Thursday, 25 August 2016

Fear and loathing

There was a footnote to the recent federal election that stuck in my mind.  It was this: in Victoria, One Nation won half of its votes in the electorate of Murray.  This detail appeared in The Age a couple of weeks after the election, right around the time that the “Pauline Hanson: Please Explain” doco aired on SBS.  One Nation won four Senate seats but none of them were in Victoria, where it gained only 1.8% of the vote.  The votes that it did receive came overwhelmingly from rural seats and in particular, Murray.

As it happens, I grew up in that electorate.  Its main town is Shepparton – my home town.  Shepparton is a big town that supplies health, education and retail services for the surrounding region – much like Dubbo or Wagga or Tamworth in NSW.  Like them, it has grown while the smaller towns around it have withered.  Outwardly prosperous, Shepparton still hangs on – just – to its rural manufacturing base, with iconic brands like SPC Fruits and Campbell’s Soup based there.  It has changed a lot since I lived there, but in some ways it is just the same - deeply conservative, and deeply racist.     

When it first emerged in 1996, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon shocked me.  Not because of her views or her popularity, but because anyone could be in the least bit surprised by it.  And they were surprised, or at least they said they were.  They dressed up their reactions in fancy language like “feelings of exclusion” and “responses to globalisation,” which I thought were just nonsense.  A vote for One Nation is not a vote against globalisation.  It’s a vote for racism. It was as if people didn’t want to say that word.  Where, I wondered, have they been

Not in Shepparton, obviously.  I had been there, to visit my Dad.  I grew up in racism.  All those lines that Hanson spouted, about Aboriginal people getting “special treatment”, getting “paid to go to school” and all the rest of it, were like a vox pop from the pubs of Shepparton.  Even from my Dad, who was a Labor man all his life. 

“Why do the Abos get special treatment from the government?” he asked during one visit.
I thought for a moment, because my Dad and I rarely talked about political things and never to disagree.
“I think they probably deserve a hand, Dad” I answered. 

There was a long silence.

“Yeah well,” he grumbled.  “I suppose we did steal their land.”

When I was growing up, Shepparton was an overwhelmingly white Anglo town.  There were a few Italians and Greeks and Turks – they seemed mostly to live outside the town.  It is irrigation country, where water is as precious as gold.  The Goulburn River flows north to Echuca where it meets the Murray and all through the area there are orchards and dairy farms.  The wogs had orchards and kept to themselves.  In the town, as in most Australian country towns, there was a small minority of Aboriginal people.  They lived in the poor end of town in public housing, which is also where my family lived. 

They were our neighbours.  They swam at the swimming hole in the river, which is where we went on those long, hot summer evenings.  They dived for mussels, which I thought was strange and dirty.  I didn’t taste a mussel until after I left home.  When I was little we occasionally played cricket with the Aboriginal boys in the park on Malcolm Crescent, until someone pooped in the tower on the playground.  I just assumed it was one of them.  After that, I went to a different park. 

In the early 80s there was a bit of an uproar, when an Aboriginal family got evicted from a house in my street.  The Shepp News reported that they were living in a tent. 

“I heard,” my mother whispered, “that they hadn’t paid rent for two years before they were evicted.”  The implication was clear:  why should she have to scratch and save to pay the rent while they didn’t?  We would be out on our ear if we didn’t pay rent, and long before two years. 

They went to my school, but we weren’t friends.  In truth, I was scared of them.  And not without reason: Tracy Bennett and her sisters pulled me off my bike while I was doing my paper round and roughed me up when I was 12.  In fact, the characterisation of Aboriginal people as victims has always bemused me a little bit.  I sure don’t remember these kids that way.  They were fierce.  They were scary.  Joanne West, who was in my class in first grade and pretty much every year after that, was not a girl to be messed with.  I was shit scared of her. 

Joanne left school at 15, as all the black kids did.  There was an Aboriginal girl who enrolled at our school in Year 11.  That was unusual enough.  Then one day she turned up to school wearing a bright red sweater with an Aboriginal flag on the front.  It was NAIDOC week.  I remember this because the teacher stood at the front of the class and earnestly explained that, “This is a special time for Aboriginal people and we understand that this is special for Jackie and in recognition of this we have allowed her to wear her Aboriginal sweater instead of the school uniform.” 

This lecture was shortly followed by a classroom “debate” about land rights.  That poor kid was howled down by an angry mob of 30 white kids and I, with my desperate need to belong, was one of them.  She ran out of the room in tears. 

I grew up in this racism, and it grew up in me. 

Why, I wondered years later, would a bunch of teenagers care or even know about land rights?  They didn’t know, of course.  They were just mouthing the nonsense they had learned from their parents.  But their parents didn’t mention the other stuff.  The stuff about Aboriginal children being taken away.  Or about the fact that there were no jobs - never would be - in that town, for a black.  They never told them, either, about what happened to the first people of that region.  To be fair, their parents probably didn’t know themselves.  
By the turn of the last century those people had been virtually wiped out, and their passing wasn’t considered important enough for white people to talk about. 

In 1994, just two years before Hanson was elected, I went to a school reunion.  I’d barely said hello when one of the women turned to me and said, “We were just saying how unfair it is that the Abos get all this stuff for free.” 

“You’ll get no sympathy from me,” I said, and walked away. 

Afterwards, I thought about this exchange a lot.  Why, I wondered, did this even come up?  There were no Aboriginal people there – of course there weren’t.  With people you haven’t seen in years, aren’t there more important things to talk about?  And yet none of these people were especially racist, by local standards. “That kind of whingeing and whining about Aborigines,” said Marcia Langton in the Please Explain doco, “for those of us from rural Australia, that was the norm.”  It was just normal.  More than that, I realised, it was something that we were supposed to share.  To bond over.  It was their way of being friendly to me, and I rejected them. 

I claim no credit for this.  My need for approval was, by that time, directed elsewhere, so it was no loss for me. 

