Terry McClafferty


    The majority of gay people wanted to be phantoms, and what I mean by that is the idea of being identified, as a gay person was poisonous, and dangerous. "You’re a fucking poofter" ... The public officer at that stage was John (Norman) Turner. His name went on the advertisement in the NT News on Melbourne Cup Day in 1985. You had to give notice to incorporate, and you have to wait for objections. So the strategy was to fly under the radar. It was his brilliant idea – if we place the advertisement on Melbourne Cup Day, that day, the newspapers are all torn up because it’s got the sweep picks, and everybody will either be tearing the newspaper up for sweeps or later drunk from the Cup Lunches. They won’t be looking at the others parts of the newspaper and the public notices will be lost on the office floor. That was the whole tactic.

    My name is Terence (Terry) McClafferty. I first arrived here in Darwin in January 1976, from Sydney, and I was appointed as a science teacher at Darwin High School by the Commonwealth Teaching Service.

    I’ve always worked in radical gay politics since my youth. I was involved in a gay group at the University of New South Wales in 1971, Campus Camp, and I can still remember meeting Dennis Altman at a meeting, just after he returned from the United States and published his book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. Dennis came to talk to the University of Sydney’s Campus Camp. University of Sydney had the first gay student group in Australia, and UNSW were the second. In those days it was just a group away of people who could identify being "camp" – because the word "gay" didn’t exist – and meet in safe space where they could feel comfortable.

    During the 1980s period I was living at Quandong Crescent, Nightcliff. Two other gay guys who owned the home formed the Boomer Motor Club. It was really just a group of guys who’d say, "Let’s go camping. We’ll go to Edith Falls for the weekend and we’ll have a campsite", and the rest of it. It wasn’t a whole group of debauchery or anything like that, it was just a group of gay guys who would go away together, and sit, think and drink a few beers around a fire and chill out, and maybe take in swimming in a waterhole. So they felt comfortable amongst themselves, and that’s really that side of the Boomer Motor Club.

    Dix [nightclub] was occurring – John Spellman had that venue up on the Stuart Highway in Stuart Park. At that stage, it operated as a restaurant/steakhouse, and by about 11:00pm it turned in to a nightclub with a disco. On Monday nights, Spellman opened it for hospitality trade night, and the majority of the patrons were gay guys and many worked in the hospitality industry. Monday night was the gay bar night and Dix was where gay people met and many knew each other from socialising there. It was the main venue for the DGS - the Darwin Gay Society.

    It was in that period of the bar nights on Monday nights that the ground swell started happening. There was more chatter about the "gay plague". I did not know people who were suffering from the "gay plague", but John (Norman) Turner did. He was an older gay man of the group and had more contact with people in Sydney who were aware what was occurring. We only had a small group and we had John Turner who was literally shaking the can, "Hey, there’s something going on here, and we’ve going to have this problem". We found out through John that many gay men in Sydney and Melbourne were very ill, and he knew that gay guys in Sydney and Melbourne had formed organisations to support people who were sick and were quite ill.

    At the same time, the medical board up here had vision. There was an epidemiologist who was aware of the disease spread in Sydney and Melbourne, and was concerned that at some stage there was a chance of the disease getting out of hand in Darwin. John Norman knew a lot about men’s health, and was a very intelligent man, and through the NT Dept. of Health (NTDH) was co-opted into a health group to oversee gay men. The NTDH said to him, "Well, you’re a gay man who seems to have his head screwed on, can you talk to the staff about it because we need to act and not be reactionary, but to have planning and strategy, because this disease may eventually end up here". So from what I knew, that’s where the discussion happened. I have vivid memories of sitting on the floor at John Turner’s home, drinking a cup of tea, and he was elaborating what’s happening or what he’s heard from his friends down south, or from his mates that had written to him about guys getting ill.

    It was through John that I learnt that Melbourne had formed the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) and Sydney had formed the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) and that he was pushing for the establishment of a council in Darwin. "Terry, we have to get a group of people who are functional here to establish an AIDS council in Darwin similar to down south". He was told what was needed to be done, and that there was going to be federal government money for this. At that stage, as far as I knew, we didn’t have anybody ill here in the Northern Territory. So John started the paperwork for the incorporation of the Northern Territory AIDS Council.

    The VAC and ACON were not able to directly advise the federal minister for health (Hon Neil Blewett) because as state bodies they advise the state minister. As a consequence, VAC and ACON initiated the forming of a federated body, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) to represent the state and territory AIDS Councils to the Federal minister. Warren Talbot was the first executive officer and he put the call out for AIDS council to be formed in every state and territory.

