Jan Holt

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS COUNCIL 1997-2000

    We had quite a few volunteers back then because the front desk was all volunteers, NSP was volunteers, and I established a men’s line during that time … We had a big thank you dinner at the Darwin Bowls Club. It was like a bit of a party, and the drag queens came along. It was so successful that we actually initiated having monthly gay and lesbian dance parties.

    I was working at NTAC from 1997 to 2000. I was the volunteer coordinator/education coordinator. We were based in Manton Street then. It was an old house and when I went to have my office there, my office actually was my bedroom in that house prior to the cyclone. It was bizarre, yeah! And at that time, the director was Barry Horwood when I first joined, and I think Barry was there for two years, and then Chris Day came on as the executive director.

    I think working with Barry, he was very much into community development. This was prior to Throb [nightclub], and there was actually a gay nightclub that operated on the weekends and I think it was called Juicy’s, so there wasn’t a place for people to come together as a community. Barry was really very good at bringing that community together. It started out that we had quite a few volunteers back then because the front desk was all volunteers, NSP was volunteers, and I established a men’s line during that time. There was a big training group and all the guys came and got their training.

    Barry was really good, he had a background of working in VAC [Victorian AIDS Council] and also at a positive living centre, so he wasn’t new to the area. He was very much into really acknowledging and thanking volunteers, so we used to have a lot of dinners and barbecues and what have you.

    And then Chris Day came on and I think he was also from the Victorian AIDS Council, and I left within about a year of that. .

    One thing that Barry did, and I mean, I’m not a nightclub person myself, but we had a big thank you dinner at the Darwin Bowls Club. It was like a bit of a party, and the drag queens came along. It was so successful that we actually initiated having monthly gay and lesbian dance parties. I was charged with organising that and it was so easy to do, because it was not there for profit, it was there for community development.

    We started off at the Darwin Bowls Club, and then we moved to the Aviation Institute. They were hugely popular. They were on the last Saturday of every month and people were coming up from Katherine to come to it. It was gold coin entry, and we would just get ‘deejay bitch’ and she would just hire the sound equipment, the drag queens would come, we’d just fling up a few banners. It was real grassroots stuff but we were getting three or four hundred people there each time. And it was also really good because if you had anything to tell people, you could tell them, or if we needed some volunteers and it was really good for that.

    But when Barry left, Chris Day thought that he would have it as a fundraiser, so we were sort of at loggerheads with that, because he wanted $15 to come in the door, and I said, “You must have concessions.” And I remember, I used to do the door with Damien Dempsey – he would normally be the door person – and Chris would actually have me check people’s concession card. So when Chris Day then wanted to make it into fundraising, and we moved it to Browns Mart, what we had to do was to stock the bar, we had to staff the bar, and it was the first and only time we ever had any violence, and there was some violence at that one, and it took a hell of a lot more to actually organise. So I don’t think it really went anywhere. It might’ve had a couple of more. I think I left soon after that.

    But what actually happened at the old Manton Street (which was an elevated house), underneath was the NSP, and we had quite a lot of space under there, so the money that we did raise from those few fundraising dance parties went towards kitting out the underneath part into a bar. We would have drinks after work every Friday. Spellman got his knickers in a knot about that because we didn’t consult with him, because his bar was just one street over, and he thought that we were going to be in competition because he still had the Train Bar and the Mississippi Queen.

    It was my last day working at NTAC when this bar opened, and everybody had gone to do some training, and there was myself and two volunteers in the NSP, and Spellman storms in, “Who’s in charge here?”, and I went, “Oh me”, and he hands me this thing. He’d gone to the Licensing Commission. Because we were calling it the Mardi Bar, he’d gone and he’d registered a business name in the name of the Mardi Bar, so we could not call it that. And I think it operated two times, and then the Licensing Committee said, “You cannot operate this”, because there was no provision for wheelchair access to a toilet. So I think we actually invested quite a lot of money in to putting that bar in to place, only to have it close.

    Prior to the bar being opened, we used to sit in the back garden of a Friday after work with some wine and a carton of beer and there was an honesty box and you’d throw your money in there.

    The dance parties held ’99 to maybe 2000, I remember it was when the war had broken out in Timor and Darwin was overrun with UN personnel, and some of the gay people from the UN used to come. This one American guy said to me, “I’ve been to all these fabulous dance parties in New York City. This is even more fabulous”, and I think it was because it was so casual, and people were so friendly, and you know what Darwin’s like..

    We did have a very tiny SWOP program happening then, very different to what’s happening now, mainly through the provision of condoms and lube and what have you, but it’s far more sophisticated now. So there was Tracey, I can’t remember her surname, so there was myself, Charles, and Bill McMahon is the other one. Bill’s a very big key player in the history of NTAC, he was the care and support person. Bill was an interesting character.