Credit, if there is any, goes to Kath.  I don’t remember her last name but she was a Murri woman who I knew in Canberra in the early 90s.  She worked at ATSIC.  I remember telling her about my boss – an eminent left-wing political scientist – who had asked me to find a “nice photo of some Aboriginal women sitting under a tree” for her latest book. 

“What a crock of racist shit!” Kath scoffed.  “If she wants a photo of a black woman, tell her to come down here and take a fuckin’ photo of me.”

And Judy, an Aboriginal woman I met through work when I moved to Sydney.  I didn’t make friends in the queer community, but Judy asked me home for dinner.  She served roast beef like my mum used to make, and talked to me about her life.  She had grown up among white people.  Her real mob, she said, were “all gone now”.  Judy knew a lot about racism.  “Education is not the answer,” she said.  “And yet it’s the only answer.”

Those kids that I went to school with, I’ve since learned, came from some of the great Aboriginal families of Victoria.  Their ancestors survived the diseases and the massacres and were herded onto reserves and missions.  Their grandparents had been at Corranderk and Cummeragunja.  They started the Aboriginal Advancement League.  In 1939 they walked off Cummeragunja and some of them headed south to Shepparton where they could get work picking fruit.  They camped on the river flats between Shepparton and Mooroopna.  Those camps were gone by the time my family moved to Shepp in the early 1970s, but the parents of my schoolmates had grown up there.  That’s how they knew where to dive for mussels.

In 2006, when my father was very ill, I travelled to Shepp.  In the waiting room at the hospital I heard a voice behind me.  “Excuse me, but are you Abigail Groves?” 

I didn’t recognise the speaker.  It wasn’t any of the women from the school reunion. 

“Don’t you remember?” she asked.  “It’s Jo. Joanne West.” 

Joanne West greeted me like an old friend.  I told her my dad was sick.  “Oh bless him, poor bugger!” she said.  She gave me her phone number but I never called.  To tell the truth, I was scared. 

Once I wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to find an exhibition by an artist called Lin Onus.  He painted huge canvases, of tall gum trees and ghostly rivers.  Ethereal, they transported me to another place, another time.  When I got to the end I read his bio and it turned out that Lin Onus was from the river country on the Murray.  He was one of the Yorta Yorta people, the same mob that I had known at school. 

I don’t go back to Shepparton much anymore.  My father is gone now.  His ashes are in that river.  The water is muddy and running with carp – another plague brought by us Europeans.  But the river winds its way north and then west and then south and some of that water, somewhere, will find its way to the sea.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Don't forget me, cobber.

Travelling in country NSW recently I was struck, not for the first time, by the war memorials that sit in each town.  There are a few variations in their 1920s architecture: the soldier, the cross, the plain obelisk.  To me they seem archaic and pompous.  They are always engraved with names, of those who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ or whatever.  The dead.  Every town, no matter small, has one.

If you linger for a moment and read the names, you will see that often there is repetition.  Like, Woolcott, J., Woolcott, M., Woolcott, W.  What are the chances that three men named Woolcott were not related?  These towns are small now – they would have been tiny then.  They must have been brothers, or cousins.  What a loss!  These little towns - just a handful of families that all knew each other - must have been devastated. 

It’s not very fashionable, in the circles that I move in, to write about wars.  Unless you’re horrified about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, I suppose.  It’s easy to lay blame in these fuck-ups.  But remembering is not so easy.  ANZAC Day, that annual orgy of remembrance, is soaked in ideological nationalism – thinking people, including me, often find it repulsive.   
Nonetheless, I would like to sound a note of remembrance for those who died in a less publicised episode that took place a hundred years ago today, at Fromelles in northern France.  This battle – and it was only called that later – was part of the Battle of the Somme.  It was someone’s bright idea, to conduct a ‘diversionary action’, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their troops on main Somme front. 

This task fell to the Australians and was, in military as well as human terms, an unmitigated disaster.  The attack was delayed by two days by the weather, but the artillery bombardment had already started.  It was supposed to destroy the barbed wire that lay in front of the German trenches but served only the warn them that the hapless Australians were about to attack.  The Germans were well dug in, safe throughout the bombardment in deep trenches.  When the Australians did attack, in waves at five minute intervals, they were slaughtered by machine gun fire.  Nearly 2,000 Australian soldiers died; another 3,000 were wounded, in a single day.  Many of the bodies, left hanging on the barbed wire, were never recovered.  News of the debacle was covered up, and only came out much later. 

I wondered, as I travelled around northern NSW, what such a disaster must have been like then.  A hundred years ago Australia’s population was much smaller, obviously.  I try to imagine such a thing happening today.  Adjusted for population growth, it might mean perhaps 14,000 people dying, in one day.  It’s hard to imagine what that might look like, or what it might be taken to mean if it happened now.  And I try to imagine the impossible, and think what it must have meant then, in some little town that was really just a handful of families where everyone knew each other.  It’s no wonder they built their obelisks, and I hope it brought those wives and mothers and sisters and fathers and friends some comfort.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Shithouse politics

I learned a new word the other night:  terf.  It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.  Apparently it’s been around for years but I had no idea because I don’t move circles of people who care about such things anymore.  But last weekend my friend Peter Hyndal rang and said that he was going to be in Sydney to speak at a trans event and would I like to come?  It was a public debate run by the Ethics Centre; the topic was “Society must recognise trans people’s gender identities”. 

I would rather stick hot needles in my eyes, I thought.  I know enough about trans politics to know that it would be just awful.  Even the topic was offensive:  how is it that trans identities are even in question?  Can you imagine a question like “Society must recognise Aboriginal people” being considered a legitimate topic for a televised debate? Nonetheless, Peter was earnest about his reasons for doing it and he is my friend so I said I would go and I did.  

