Jim Buckell

CENTRAL AUSTRALIAN AIDS ACTION GROUP / AIDS COUNCIL OF CENTRAL AUSTRALIA 1984-1992

    There weren’t conversations about this stuff – there was no language for it, there was no public health sentiment or culture around those issues. So we started to not so much agitate as have conversations

    My name is Jim Buckell and I was involved in the Central Australia AIDS Action Group back in the mid-to-late 1980s, when I was working in Alice Springs as a journalist. Also I was involved socially in the gay network which we called Central Network.

    I had been working on and off for the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, I went to Alice Springs to set up the news service on the radio station that became CAAMA, 8KIN FM. We also had a big initiative in the Aboriginal organisations in those days on the anti-alcohol and violence movement that was in its very early stages.

    Through that involvement, I began working with some of the big public health figures in Central Australia. At the same time we were doing Beat the Grog, Rock without Grog – CAAMA’s grog promotions – all this stuff which was ground-breaking. No-one had done this stuff as far we were aware anywhere in the world, certainly not in Australia before. We were starting to get a little bit of a reputation as a ‘go to’ crew at CAAMA, at Congress, at Tangentyere – at the Aboriginal organisations for public health initiatives.

    At this time as gay men we were reading in the press and in the media about AIDS. I don’t even think we knew it as AIDS in those days, I'm talking ’83/84. Then this percolated through, especially Congress (the Aboriginal Medical Organisation), CAAMA with its work in grog, and the public health team at Northern Territory Health Department. It started to percolate through: “hey we think we have a bigger threat than alcohol to Aboriginal health here in Central Australia”. If this pans out the way that we’re starting to hear that it has done in other vulnerable communities – and we’re talking injecting drug users, gay men, Indigenous people that said red flags all over it – big issues here if we don’t get on top of it.

    So we started to read and we started connecting up with organisations interstate. At that stage I think the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations had just started or was in its early days, and there were some connections through that. And we started to say: well, we've got an issue here in Central Australia. I remember the thinking on our part was “hey listen, you know we live in a tourism community that we know that there are a whole lot of public health issues and risks factors here already where there's something called nesting season: every winter we get 250,000 visitors to Central Australia from all over the world and in that period there's a lot of sexual activity” – we presumed on the basis of our own experiences most of it unprotected. Then you throw into that mix vulnerable Aboriginal people, and huge numbers of STIs largely never talked about. The only people that know this are those who work in the clinics in remote communities and those who are involved in infectious diseases and sexual health in the NT Health Department, Congress, the Aboriginal medical services.

    There weren’t any conversations about this stuff – there was no language for it, there was no public health sentiment or culture around those issues. So we started to not so much agitate as have conversations. At the same time John Hobson and his partner Paul Smith were involved in helping to set up Central Network.

    So we've got three things happening at once here. We've got an awareness in terms of public health risk in Indigenous communities in Central Australia in general; we've got the coalescing socially and politically of the gay and lesbian network and movement in Central Australia; and we've got the spectre of AIDS/HIV. So you put those three things together and naturally those of us who are socially/community/politically minded start to go: “wow, okay let’s get organised”.

    So in our own clumsy way that’s what we did. We actually got all those things happening. I don’t claim that we did it alone; far from it, we did it in a loosely formed, very broad coalition with the key players in public health in the Northern Territory Health Department, that was then part of the offices around the hospital. We did it through the Aboriginal organisations, particularly Congress, CAAMA and Tangentyere, which is the housing association. And we did it through the gay men’s network, which was just starting to get off the ground. And those three forces loosely came together and backed us when we said we want more than just a little voice: we want to have an office, we want to have some outreach, we want to have access to professional health workers. We've got a whole lot of factors here that are unique to Central Australia and they need to be addressed and they can't be addressed from Darwin. Cost factors, the geographical differences, the cultural differences, all sorts of things, meant that we felt that we needed our own special place in the umbrella of what was going on.

    It just happened because we were there; public health needed us and we needed them and, without having said that, we both intrinsically understood that. So I think they were impressed. I genuinely think we were impressed by them and they were impressed by us. I would say there was mutual respect, understanding that we’re all in this together, and that we’re going to do a much better job united than we are fighting our own battles and fighting for our own patches, which is what you had to do anyway. But if we can add voice to each other’s work we'll get respect, and because the situation here in Central Australia is unique they're going to have to address it in a unique way.

    I think there were three key things that happened. The first was that we got organised so we lobbied for funds, we got ourselves together a committee of management, and we set up an organisation under some formal terms of reference. We lobbied for funds, we had a meeting with the then health minister Daryl Manzie.

    The CLP was in government at the time. It's probably worth saying these were not exactly our political friends. We were all from a Labor or further left background – that was just who you were in those days when you were active in the community and active in Aboriginal organisations. So we had to go into the lion’s den and argue our case. We got a really good hearing from those people and we were surprised because we thought: “oh well they’ll just see us as a bunch of pinko poofters and they’ll sideline us”, but they didn’t. They understood because I think the lobbying and the effort that had gone on through Neal Blewett, the federal minister for health, and his key players in Australia at that time that had filtered down to state and territory government, and then state government started to look at the risk factors and see that they had some major public health issues. And if they were going to get a bunch of gay men and their friends and lesbians in Central Australia doing community outreach work, then they were happy to back us, as it didn’t cost them much and it was a very cheap way for them to do that. And they recognised that they needed strong advocates on the ground.

