he was. Here was the godfather of the Australian gay rights movement, and I just smiled at him and turned a blank, because that’s youth for you: we just don’t know shit. Dennis and I are now friends, and when he recently signed his reissued copy of Homosexual: Oppression & Liberation for me, I found myself thinking that it would be fair if members of his generation felt a howling frustration towards mine: Don’t you know what we survived? Those cross-generational conversations can still happen and they’re important. Reading Conigrave’s Holding the Man for the first time, it felt like he and I were having one of them. Those conversations can be kind, too. It was only days later that I read what Dennis had inscribed in my copy of his book: for Ben, who was not born when I wrote this.

Portrait of Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law

Benjamin co-wrote the comedy book Shit Asian Mothers Say (2014) with his sister Michelle, and the sex/relationships advice book Law School (2017) with his mum Jenny. Every week, Benjamin co-hosts ABC RN’s weekly national pop culture show Stop Everything. He also co-hosts online startup and tech TV show That Startup Show, and you can catch him on TV shows like Q&A (ABC), The Drum (ABC), The Project (Ten) and Filthy Rich and Homeless (SBS). He’s a Queenslander based in Sydney.

Further reading

Holding the Man

A review of the play adaptation of Holding Man in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The AIDS epidemic

Paul Sendziuk in Eureka Street on ‘Australian Responses to AIDS’.

And the Band Played On

The New York Times review of And the Band Played On.