And it was awful.  The Ethics Centre had done its work, lining up a man and a woman to speak on each side.  They imported a glamorous transwoman – Andrea James - from the US to speak with Peter on the Yes side.  For the ‘no’ side they had an old white male philosopher, a chap named John Haldane.  And to speak for radical feminists, they had a Sydney-based academic named Bronwyn Winter.   
Each played their part exactly as expected.  Peter and Andrea made eloquent, impassioned pleas for trans acceptance.  The philosopher dude split hairs about the question and scored a few points about political correctness.  And Bronwyn Winter ran the trans-exclusionary-radical-feminist line. 

I won’t claim to represent everything that Winter said with 100% accuracy, but basically she thinks gender is terrible and wants a society where gender doesn’t matter.  Nice, eh?  But in the meantime, before we get to this post-gender utopia, she has a big problem with transwomen.  She doesn’t want them in women’s “space”.  Because they are different from other women.  Because they look like/used to be/were raised as/still are/men

This argument has been going around for nearly forty years, ever since the publication of Janice Raymond’s ‘The Transsexual Empire’ (1979).  Raymond essentially argued that transsexuality is a patriarchal plot, for the male medico/psychiatric establishment to eliminate gender deviance and men, pretending to be women, to ‘colonise’ women’s bodies, space, culture, etc. 

Apart from anything else, Raymond’s argument revealed a profound (and possibly deliberate) ignorance of what it’s like to be a trans woman in this society.  I can’t claim to be an expert on that myself, but I have noticed that transwomen aren’t exactly lauded as heroes.  Winter exhibited the same ignorance the other night.  “This debate has got to the level of toilets!” she sniffed at one point.  I’m thinking that she doesn’t know what it’s like to fear that you are going to have the shit kicked out of you or be publicly humiliated every time you go into a public toilet.  If she did, she might be a little less dismissive of these women’s priorities.

Winter is just one of the women who picked up Raymond’s rather bizarre strain of transphobia.  This transphobia has poisoned feminist debates about who is welcome in ‘women’s space’ since the 1970s.  In the US this debate was played out around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and in Australia over it was fought out over access to women’s services and the Lesbian Space Project that briefly exercised feminist lesbians in the early 90s. 

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think the preoccupation with women’s ‘space’ or indeed separate spaces for any marginalised group, was fundamentally misconceived.  A waste of time and energy.  I thought we wanted the world to be different?  I thought we wanted men to be different?  How is sitting at a music festival in the bush going to achieve that?  And who is it for, this women-only space?  It’s going to have limited appeal for heterosexual women, which rules out most of that 90%.  And trans women – they are a big no-no.  And any lesbians who like hanging with their straight or trans friends…so that doesn’t leave a lot.  The history of women’s space is a history of cancellations due to lack of interest, which is how the Michigan festival finally met its inglorious end.  Oh, and who is to rule these micro-empires?  Obviously none of the rules or processes from mainstream society can apply, because they are all patriarchal and corrupt.  So who does that leave?  I’ll tell you who: the mob.  The angry, bigoted, ignorant mob. 

I had a vague impression that this strain of radical feminism had gone away.  I don’t know why I thought that: perhaps because of the growth of trans visibility and the number of amazing young women that I meet.  It hasn’t, as Germaine Greer’s “just because you lop off your dick and then put on a dress doesn’t make you a woman” comments last year proved.  Greer may not have had an interesting insight since the 70s, but she still has the public profile to set the internet alight with her brand of dog-whistle feminist politics. 

And Winter was there to run a more sophisticated version of the same line.  She was afraid, she claimed.  Terfs (a term she says is ‘extremely damaging’) have been bullied and threatened in this debate, she said.  Quite possibly some of them have.  But these women never hesitate to play the victim and they will happily use their victimhood to deny someone else their human rights.  This logic took Winter’s argument back to the toilet. 

“Women,” she said, “have certain bodily processes that are exclusive to us as women.  Most women menstruate, for example.  And we need to have safe spaces where we can do that by ourselves.”  Spaces without transwomen, she meant. 

This is where radical feminism has got to, I thought sadly.  Forty years ago women were throwing away their bras and challenging stereotypes.  Now they are whingeing because there might be a tranny in the next cubicle. 

I have been reflecting on her comments, and on the history of radical feminism’s engagement with trans women, since.  And it made me suspect that perhaps separatism is not such a bad thing after all.  Then at least there would be somewhere that Greer and Winter and their friends can go and feel safe.  With lots of lovely toilets, of course.  And maybe, with a bit of luck, they just won’t come back.  

Monday, 9 November 2015

Why not?

My buddy cancelled dinner.  She messaged me last night and said, ‘I just realised I have a dinner tomorrow night.’  I thought, ‘Yes, with me.’  But obviously she was referring to a different dinner.  That’s ok, I can go to my Buddhist class tonight and tomorrow I will go to the shrink and talk about my feelings of insignificance, which I would have done anyway.  It helps to have fresh examples. 

There’s no shortage, because things like this happen quite a bit.  Most of my friends are middle-aged and they are busy people with responsibilities. Energy levels also aren’t what they used to be.  One of the popular excuses is ‘I’m tired from work’.  This would be annoying if my response wasn’t one of relief: phew, so am I.  But more often it’s something to do with the kids or the partner, neither of which I have.  Generally their priorities look like this:

1.       Kids
2.       Partner/spouse
3.       Family of origin
4.       Job
5.       Close/old friends
6.       House
7.       Mid-range/work friends/exercise
8.       Hobbies.

That’s a lot to juggle, especially when your job takes up most of the week. And it’s prone to the wrecking ball of health problems – yours or someone else’s - which can erupt at any time shoot straight to the top of the charts. 

It’s depressing, of course, to rate so lowly on that scale and hence the visits to the shrink.  It’s also difficult to separate those feelings of insignificance from the larger question of: how did this happen?  How did I miss that freight train of normativity that rumbles through all our lives?  Was I asleep when it stopped at the key stations of Partner, Kids, and House?

