John (Norman) Turner

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS ACTION GROUP / NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL 1984-1991

    Some of the doctors were not very happy with our presence, to say the least. I said, “What are we going to do when we get our first AIDS case?” And they said, “Oh put them on a plane and get rid of them, send them down south.” At that stage you couldn’t get on a plane … later on, a man who was infected with HIV was smuggled out of Alice Springs without telling them.

    My name now is John Turner, but whilst I was in Darwin I was known as John Norman. I arrived with my partner John Goodall in September 1982. We stayed with the man who was running the Darwin Gay Society. It was just him running it, and it was basically monthly bar nights at the Darwin Hotel. We stayed originally in Ross Smith hostel which was in Parap Road. He asked us to look after his house in Parap, just over the back of the hostel. So we said, yes we’ll do it, anything to get out of the hostel. We stayed for about six weeks, and when he came back he said, “Well there’s an empty room downstairs you can go and move into that.” We stayed there and helped him with the Society

    In early 1984 he said, “I’m tired of doing this.” He put out a monthly magazine as well. So I said, “All right, I’ll do it, keep me off the streets during the day time.” John had got work by then but I was on a pension.

    I got a phone call from NT Health saying that Neal Blewett, the then Federal Health Minister, had said that each State had to have a committee involving local community to look into dealing with HIV when it arrived. So we went along, me and Doug [Raethal]. They said afterwards they were relieved that we did turn up in a business shirt and pair of dress shorts. I’d worked in offices at Sydney, so I had the gear, and so they were pleased with that. We had fairly regular meetings after that with various people. The fellow who was in health was very good; I could go and see him at any time, which people in the Health Department were amazed. He was head of clinical studies, but some of the doctors were not very happy with our presence, to say the least.

    I said, “What are we going to do when we get our first AIDS case?” And they said, “Oh put them on a plane and get rid of them, send them down south.” At that stage you couldn’t get on a plane if you had HIV. And I said, “They can’t travel on Ansett or TAA, because they refuse to carry them.”. I said, “You can’t put them on the domestic airlines.” “Oh we’ll put them on a light aircraft.” I said, “It will be four days to Melbourne.” And they said, “Oh that doesn’t matter.” Later on, a guy who was infected with HIV was smuggled out of Alice Springs without telling them We came across as sensible without being overbearing – let them talk clinical things when they wanted to and we just shut up. So we got a reasonably good reputation with them.

    We were very fortunate Neal Blewett was the Federal Health Minister because he pushed things, and I got a phone call from Canberra saying, “We want you to go to Melbourne at federal government expense and attend a meeting of all the AIDS action committees,” which were all round Australia. There we were told by our federal health person that we were to incorporate as an “AIDS council”, so we could recive federal funding, we weren’t allowed to have “action” in our name. That was the start of NTAC itself, and I came home and incorporated NTAC.

    I felt there were people in town who were very unhappy with us, because we had sort of made a bit of a mess of the beat, to put it politely. In those days in Darwin the power station down on the wharf was terribly unreliable, and in any electrical storm the power went off for a couple of hours. So all the boys would rush down to Vestey’s Beach to get a blowjob while they were waiting for the power to come back on again. After the Grim Reaper Campaign, which was April in 1986 it absolutely killed it, it died, nobody went down there at all. Non-gays didn’t go near the place. So there were some gays who were very anti – you know, “We’ll pretend it doesn’t happen” and, “It won’t come here.” Eventually it did come of course. So, I was always “responsible” for the killing of beat life in Darwin.

    At one stage they formed their own group and insisted that they were going to control me, and I had to go through them. As the elders of the Darwin gay community, they were going to stop “this upstart from down south” from speaking to the newspaper. When Kenny S was diagnosed with HIV, I was called to one of their homes and was told what they were going to do, and that I was not to say anything to the media – but that sort of backfired on them rather badly. They said to me, “We know a certain journalist at the NT News” – which in those days was an afternoon paper out about two-thirty. We’re going to feed him information about Kenny for him to discretely put in the NT News”. And I thought, “I’ve had some dealings with the media in Sydney and this is not going to work.”

    But anyway, they fed everything they knew about Kenny, absolutely everything, to this journalist with the idea it would be handled discretely. Well, the next afternoon there it is all over the front page of the paper, Kenny’s life story. It had a different by-line. He’d given everything to an offsider who printed it. Everyone rang me up and said, “That’s Kenny isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, it is Kenny.” And straight people knew it was Kenny; he was well known. I mean you don’t tell journalists this type of thing and not expect them to use it. So yes that was the end of their intervention anyway. We sort of rolled our eyes and said, “Well, stupid poofs. What did you expect?”

    Meetings with NT Health became less and less often, and we were just simply not invited maybe because we asked too many difficult questions. The last few months before we opened the office, we probably didn’t go to any meetings at all with the Health Department. I use to go and see Iain [St Ives, then Director of Epidemiology]. He knew what was what, and when the story came out about Kenny on the front page of the paper I said, “That was a bit of mess.” He said, “Yes it was, and it came from your people didn’t it?” So he knew where it came from and he said, “You can’t throw stones. You gave it to him, they printed it.”

    After that we published a few things, talked to people, I got lots of stuff up from Melbourne and Sydney, and people asked me questions about what was going on. We initially didn’t do a great deal until the NTAC office was set up. It was mainly gathering information and passing information out when it was asked for. We didn’t actually have any strategy or systems. Also, my health at the time was starting to give me concerns and make it more difficult for me to spend a lot of time on it. This was the reason why when NTAC was incorporated that I took on the treasurer role rather than president, because it was just too much for me to do it successfully.