    Basically we didn’t ask for much because we were so modest and humble and so used to working for nothing that we just asked for the minimum that we thought they'd ever give us and they gave it to us. But the other thing that happened is when these conversations started to become a little more sophisticated and we’d set up the AIDS Council, then we got some key people involved in our board of management; one of whom was Kerry Leitch. The reason Kerry was so important is that she was employed as a sexual health educator-counsellor within NT Health, which was something that none of us had ever heard of; we’d been to a few friendly GPs and that was it.

    I became the first co-ordinator of the AIDS Council. So Kerry, I think, had already got herself on to the board of management. There were other people like Sarina Ruediger who was a key player as head of the AIDS/HIV response team in Central Australia. Alexa Young, who was also a nurse educator, was very significant. So these people came on the board of management and they added professional nous, but Kerry was especially special because community was her background. I think I'm right in saying that the community health role that she was playing at the time was the first time that she’d actually been employed in the public sector; she'd been a financial counsellor, she’d been an AIDS counsellor or an AIDS educator in Canberra. So she was the link for us between someone who we could work with and talk as we do as gay men about our stuff without her flinching or blinking. Plus she had the links into the professional services and the models that you use to get things done in the public service. She was a key person in coalescing us as an effective group and providing that board of management guidance to how we would operate and how we would govern ourselves.

    We acted from our guts and our hearts and our mouths and we sort of put it together. And we set up a little counselling room in the AIDS Council office and painted it light blue because the counsellors told us you need a calming colour. At that stage no one was doing the outreach. They were doing testing but we couldn't be sure that if someone, a gay man or other, got tested in Central Australia, that then they were going to get any counselling in those days, certainly before the AIDS Council was set up. So all those things were really critically important, and we were doing work that no one else was doing. We were doing the outreach through our social networks, and we set up the needle exchange with Tony Hand to run it. I think it was one day a week he came on board. And that kick-started Tony’s career; from when I knew him, he was a roustabout and a wool classer and a camp cook, and now he's one of the best trainers in the Northern Territory and he goes all over the Territory training Aboriginal and community people into how to do community health and welfare.

    So it was a critical time for all of those groups, and how to work together successfully to create services.

    We did community education. Alexa would go out and talk – we employed her as a community educator – to community groups. We were working with people like Relationships Australia who were then called the Marriage Guidance Council. We didn’t care where people came from – all we cared was that they were going to listen to us, and that they would provide us with access to resources, with some professional advice when we needed it, and perhaps just give us some ideas on how we were going to go about doing this stuff. So we worked with community health and all their various bodies, the nurses, the doctors. A physician called Mohamed Patel was the head honcho of public health in Central Australia. And he would come to some of our committee meetings or we would set up meetings with him and say: “how do we crack this one?” and they would give us really good advice. So, for me, that was one of the key things that we did: we worked out how to be effective in public health in a new area by getting the resources and the people together from whatever was available to us in Alice Springs.

    So we got the budget together to set up the office, we put the office together, and we employed staff. Most of us were part-time; I think I might have been full-time or I might have been four days a week.

    So from ’85 to ’88 was more the activist group, the Central Australian AIDS Action Group. We didn’t have an AIDS Council, and we didn’t have an office, and we didn’t have staff. Then, during that period that I'm away, somehow that coalesced into the first mini office and Megan handled that. The Marriage Guidance Council gave us an office before that, access to an office for one or two days a week and I remember working from there when we were setting things up.

    And then David Ben David came on board. He was this intense, passionate but lovely Jewish/Australian man who was a sexual health educator. He and I somehow we fetched up on top of the chemist shop and that lasted maybe three to six months, and it was really stinking hot and we had the steep stairs and it wasn’t particularly good but at least it was central.

    So that’s when we found the office down Gap Road opposite the Melanka Lodge. Gagliardi owned it and there was this big old creaking evaporative air-conditioner that you had to fill up with water. But it was great because it was opposite where the buses used to pull up at Melanka Lodge so everyone would see, AIDS Council, and they'd go: “oh.” And these Swedish young women would come: “ah condoms” – this sort of stuff. So it was a really good place for us to be. This now became a serious effort, we had our own sign, we were the AIDS Council, we were then serious – we’d go to public, World AIDS Day we’d create events, we’d dress us in condom suits, we’d hand out condoms, we’d have games, we’d just do stuff.

    Look, it was a closeted town: they didn’t want to have to talk about AIDS, they didn’t have to have to talk about sex and sexuality, they didn’t want to admit that they might have been sucking dick if they were straight men. They weren't engaging with us at all, not in public. In private a few of them would have dropped in for condoms, needles, whatever. The public was engaging when we set something up that was fun, like I remember one of the pubs down the Gap where we had a World AIDS Day event. We were invited or we might have just forced ourselves onto the agenda and they were having some sort of event and we just said we need to be there or we need to run it or whatever. I think it was probably through Kerry and Sarina and Alexa in the Health Department. And we went down there and we spoke and we had fun things for people to do. We had a series of games. Probably Kerry and Sarina thought them up, and we just went along and did them and engaged people who were just drinking in the beer garden. So in that way they were engaged.