It’s not like I wasn’t trying.  On the contrary, for thirty years my earnest wish, ambition, and expectation was to obtain a seat on that train.  Much of my energy was directed toward that goal and I organised my life around that expectation.  The complication of queerness was just an inconvenience of scheduling. Most of my friends faced the same obstacle but they still got a seat on the train.  I missed out.  I failed.  Let’s not beat about the bush, because that’s what happened.

Not everyone will agree, of course.  One of the key principles of being queer or a feminist or even just vaguely left is that you are supposed to be very critical of this normative package.  Sometimes people remind me of this if I express feelings of inadequacy, disappointment or grief.  Such reminders, I’ve noticed, usually come from heterosexual people.  They seem to feel that they were forced to board the train and had little choice about where it stopped. 

I find that it’s best not to speak about these feelings or indeed, any of the things that my life so conspicuously lacks.  Unfortunately that doesn’t stop other people from bringing them up, usually in the form of unsolicited advice or questions.  These can be summarised as a single question: why not?  Why don’t you have these things that everyone, queer or otherwise, really wants?  At least some of them?  Why don’t you want them?  Oh, you do?  Well, why don’t you have them?  What’s wrong with you??

Why don’t you have kids?  This is my personal favourite, as it leads to the most bizarre contortions of logic or rationality.  Like the twentysomething lesbians who assured me that ‘it’s not too late’ to have children – I guess they missed the biology class.  Or the earnest suggestion (remarkably common) that I, as a single 48 year old genderqueer, would be an ideal candidate to adopt one of the 11 babies relinquished in NSW last year.  Or the implication that I can’t have really wanted children if I wasn’t prepared to fly to Malawi to buy one. 

Why don’t you have a partner?  What’s interesting about this particular failure is that the more people know and like you, the harder they find it to accept.  Strangers barely register if you don’t have a partner. Sometimes they throw in a condescending ‘Awww,’ but you’re just one of thousands.  Friends, by contrast, like to offer suggestions.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who were convinced that my failure to couple up was due to my refusal to join a lesbian book club.  Disliking novels is, apparently, no barrier because everyone is just there for sex anyway.  Over the years the suggestions have become more desperate. Recently a friend suggested I enter into a relationship with an ex who I am friendly with.  In an approach that I call “skip to the end,” the fact that I am not attracted to her was considered no barrier.  I’ve yet to apprise my ex of this plan for her future.

At the very least, why don’t you have a house?  Not surprisingly, most of the people who ask this question don’t come from Sydney. Like the old friend from Melbourne who asked if I had ever considered buying a property and assured me that it would be no problem for ‘someone of your intelligence’.  I must try this approach at auction.  $750,000?  $760,000?  Would you accept $30k and some intelligence?

I have found that responding to these questions with honesty or sincere emotion does not work.  It will not produce validation but more unsolicited, unhelpful advice.  Likewise, responding with anger is not helpful.  Sneering at drivel about multiple, fluid and de-centred sexualities from some monogamously-coupled lesbian with phrases like ‘fucking hypocrite’ will de-rail an otherwise pleasant brunch date.  It’s really best to avoid the whole business and if they bring it up, try to shut it down as fast as possible.

Curiously, the easiest people to be around are often straight women.  The same people, as it happens, who are critical of the whole marriage-and-kids construct.  Their problems with the heterosexual package are always about their partner.  Got a shitty partner - bugger!  This package isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, sugar.  Their lives are ridden with disappointment and an acute awareness of the roads that they could, and perhaps should, have taken. 

Queers can be full of denial and judgement. Having had to try harder to get a place on the train, they find it hard to understand anyone who didn’t.  It is not easy to acknowledge that every good choice you’ve made was accompanied by good luck or sometimes bad luck which still turned out ok but sometimes didn’t and that every bad choice was accompanied by good luck or often bad luck and every combination thereof.  Sometimes we can’t even be sure if our choices were really our choices or not.  To admit these things is to admit that we don’t have control over our own lives.  And the fact is: we don’t.  Some of us have a bit of control over some parts of our lives, sometimes, if we’re lucky.  And our luck can change.  And sometimes it does - perhaps mine will.  But wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about all the things I could do instead?

Friday, 3 April 2015

Shame, Australia.

I don’t often post about mainstream ‘political’ things. This is partly because of my job, which requires me to be ‘discreet’ about politics, but also because of a deep ambivalence.  I don’t feel inclined to join in when I see my peace-loving friends hating on Tony Abbott and the Liberals, often for things that Labor would be doing if it was in government.  The Greens would probably do them too, if they ever had to try and please everybody instead of just pleasing their friends.  All of that anger and hate doesn’t give me much confidence that there is a new day ahead, so I tend to just stay out of it.

There was, however, one item in the news this week that made my blood boil.  None of my friends have posted about it, which is no surprise, as it appeared late on SBS news and probably didn’t appear on the other channels at all.  It was the announcement that Australia will not attend the centenary commemorations of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan later this month.  SBS cited a letter from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirming that, ‘Australia does not recognise these events as genocide’.

Bishop’s letter also assured the Turkish government that ‘the position of successive Australian governments’ has not changed.  Not the plural ‘governments’.  Labor governments were no better.  Bob Carr, the previous Foreign Minister, acknowledged the Armenian genocide when he was Premier of New South Wales.  Once he became Foreign Minister, he went very quiet on the subject.  One exception to this morally bankrupt consensus is federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, who wrote, ‘there is simply no other word for what happened to the Armenian people of Ottoman Turkey’.  Hockey is, as it happens, of Lebanese/Armenian descent. 

For those who are already aware of this issue, please forgive me taking a moment to recount the events in question.  At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, about 2 million Christian Armenians lived within the Ottoman Empire, in what is now eastern Turkey.  As the Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany, the Russians invaded Turkey from the north-east – through present-day Armenia.  In December 1914, at the Battle of Sarakamish - the Ottomans suffered one of the most catastrophic defeats of the war, losing over 60,000 men.  It was this defeat, incidentally, that convinced the British government that invading Turkey would be a good idea. 