    That first guy we employed was a disaster as a co-ordinator. We should have done more research on him.. “I don’t read newspapers, I don’t do this, I don’t do that, I don’t do anything.” Well I said, “How are you going to know what’s going on to respond?” “Oh you didn’t tell me that when I applied for the job.” He lasted about six weeks. Canberra sent up their co-ordinator John Westlund for a few months until we got a new one, Ian Laughlan.

    We had a receptionist/office lady. She was very straight. When we employed her I thought, “Oh, this is going to be interesting. She’s so terribly straight and people are going to come wandering in asking all sorts of strange questions and language, and everything else”. So in the interview I said to her, “You might get strange phone calls from people using colourful language, how are you going to deal with it?” Because I thought if she heard the magic word she’ll sort of fall off her chair. “Hang up on the bastards.” – “Oh, okay.” And she was perfect. She ran the office like clockwork. We couldn’t have done it without her, she was an excellent employee. I said to her a couple of times, “Have you had any interesting phone calls?” She’d say, “No.” And I thought you must have done, because I heard people had done it but she was good, very good.

    There was meetings of the hierarchy. Quite often we’d discuss what we’re going to do. A lot of communication was from down south about what they were doing. Some of the stuff we printed was actually a joint print run with South Australia. Because we were so small, they printed the stuff, and then they’d take off a quantity and put our name and address as the contact number. So that was how a lot of it was done. We went out to the health centres and distributed there. At the gay nights, we had literature there.

    We managed to get a very good phone number. One of our straight supporters worked for Telecom in those days, and when we were organising the office, he said to us, “I’ve reserved a phone number for you, 411 711.” You couldn’t ask for a better number. Terry McC went down to Melbourne to an AIDS councils conference and said, “Oh here’s our phone number,, it’s (089) 411 711.” And they all look at it, “How the bloody hell did you get that number?”, because everywhere else had ordinary numbers. We have friends. So the number got reasonably known that way. I think there was a small sign downstairs inside the door saying AIDS Council with the number on it.

    We lost several people. Kenny died. Chris L was a schoolteacher, and he was very closeted but apparently he was having a fun time in the steamies in Sydney and he got HIV. In those days people didn’t last very long, and suddenly he was gone and there was a lot of talk about it because everyone said, “How did he get HIV?” Darwin is like a leaky sieve and it’s impossible to contain information like that. And there was lots of problems as it was suddenly in the paper.

    I had some guys who had become infected coming to me for counselling. At that stage we were saying only 10% of people died, and then it was 15%, then 20%.. And several of them came to me and said, “What is your gut feeling?” And I said, “It’s going to be very much higher.” At that stage, we had nothing to treat them with, it was just antibiotics and they didn’t do much good. There was one guy Peter H who actually stayed in the house I was at. He had a good time in town during his visit, and then suddenly we got news from Cairns that he had AIDS and he died a fortnight later, which was common in those days. People went fast. That caused a bit of a ruckus in town and people were more careful, and we did get more people asking questions around that time. But a lot of them said, “I had sex with him, what can I do?” And I said, “Well cross your fingers. I’m sorry but there’s nothing the medical side can do. Just be careful and have safe sex whenever you do anything to protect others.”

    I was involved in a straight motorcycle club. They had a bike show out at the showgrounds, and I said, “I’d like to put a stand up, unmanned, with literature about AIDS on it.” And they all said, “Oh, yeah, great.” So I had literature and condoms on it and I said, “Well I’ll put near the club stand so you can keep an eye on it and people don’t walk off with handfuls.” And at the end of the first day I said, “How’s things going?” They said, “We’ve replenished once, everyone takes a couple as they go past.” So the message was getting out.

    I think we were very lucky that we encountered less problems than we really expected. I did expect problems like threats of violence from straight community but that never really eventuated. I think it was Darwin’s laid back atmosphere that helped us do what we were doing and, I like to think, successfully. We were fortunate in that way.

    I never really stopped to think how out there we really were until people from Sydney said, “You are really being very out there, like having a stand in the Darwin mall.” And people were quite open about it, and people were genuinely interested because it was well, Darwin in those days was very heavy male population and so I think they just seemed to be a bit more open about it.

    I had dealings with the nurses who ran the clinic in Alice Springs, because the Health Department rang me up one day and said, “The two nurses from Alice Springs are here and they want to ask you a favour.” So they come out and see me in the government car. “We want to buy some dildos from the sex shop to demonstrate how to put on a condom. We want you to escort us” I said, “Oh, okay.” So we went to the sex shop owner, and they told him what they wanted. He said, “Oh yes, you can have the biggest.” They said, “Well we prefer it to be black, because it’s for the black community.” He brought out the biggest black dildo you’ve ever seen in your life. You know, hug it and cry type material. And she looked at it and said, “We don’t want to make them feel inadequate, thank you.” He brought out a candle-sized one which was a much more respectable one and so they bought two of those.

    They use to ring me up from time to time for stuff and I’d say, “How’s the black candles going? Be a bit soft by now!” because Alice Springs is very hot and candles soon melt. They said, “Oh no, we gave them away and we got ceramic ones from the ladies of the Alice Springs ceramic group, which was basically a ladies-well-to-do class, who did ceramics to fill in their time. They gave them the dildo and said, “We want twenty of these, please, in ceramic.” So the ladies, made the black dicks in ceramics to take out to show how to use a condom.