    Jed Masters instigated the Sister Girls program. He made contact with a lot of the girls from the Tiwi Islands, and he started the retreats. He would have a retreat in line with when a dance party was happening, because the Sister Girls often just didn’t have that safe space to be who they were. So what would happen, they’d come off the retreat, and then they’d all glam up and perform, and I remember Crystal, that was the first time she ever performed, and she was very, very nervous. I remember her coming up to me saying, “I’m just so nervous”, and I just said, “Just be yourself”, and she said that really helped her. I can’t remember what she performed, but she looked gorgeous.

    Jed and I used to share the office, which was a bedroom in Manton Street (that I actually lived in just after Cyclone Tracy) , he really struggled at first on how to work with Sister Girls, how to engage them and sexuality is always a sensitive topic in Indigenous but he did a brilliant job.

    There was another woman there, Petra, she worked on the NSP, too, or the needle exchange as we used to call that. One of the issues back then was we were really lobbying to get the NSP in Palmerston open, and there was huge community backlash and it took forever. It took like nearly two years of negotiations, so that was a very big issue, but because there were only seven of us who worked there, we were a very small organisation. People felt really comfortable coming there, and even if it was just to come and pick up the Sydney Star Observer or Lesbians on the Loose, they always felt really comfortable and you’d often have Sister Girls running around in the kitchen, on the telephones, out the back, because we had a nice space out the back with a big garden and chairs, and it was kind of old Darwin style. But the NSP was very much a big thing, and at the same time, I think, AIDS Council of Central Australia was quite separate, and I think there were issues there.

    We had, for a short time, a guy employed to run the beats, but yeah, it’s really hard, I think it’s really hard. Having worked in WA AIDS Council, we had two guys there who worked for a very long time on the beats, and that was their job, and they became well known and whereas we were kind of relying a little bit on volunteers, and you need to have those volunteers who are peer educators. So it would run okay for a while, but being after hours, nighttime work was really challenging, yeah.

    The care and support, the SWOP, and I was involved with education also. It was really funny because I used to have to go to the AFAO gay men’s education strategic thing, and I’d be the only woman there. That was kind of daunting, with all those big boys from AFAO. And it was really hard, too, because they’d do some national campaigns. I remember a few and it just didn’t look like our guys here, and I’d go, “Look, this is all right for you guys in big cities and what have you, but you bring it back here and it doesn’t speak to the guys” and I felt like I was the devil’s advocate sometimes.

    And of course the men’s line. The men’s line was really good in that there were about twenty guys who went through the course and it operated Saturday, Sunday and Monday, but all the guys were trained up to be able to answer it, and there were new guys coming to town wanting to know “Where’s the beats? Where can I hook up?”, that sort of thing, in the pre-Grindr days and all that. Sometimes there’d be concerns about sexual health and where to go, “Where’s the sexual health clinic?”. That really worked well for about two years. I think what had happened now, we were starting to get in to the more technical age, and it became a little bit obsolete.

    We actually worked well, not only with CDC [Centre for Disease Control], but also with Family Planning Association, and we had monthly meetings. We used to call it show and tell. So we would always collaborate around World AIDS Day and Valentine’s Day, and just a lot of sharing of information.

    The other thing that I used to organise was candlelight vigils. Prior to me starting in the position, they’d been held in a number of places, but Lake Alexander became a bit of a sacred space there for a while. We would have it there for the three years I was there, and have it at the lake. David McMicken would sometimes light up a big structure and we had the candles and we had different things, sometimes we had a string quartet or people speaking or a choir. It’s the same across Australia, fewer and fewer people were coming to vigils, and then I think it took a different turn and now I know these days, you’ve had premiere movies and different events, because you have to somehow engage people in a different way.

    Candlelight vigils were pretty special to me, because I organised the first one in Perth, and it was quite large, and I was really afraid nobody would turn up, because we had it in the grounds of the church, which was right next to Royal Perth Hospital, and this is in the days of when people were really sick and were dying, and the immunology ward used to be on the top floor, and when we were having the ceremony, the lights would flicker on and off so people who couldn’t come down because they were too ill, were flicking the lights to say that we’re with you. Yeah, and then we planted some roses there and then it took the form that we used to walk from, it started at the church and we walked down to the big square in the middle of the city, and then it became bigger and bigger and we used to have people from the ABC MC-ing it and what have you.

    I was very touched because when I left WAC, and I came home to Darwin, they invited me back for the first year as their guest speaker because I’d worked seven years in managing the support and care program. So yeah, vigils have always had a bit of a place in my heart and I probably haven’t been to a couple for a while, but on that day I always light candles in my own place.

    The other thing that we used to do was when Tracks Dance were putting on performances, they’d try and find people who we knew in the AIDS Council, because I remember Minky [David McMicken] did the Bodies of Light, which was a very touching piece and a lot of our male volunteers actually performed in that.

    During my time there, there was also an HIV-positive support group. Bill McMahon organised that, and it was very informal. They met, I think, monthly, and I’ve actually hosted a few at my house. It was a social thing, and there was quite a number of people would actually come along, both for support and a bit of social outlet. And it was called Friends, and staff were always encouraged to attend, and as staff were for all events, nearly all the staff would always come.