More importantly, the Turkish government blamed the defeat not on their own ineptitude but on the Armenian community, elements of which had joined the Russian side.  The Turkish government then began a systematic campaign against the entire Armenian community, most of whom lived far from the battle zone and had nothing to do with any of it.  On 24 April 1915 – the day before the Gallipoli landings - 250 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople (now Istanbul).  They were taken out of the city and later murdered.  More were to follow.  The thousands of Armenians in the Turkish army were taken out and shot, or sent to labour battalions and worked to death.
Without leadership, and without men, the rest of the community were easy prey.  As Australians sat in trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, all over eastern Turkey, Armenians were being ‘deported’.  Thousands were massacred, tens of thousands sent on death marches into the desert where they died of starvation and disease.  The accounts beggar belief: women and children towed out into the Black Sea and thrown overboard, thrown into caves, burned alive.  A few were taken into Turkish and Kurdish families and forced to convert to Islam.  More were robbed, raped and murdered by bandits.  Nobody knows how many died – probably about a million people.  Starving refugees crowded into the cities of Syria.  Those who survived emigrated, to Lebanon, to France, and to America.  An ancient civilisation was simply wiped from the map.

These events were well known and widely reported, even during the war.  Diplomats and missionaries from Scandinavia and the US (neutral at the time) witnessed people being murdered and saw the bodies lining the roads of eastern Turkey.  They made representations to the Turkish government - which had ordered the deportations - and were ignored.  After the war a handful of Turkish officials were arrested by the British, but they were eventually released.  The genocide was largely forgotten.  In 1939, Adolf Hitler could confidently say, ‘who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’

The Armenian people have not forgotten, though.  For nearly a hundred years they have campaigned for international recognition of the Armenian genocide.  The Turkish government has consistently, and vociferously, denied that any genocide took place.  And other governments around the world have consistently fudged the issue and stayed quiet and used weasel words and neglected to use the word ‘genocide’ and effectively denied that it took place.  Why?  To stay in Turkey’s good books, that’s why.  Because Turkey is a western ally in the Middle East and we need them. 

There is something particularly nauseating about the Australian government’s denial, though.  Australia has a special relationship with Gallipoli and the ceremonies at Anzac Cove.  As a key site in the birth of Australian national identity, it is almost a sacred place for us.  Mustafa Kemal, the general who commanded the Turkish forces at Gallipoli and later became Kemal Ataturk, the first president of modern Turkey, wrote eloquently of this relationship between Turkey and Australia:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

Ataturk’s fine words now appear on his memorial in Canberra – he is the only enemy general to be honoured in such a way.  

Yet is there not something rather nauseating about the knowledge that while Australia’s sons were being taken into Turkey’s comforting bosom, the bodies of Armenian children – who were born in Turkey and died in Turkey, at Turkish hands – were lying unburied in the deserts of Anatolia?  And that our current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, refuses to go to Armenia to mark the centenary of the genocide?  Instead he will travel to Turkey to attend the commemorations at Gallipoli, and have not a single word to say about this monstrous crime. Shame, Australia, shame. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

A time to be loud and furious: AIDS activism in Australia

A time to be loud and furious: AIDS activism

Films like ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, which won Matthew McConaughey an Oscar, and ‘United in Anger’, a history of ACT UP, have turned HIV activists into heroes.  But what is striking about these movies is that the events they depict are placed firmly in an historical context.  This is a time that has passed.  The urgency of the AIDS crisis has largely, and thankfully, disappeared – at least in the developed west.  Yet there is a certain nostalgia for the innovation and excitement that AIDS activism generated. 

‘People are suddenly interested in talking to me,’ says Lloyd Grosse, Sydney DJ and former HIV activist.  ‘It’s like we are the heroes of the AIDS movement’. Grosse lays claim to being the first Australian to come out publicly as HIV-positive and an old, yellowed copy of the Sydney Star Observer suggests he may be right.  It carries a picture of Grosse in an ad encouraging gay men to ‘take control’ and get tested for HIV.  The piece now seems innocuous – another ad for HIV services, of the kind familiar to any reader of the gay press.  More striking to me are the bouffant hairstyles and high-waisted pants of the early ‘90s.  But there is something from the Sydney Star Observer of twenty years ago that I had forgotten: the awful, gut-wrenching death notices.  ‘There was one period,’ Lloyd says, ‘when the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation had five clients and seven friends die in one week.  One week.’  Events like these put Lloyd Grosse’s decision to come out in perspective. 

‘An activist,’ writes Eve Ensler, author of ‘The Vagina Monologues’, ‘is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power, or money, or fame, but in fact driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness. So much so that he or she is driven by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.’ 

Anger and a sense of injustice are recurring themes in the accounts of AIDS activists.  The spectre of death and dying added urgency. ‘They were terrible times, just terrible. I was angry,’ says Paul Kidd, a former President of PLWHA Victoria and self-identified “stirrer”.  Anger, Paul feels, was an appropriate response.  ‘Anger is what gets people off their arses in the first place, so it has a motivating role. Second, the expression of anger is an important part of activism. There's a time to be respectful and polite, and there's a time to be loud and furious.’  Being a gay man in the 1980s and early 90s was one such time.

‘At one stage,’ Lloyd Grosse recalls, ‘ACON was telling people not to get tested, because there was nothing that they could do to help us. And there was a real fear, at that time, that the government would put us in quarantine or something like that.’  Grosse later did get tested and, though assured that he was not high risk, tested positive.  With a background in the union movement, activism came naturally to him.  Already a volunteer at AIDS organisations in Sydney, he became involved with PLWA and then ACT UP.  Similarly Paul Kidd, who was diagnosed in the early 1990s, says that, ‘I've always been a politically aware/outspoken person and AIDS was the issue du jour in the gay community. I thought I was going to die and I wanted to make some noise before I did’.