    We put together a committee to establish NTAC, and one of John's arguments was that unless we as a group of gay men take this action, the funding for AIDS councils will be given to benevolent Christian groups, for example the Salvation Army or the St Vincent de Paul Society. These groups will establish their own AIDS Council and it will not include gay people on its management. So there was an urgency to establish NTAC before these "do gooders" get control. At the same time in Queensland, the Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen was in control and was not giving money to dirty poofters! So, the Queensland Health Department gave the Commonwealth money to a group of Roman Catholic nuns, and the nuns passed the funds to the gay men operating the Queensland AIDS Council (QAC). I don’t know the whole arrangements there, but one of the groups there passed the money, so they could run a committee and outreach to the people who were ill. Though it’s still very much driven from a benevolent Catholic organisation or church group, the prejudice caused them to believe that they’re the right sorts of people to look after these situations, and this was their thinking at the time. So, a pressure or expediency existed to establish NTAC.

    I can still remember another meeting, and I think Simon Nish was there too, and it was at the home of a female infectious disease doctor. Here home was at East Point Road in one of the townhouses there looking out to sea. I don’t remember much about it, but part of the discussion that evening was we had to get a group of gay men together. The outcome of that evening was to establish NTAC and that there was an urgency to take action before any benevolent organisation seized the opportunity.

    The majority of gay people wanted to be phantoms, and what I mean by that is the idea of being identified as a gay person was poisonous, and dangerous, especially to one’s employment. "You’re a fucking poofter" - and I had my "self-oppression" belted out of me from my period in Canberra (1978 -79) through ACT Gay Solidarity. This group delivered consciousness-raising programs to gay men as a way to improve and validate their self-identity. Not that I knew that the current state of affairs would change, but through this group I learnt that I had human rights and that I was a respectable and functioning member of society. When I taught at Darwin High School, I held a Commonwealth appointment, and the Commonwealth during the Whitlam era were the first to end discrimination of sexuality in employment. So I did not fear being identified as a gay person at school. And one of the issues I quickly learnt was "it’s not who you are, it’s what you do which counts".

    I got involved, and I think I got elected at the first meeting as the public officer, because I put my name to paper. However, when you actually formulate to go for incorporation, somebody has to be on that unelected loose group, and the public officer at that stage was John Turner. His name went on that advert in the NT News on Melbourne Cup Day in 1985. You had to give notice to incorporate, and you have to wait for complaints. So the whole idea was to fly under the radar. It was his brilliant idea – if we put it on Melbourne Cup Day, that day, the newspapers are all torn up because it’s got the sweep picks, and everybody will either be drunk or tearing the newspaper up. They won’t be looking at the others parts of the newspaper. That was the whole tactic.

    Once NTAC had incorporated, funds were granted for operations. In these early days, Warren Talbot (AFAO) visited Darwin, and he was happy that NTAC had been established and incorporated. Warren's approach was that NTAC was as a business, and he had a real business mind for that work, and I’d never thought like that. He said that you have money, you spend it – and I can still remember we bought a computer, and a printer, and then secured an office space, which was upstairs in the Burns Philp Building, corner of Smith and Knuckey Streets. And I remember a girl was here in town for some reason, and she had previously had worked with ACON [AIDS Council of NSW], and she always used this word, which I never heard before at school, because I’d never worked in an organisation that run public programs. And she kept on saying to start a number of "initiatives", so you had to then apply for funding so we could actually deliver activities. So apart from having an office, we had an employee and the council could begin its task.

    Warren Talbot also said, "You have to find a prominent community person to be your patron", and this is where Sally Thomas comes into the NTAC story. The committee members knew few prominent community persons' and I suggested Sally because her son, Nick, was in my pastoral care group at Darwin High School, and I had met her a few times at parent evenings. Sally Thomas at that time was a magistrate and it was agreed that she would make an excellent patron.

    I had to first speak to her personal assistant and request a time that I could call and speak with her. I was later able to call her and arrange to meet in her chambers. So I went up to see her, and said, "Look, I’m involved with a group of people setting up the Northern Territory AIDS Council, and you may be aware of this disease which is currently amongst mostly gay men. But it’s around the place, and it may turn up here in Darwin. We need a patron, and I thought you’d be a good person for the job." I pointed out to her that AIDS is currently occurring within gay men, drug users and prostitutes, clearly, the downtrodden of current society. I can remember saying to her, "You’ll probably have to speak to others, to see whether this is appropriate for a magistrate." And she said, "That’s fine, Terry. I’ll find out. I’ll give you a call back later." I can still remember getting a message at school, and returning to her chambers. Sally advised that she was very pleased to be the patron of NTAC.