    We had also started to become aware of members of our own community were HIV positive. One of them was the US anthropologist Eric Michaels. David Batty and I had worked quite closely with Eric when he was employed at CAAMA during the mid-1980s and then he went out to Yuendumu and was working with the community on developing Aboriginal video and media so that became Warlpiri Media which then became PAW, Pintubi, Anmatjere and Warlpiri Media. So Eric lobbed into town, quite big in terms of anthropology. A very sophisticated thinker, gay man, intellectual, anthropologist and we were like: “wow who is this guy”, and became friendly with him. He went out to Yuendumu and did really good work and then became sick. He never talked to us, I think I might have been away in Perth when he actually became sick and then he went to Brisbane. He was working at one of the universities there. And before long he became hospitalised. I remember we were having phone conversations and David and I said: “okay, where do you want to die?” He was dying. We said, “Where do you want to die?” And he said, “I want to die in Central Australia.” I'm going to tear up, so I said ‘we’re driving you back’. <crying> it's really sad. We were having this conversation with Eric and David and I said: “we'll try and  – <crying> – he died before we had a chance to bring him back to central Australia. He was first person that I knew really well who died. He was such a brave man. He wrote all about dying of AIDS in his book Unbecoming.

    So yeah, and that’s when I think the quilt came to town, and we had vigils and we would name people that we knew. And I would always talk about Eric because he'd been such a key player in all of that stuff.

    There were three big things for me about this time from 1988 on, transitioning from the AIDS Action Group to the AIDS Council and setting up a full-time office with full-time staff, even if I was the only one, and a few at least part-time staff, was really significant. Having the presence and having the signage ‘AIDS Council of Central Australia’ in black and white across the top of a shop front in not the middle of town but just on the edge of town in a prominent position that lots of people drove past – to me, that was priceless. “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re not going shopping” – we’re serious about this and we’re here to help. I think in terms of the development and the awareness that was a critical thing because we were the only AIDS Council outside of a capital city in the entire country. So that’s number one.

    Number two I think is bringing on professional people who got gayness and who didn’t flinch about it, and who were perfectly happy about it on to our board of management. So that allowed us to not just go to the key players in public health, but to have them come to us. That was a first and that never happened to my knowledge anywhere in Central Australia before or the Northern Territory and possibly in many other places at that time.

    The third thing – the really big thing for me – was the Alligators.[1] So let’s talk about the Alligators because that really casts things forward in a different way and with an international perspective. Somehow we got contacted: and we’re going: “why are you the Alligators, we don’t have alligators here in the Northern Territory we have crocodiles so how do you work that out?” So they were the Alligators because they’d looked on a map of the Northern Territory and they'd seen the East Alligator River in Arnhem Land and they wanted to go there and paddle their canoes up there, and we thought: “oh good on you, yeah right, they just don’t know”.

    They were on about: “People with HIV are everywhere. We can do everything that you can do. We want to go on an adventure and we want to incorporate public education as part of our adventure”. So we saw it as fantastic, and another way for us to start linking in to the community. These were ordinary people: they were gay men, they were injecting drug users, they were people who had contracted HIV from blood transfusions, they were all sorts of people. They had on board an expeditionary adventurer guy who was a bit of a jock and a bit of a good looker, and we go: “oh, okay!”. And they had on board a nurse educator type person who'd done counselling and education around HIV/AIDS. This sort of motley crew of everyone from a part-time academic at Oxford University, through to injecting drug users from some of the poorest communities in the UK and everything in between.

    We organised social activities, education opportunities and media. We would have cracked the mainstream in Alice Springs, probably just the ABC and the Centralian Advocate. We cracked the gay media because I wrote articles for them, and we wrote about them and their experiences. So that broadened our horizons and made it an international thing, and we had links suddenly with these groups in the UK. It gave us the confidence to do our outreach, I think, a little bit better – some more ideas and it was another kind of anchor for us in those days.

    So they're the three things: getting organised and setting up, establishing a dedicated office and the Alligators. Di Lane I think was the chair or the president or whatever we called it in those days. Having the perspective of someone who was a community worker in the Aboriginal community largely in those days but who was also a lesbian.

    In those days, we talked a lot about coalition politics – I don’t know if people still use that term – but that was important to us for that same reason: you work with whatever resources you have and if you’ve got mates who are dykes, yeah great, bring them in.

    I left in early ’92 so that period – I came back in mid-1990 – it was probably eighteen months that I was the co-ordinator and then I resigned and went back to Sydney. I just needed to get out of Alice as I’d been there too long.

    [1] ‘Expedition Alligator’ was a group of  HIV-positive people from the UK who travelled to the Northern Territory and engaged in workshops with the Territory’s AIDS Councils; see Nicholas Bates, ‘Northern Identity’, Burn, August 1993, pp10–11.