Not everyone had such a background, though.  Lyle Chan is a classical composer who found himself in the middle of an emergency.  ‘I couldn’t stand by,’ says Chan.  ‘My friends were dying.  I saw ordinary people turn themselves into activists, so I did the same. The prevailing atmosphere was, “we will do whatever it takes”. I was a musician, but I also had a background in molecular biology – though no one was an expert in AIDS back then,’ he adds.  ‘The doctors and researchers had an advantage because of their medical training but still, they knew no more about AIDS than the activists did, because we made a point of being well-informed.’ After coming to Australia from America, he joined ACT UP and also ran a ‘buyers’ club’ at ACON, importing drugs from the US unavailable in Australia.

Chan had over 400 clients.  ‘The AIDS Council gave it a euphemistic name - the Treatments Access Scheme.  The buyers club operated under cover of a provision in federal law that allowed people to import certain medical drugs under certain conditions. The law was designed for drugs manufactured by legitimate drug companies – but I was importing ddC made in underground laboratories in violation of multiple drug patents, while the official drug company and the Australian government took their time working out how to supply it’. 

Access to treatments was the big issue for people with HIV in Australia, as it was elsewhere.   Access to treatments gave ACT UP its moment in Australia.  In Australia, the early trials of AZT – the first anti-AIDS drug – were run on a quota system.  This meant that those who were unable to access the trial were left with nothing, which incensed activists.  ‘The process for approving new drugs was very bureaucratic and took no account of the nature of the illness. You could have a drug for dandruff and a drug for cancer and they were both treated in exactly the same way,’ explains Lyle. 

Treatment issues also gave the impetus to ACT UP, the direct action group which had proved effective in the US.  However, ACT UP was never as popular or widespread in Australia as it was in the US. This may have been due to the effectiveness of the Australian government’s response to HIV.  With a Labor government in power during the 1980s, Australia benefitted from progressive leadership on HIV issues.  ‘It was really down to three people,’ says Lloyd Grosse.  ‘Neal Blewett was the Health Minister. Bill Whittaker was a great advocate. And Bill Bowtell who was Blewett’s advisor - he was in the right place at the right time.’  It was through their leadership that Australia adopted harm minimisation policies such as needle exchanges, and funded organisations like the AIDS Councils to provide community-based education and services. 

But these community-based services could themselves become targets of attack from activists.  ‘A lot of my anger was directed at the AIDS movement,’ says Lloyd Grosse.  ‘They were too caught up with their careers – they would never stick their necks out.’  Lyle Chan says ACT UP deliberately cultivated its image as the ‘lunatic fringe’ of the HIV movement. ‘ACT UP had a love-hate relationship with organisations like ACON,’ he recalls.  ‘ACT UP criticised the HIV organisations and could also say and do things that other groups couldn’t. But we also knew that our extreme protests against government officials and drug companies would send them straight into negotiations with ACON and AFAO to get relief.  These organisations had the same goals as ACT UP but were less antagonistic.’  The range of players - government, medical professionals, drug companies, NGOs and activist groups – made for a volatile environment, especially when sex and personal relationships were added into the mix. 

Where has it gone, this anger?  Lyle Chan says he made a conscious decision to leave activism behind, once it became clear that the protease inhibitors, the new generation of anti-retroviral drugs, would ‘rescue people from the toilet’.  ‘Activism is an attempt to reach some kind of normality,’ he reflects, ‘that you feel is being denied for some reason.  Once it became clear, between 1994 and 1996, that we were no longer fighting against a constant backdrop of death, it became possible to imagine a future where every day was not a state of emergency. Some activists continued, working in Asia for instance, where the crisis continued for different social reasons.  But I felt my work as an activist was done, and with normality came the responsibility of returning to my true purpose, which was to write music.’ Chan has written an acclaimed string quartet about his years as an AIDS activist.

Lloyd Grosse is no longer involved in HIV issues, either, though he says he took longer to move on.  ‘The war ended,’ he says.  ‘People are no longer dying, so in a sense we won.  I have returned to my core, which is social justice issues.’

Paul Kidd, who became involved in AIDS activism a little later than the others, says he is no longer angry – at least, not about HIV issues.  ‘Anger doesn't seem right in the current context because the stakes just aren't as high as they once were: people are not dying.’  Kidd, however, still writes about HIV issues.  ‘I think our AIDS organisations have become dreadfully risk-averse,’ he says. ‘Too many of them are more concerned about upsetting their funders than doing what is right to protect people's rights and lives. I think it's important to have independent voices calling out and questioning the AIDS establishment and I try to continue doing that in my way’. 

All readily acknowledged that while the AIDS crisis is over in Australia, it is still very present in other parts of the world.  The World AIDS conference in Melbourne will see some of the world’s most inspiring AIDS activists in Australia.  Paul Kidd is hopeful that the conference will re-invigorate Australian activists.  ‘I think the AIDS conference will be an energising force for HIV activism in Australia,’ he says. ‘I hope it will generate some anger and some willingness to challenge the status quo. It will also help local people see where they fit in the global picture, and maybe contextualise the local challenges and local complacencies in terms of a broader picture.’

Friday, 22 August 2014

My father's penis

My father died a few months ago.  I watched him do it.  Since then I have been “processing” the experience, although I don’t know don’t like that term – it reminds me of processed food.  Is there a better one?  Grieving?  Mourning?  These words seem little better, for I have no idea what they really mean, what they are supposed to feel like.  When I think of it I feel sad, which suggests that that they are in the right ballpark.  Not that I think of it a lot, though.  Just sometimes, when the house is quiet and the washing machine of my mind comes to a moment of rest between cycles.   Images appear in that space in my mind: of Dad, grey and drawn, his eyes glazed, mumbling incoherently, or reaching for something no-one else could see.  I don’t miss him, especially.  I just remember. 

