Sim Lee

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL 1985-1988

    This is an excerpt of an oral history interview conducted for the Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives. The interview is with Sim Lee, and the interviewers are Graham Carbery and Gary Jaynes.  The interview was conducted on Tuesday 25th of March 2014 at Mont Albert.

    GJ:      When I read your chapter in the book Being Different (edited by Garry Wotherspoon), not having ever been to Darwin, the situation you described particularly around 1984 reminded me a little of Melbourne in its early days of Gay Liberation, with fairly distinct splits among people who wanted visibility versus those who didn’t, and I wondered if you saw the onset of AIDS as being really the trigger for the arrival of those ideas, those Gay Liberation ideas in Darwin, or were they there but just perhaps in a less manifest form before AIDS?

    SL:       Difficult to say,  I would tend to the former, that it did catalyse things, you know, because it pushed me out of the closet, you know, like I’d been so long going along, going to the Boomer things, going to the Darwin Gay Society functions, and even being part of the organisation but not saying anything and not saying anything at work and not saying anything to my parents. And then when the AIDS crisis broke and then I became president of the AIDS Council I thought, you know, this can’t go on, so something has to happen, so it pushed me at a personal level certainly, and I suppose it would have been the case for many other people.

    GC:     Before the AIDS period arrived were you aware of any issues that impinged on gays that prompted people to say, write letters to the newspaper or do anything that could be classified as a form of activism?

    SL:       Absolutely not.  No concept of activism at all.

    GJ:      …My reading of your notes, or was it the diaries, is that a lot happened in a very short space of time from that initial conflict to the holding of a public meeting which did gain that resolution [as to who was a legitimate spokesperson]. That seemed to happen in quite a short space of time.

    SL:       Yes, I think it was from August of 1984 to January of 1985, a very short space of time, yes, and I mean, to be fair to the conservatives, one of the things I did put up as something I wanted to say is that, ok, in the initial meeting that John called there were very few people, like eight or ten or twelve people turned up.

    GC:      Which John?

    SL:       John Norman, he actually called the meeting in August,

    GC:      Of ’84?

    SL:       a public meeting of ’84, and because he was tired of, actually this is documented in Did you meet any Malagas?, he’d been running the Gay Society for a year or so and he was tired of it and he felt that other people needed to do it.  So he called a public meeting, it was published, the call, and he said, you know, who wants to take over these thingos  and we need to give the Society more structure, and also by the way we need to address this thing about the Northern Territory Department of Health wanting a representative.  So, eight of us, twelve of us came, you know, personal friends of John and John [John Norman and John Goodall], people who had been working in it anyway and so Doug and John were formally appointed as the representatives for us on the NT, Northern Territory Department of Health Committee.

    GC:      John Norman?

    SL:       John Norman and Doug Raethel and all the other things, but I think the most important thing out of that meeting is that nobody understood the importance ‒ I certainly didn’t understand the importance of this, this was just like item number fourteen A or something like that, just tick it off, ok, it’s done.  So, later when John and Doug started speaking to the press and [things] were being said, then the conservatives said, who are these people, who is this spokesman, who appointed him, and nobody appointed him.  But it was totally unfair in terms of the formality of it, but in terms of reality in a way they did have a point, you know, they didn’t know that this was going to blow up, they didn’t know that that meeting was the one that was going to be the formal appointing of these people so they didn’t show up, so they did have a point feeling unconsulted.

    GC:     But even if they had known, the importance of that, given their conservatism they’re unlikely to have been willing to participate in it because of the risk of publicity.  Is that fair to say?

    SL:       Definitely. Definitely, they wouldn’t have realised it themselves, so I think in the end if we consult Doug’s diary[1] it has a really blow-by-blow account of the second meeting which was public and was meant to meet their objections: – so, ok, you want a public meeting we have a public meeting now, and there they made up this little sub-committee of DGS [Darwin Gay Society] which would be the AIDS vetting/media sub-committee or something like that, and it had this incredible structure with four or five people in it and X had to ring Y before they made any statement, etc, etc. And you know, it was just completely unworkable, but it was their response trying to make sure that nothing wild – what they saw as wild –  happened.

    GJ:       A new president emerged at that time I think?

    SL:       Yes that’s correct.

    GJ:       Who was, what,  more of a bridge to the conservatively-minded people?

    SL:       Yes, John M, he was definitely of the conservative bent but not the rabid sort of shut them up, stop these rat bag radicals, you know, he wouldn’t have used words like in Doug’s diary, red banners on the streets, Marxist banners on the streets, because that was their perception of us, you know, in the old days this Marxist distinction.  John even came onto the Stonewall Collective, the Stonewall Collective was actually made up of eight people, six of us were the standard left-wing, liberal sort of people, progressive people, and John and his partner, Kevin, were more like the staid, middle-class, slightly conservative people.  I welcomed them, but it’s only in the last ten years that Dino revealed to me that they actually came on the collective to monitor us.  I’ll touch on this other topic later but I’m a completely naive person, you know, I don’t know anything about people’s ulterior motives, I never see ulterior motives in people and I just bumble through life, so when they came on I thought oh, cool, you know, come join us, and I don’t remember that they actually did very much, I mean they offered, they were good enough to bill the DGS event as a Stonewall event, so that was nice, but I don’t think they [did] all the ground work of doing hard slog to get a festival going, I don’t think they did any of that. But yeah, Dino actually said that there was a confrontation between him and John where John said we don’t want any of this to happen, we don’t want any of this rat bag radical stuff to happen in Darwin, and Dino said to him well, try and stop me, I’m just a free agent and I’m going to organize whatever festival I want to.  And yet by the time they came on to the Stonewall Collective they were just perfectly nice to everybody else – and Dino hid that all from me for twenty years.

    [1] Diary kept by Doug Raethel covering the period late 1984 to early 1985, kept by Doug at Sim's suggestion. Doug Raethel died from complications of AIDS in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The diary is in Sim's possession. Sim has prepared annotations 'to provide additional background information which might not be known to others not directly involved to provide additional background information which might not be known to others not directly involved in the events described.'