My father and I were not close.  He was not capable of it in any sense that I would understand that.  He had a terribly childhood full of poverty and abuse and grew into a man of his time who didn’t speak of things like feelings.  He was a drunk, too, and it eventually made him ill.  This happened long ago, when I was a small child.  I have only fleeting images of my father before he became ill; I remember him giving me five cents to make me stop crying after a fight with my brothers.  Him drying my hair with a towel in front of the fire in the lounge room when I was five.  He used to wrap my head in the towel and pretend to be a tiger mauling me.  I do this now, with my friends’ kids.  He was a primary school teacher and loved children.  But then he became ill and the memories are of visiting Dad in hospital.  We mostly played on the lawns outside.  Dad at home, in bed.  Don’t go into Mum and Dad’s room.  Don’t bother Dad. 

He left not long after that.  He stopped drinking, but it wasn’t a pleasant environment: there was much shouting, fighting, violence and fear.  My mother came into our cubby hut one wintery day during the May school holidays and, crouching on the floor, asked us how we would feel if she and Dad separated for a while.  I asked how long for, and she said forever. 

Dad took the family’s only asset – the caravan – and moved to the Council caravan park by the lake.  I liked it there.  We visited on Saturday afternoons, and walked down to Kentucky Fried Chicken and bought lunch to eat by the lake.  I remember the thick soft bed of couch grass, and feeding leftover chips to the seagulls.  Dad loved animals.  Then we walked back to the caravan.  Once I fell into the lake, showing off how I could walk along the narrow metal lip around the edge.  I remember my face burning with shame as Dad tried to dry some of my clothes while my brothers taunted me.  Then we played cards.  He taught us euchre and gin rummy, and I am still a dab hand at poker.  He used to save his coins to gamble with: whatever we won, we were allowed to keep.  It was welcome pocket money that our mother could not afford.  Afterwards we rode our bikes home.

Dad was ill, though.  He became more ill after he and Mum split up.  Dad in hospital.  Each time he came home, he seemed weaker, older.  He began using a walking stick, and he was only fifty.  Dad in hospital at Christmas.  One of his friends appeared outside our house, and produced presents from the boot of his Ford Falcon.  He said they were from Dad. I asked Mum if we would see Dad at Christmas and she said no.  I didn’t hear from Dad on my eleventh birthday.  Three days later I got a telegram that said Happy 12th birthday.  He was in hospital again that Christmas and we did see him; he said he would be out in a couple of days and to come and visit at New Year.  When we arrived, we found the caravan gone.  No Dad.  We rode home again and told Mum.  ‘Gone?’ she asked.  ‘Where?’  We didn’t know.

He re-appeared at easter, standing on the doorstep in the rain.  He had shaved off his moustache, I noticed.  He said he had been staying with a friend and wanted us to visit and that he had bought us some easter eggs.  When we went, Dad seemed different.  He wasn’t interested in our stories, just his own.  And he repeated them.  He exaggerated.  He seemed...child-like.  Nobody said anything. 

He was soon back at the caravan park, but he had changed.  He could not remember anything, and took to writing down everything he did in endless lists.    He couldn’t manage things.  He would become frustrated trying to tune the radio and throw it into the lake, then write it down on his list.  He didn’t eat and got meals on wheels but he didn’t like the food and threw that into the lake, too.  He kept a count of the meals on his list.  He had been a signaller once in the Air Force and used strange codes.  The caravan was dirty.  It smelled.  In summer, with the air conditioner going, the door closed and Dad smoking, the smell turned my stomach. 

My brothers stopped visiting.  I still went.  I got to keep the change every time I went to get KFC for Dad.  He insisted on having the same thing every time, and always ate it in the same order.  Then we always played cards, and I always got to keep the money afterwards.  Always the same.  Perhaps that is why I went which is something that, as an adult, I have often wondered about.  There was something slightly comforting about this mad, gentle man.  And he was always pleased to see me.  He adored me.  It was much better than the anger and shouting at home. 

It didn’t stop me wanting him to die, though.  I wanted a story that I could tell to the girls at school.  The ones who saw me with my father when he went to do his shopping.  Tottering along with his walking stick in his dishevelled clothes.   He always bought the same things from the same place.  He always flirted inappropriately with the lady at the supermarket, and I was always embarrassed to be seen with him.
When I was thirteen and he got bowel cancer, and I thought he really would die.  He was in hospital for a long time.  Visiting him there was awful.  My mother insisted on coming with me and I sat between them as my father ignored us and told his stories to the bloke in the next bed.  Then when he tried to sit up, his colostomy bag fell off and liquid shit poured out.  It ran all over the bed and splashed onto the floor.  “It’s time for us to leave,” my mother said firmly.

He did not die, though.  “The doctor said he keeps a list of ticks and crosses and he has put a tick against my name!” Dad told us triumphantly.  He didn’t die the next time, either, when he asked me to call an ambulance to the caravan and read to him from the bible before he died.  Or the next, when the doctor called and said Dad was in hospital and had had a stroke.  Or the next, when someone from the caravan park called and said he had been found lying unconscious in the street.  He was just a little more frail each time.  A little madder.  There was no story to tell. 

And so it went.  After I left home I wrote to him, and always got a letter back with a $10 bill enclosed.  I came out to him on a Christmas visit when I was 22.  He didn’t care and didn’t want to talk about it.  “Good god, that’s your business,” he said.  He must have cared, though, because he remembered.  In fact, it was the only thing about my life that he ever remembered.   

He called in 1992 – he never called – and said that he was going into a nursing home and needed someone to help him move out of the caravan park.  I called my brothers, who lived just a couple of hours away in Melbourne.  They refused to help.  So I borrowed a friend’s car and drove down.  Dad had already gone, and I slept in that filthy caravan alone.  He said he didn’t want anything, that he had everything he needed.  He was convinced he was about to die.  The cupboards were filled with years of junk.  And everywhere lists and writings.  ‘My name is Ron Groves and I was born in Melbourne in 1926’.   Over and over, to remind himself who he was.   I packed up whatever I thought I might use and threw the rest away.  A second hand dealer gave me $800 for the caravan.  Dad said I could keep the money. 

The letters kept coming.  The loony letters, I called them, and took to regaling my friends with their contents when we were stoned.  One contained a cheque for $5000.  Another contained just a quote from a newspaper that Dad had copied out.  “A man was on trial for rape.  The judge asked if he had anything to say and he replied, ‘I’m a man and I can do anything I like.’”  Why did he send this, I wondered?  But there’s no future in psychoanalysis – not in my family.

I was thirty when I got that letter.  They kept coming for another fifteen years, Dad’s handwriting getting gradually more laboured.   In the last few years he finally stopped writing.  Deaf now, he couldn’t speak on the phone either.  He couldn’t walk at all and slowly he became incontinent, too.  He passed the days watching TV with sub-titles, in his room.  He didn’t like group activities at the nursing home – he couldn’t hear, anyway.  He went to meals but refused to eat most of what was served, unless it was ice cream.  I rang sometimes, and asked the staff how he was.  Sometimes they rang me, to let me know when he was ill or had been taken to hospital. 

When I visited for his birthday this year, the staff looked at me strangely, differently.  There was solicitude in their eyes.  Nobody said anything but I got the message.  Dad could barely move and sat slumped in a chair.  I had only been home a few days when emails started arriving.  They talked about ‘having things in place’ and ‘your wishes’.  What about his wishes, I wondered?  When I got back it was obvious that Dad was in no state to communicate his wishes about anything.  A tiny, twisted stick figure, he was barely aware that I was there.  I felt ill, frightened. The next day he was much better, sitting up in bed and telling stories.  Another false alarm, I thought, and made arrangements to go home. 

When I went to say goodbye things had changed again.  He was back in bed, moaning with distress, his eyes glazed, desperately ill.  He reached into his nappy and pulled out his penis, wrinkled and shrunken.  He tugged at it, repetitively, staring at me.  His eyes were vacant – I don’t know if he realised I was there.   A urinary tract infection was all I could think of.  I called the nurse, who just shrugged.  “He has already been given painkillers,” she said. 

“They aren’t working.  I think he has a urinary tract infection. Can you call the doctor?”

“But it’s Saturday,” she said.  “It will cost $200 to get a doctor here.”

“I will give you $200.  Please call a doctor.  Now.”

She walked off grumpily and left me alone with my father, repetitively twisting and squeezing his penis.  The minutes lurched by.  One hour.  An hour and a half.  Two hours.  What kind of oedipal torture is this, I wondered? 

I called my brother.  “He’s much worse,” I told him.  “You need to come, asap.”

“It’s really difficult with work,” my brother said.  “And besides, if he’s dying, what does it matter if I’m there or not?”

It matters because we are moral people, I thought.   “It’s up to you,” I said.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

He did come and so did my friend Jason, who drove down from Sydney to help.  And thus began our week of vigil.  Of sitting by his bed, watching.  At first he seemed to improve.  His temperature came down and he ate.  He spoke a few words and understood simple messages.  We wrote them down in big letters and held them in front of him.  “Essendon won yesterday,” I wrote, and he smiled.  But mostly we sat in silence.   He moaned when he wanted something or was in pain.  I held his hand and stroked his hair, because I thought that is what I would like someone to do for me. 

The staff came and went to give him drugs or change his nappy and I used the opportunity to make phone calls.  “It’s good that you’re there,” said one friend.  “At least you get to say whatever you need to say to your father.”  It took me a moment to understand what she meant.  What could I possibly need to say to him?  I went back inside as the staff finished changing the bed and wrote a note.  “I love you,” I wrote, because I thought that was the right thing to say in the circumstances.  He smiled.

My brother took a turn watching and I went back to my hotel, but there was little sleep.  An image of Dad’s face sat frozen in my mind.   By Tuesday he was no longer lucid at all.  He tried to speak, but none of us could understand what he was saying.   He stopped eating altogether, and drank only in sips.  The staff brought me a big chair and I slept in that.  Fitfully, one eye on Dad.  On Wednesday he stopped drinking.  His mouth hung open, his tongue swollen. 

“It can’t be much longer,” said Jason.  “If he has stopped eating and drinking it will be three days max.”  On Wednesday night I barely slept at all, just lay curled in my chair.  The lights dimmed, there was no noise except for Dad’s gasping breath.  Dawn was grey and soft.  The staff brought me toast from the kitchen.  All around me there was kindness and gentleness.  The staff began to arrive one by one, often as they were finishing their shifts.  “I’m not rostered on again until next week,” one woman said, by way of explanation.  “I just wanted to...”  Her voice trailed off. 

On Thursday night Jason insisted that I sleep.  I had no objection and took a sleeping tablet.  But I had barely lain down when Dad’s breath changed again.  Chain-stoking, Jason called it.  I rubbed his back.  My brother held his hand.  The night grew quiet.  I could feel Dad’s heartbeat: da-dum, da-dum, da-dum.  One hour.  Two.   His breath grew slower and slower and his heart skipped a beat, and then gave a half-beat. Da.  And then nothing.  It just stopped.

“I don’t think he’s breathing at all now,” my brother said softly.

“No,” Jason concurred.  “I’ll get the nurse.”

I took my hand away.  Dad’s eyes lay open slightly, vacant and still.  This is what death is like, I thought.  This is what I have to look forward to.

We stayed there for another four days until the funeral was over.  I couldn’t wait to get home.  When I did I had to go back to work straight away.  There was a vague sense of wanting to be alone, of wanting space, space to work it out, space to understand, but it never happened. 

Instead my father appears in my dreams, a non sequitur in the middle of a story that didn’t make much sense anyway.  Much like when I am awake, in fact.  I can see his dying face now.  Another memory.  A slew of memories, like playing poker with him in his caravan.  Riding my bike to school on frosty mornings in winter.  Dandelions in spring.  The blazing blue skies of summer.  These memories wash around inside me like water.  As present as the cup I just put down, as real as the rain I hear on the roof now.  Like water in water, they wash around.  Until they stop.