Megan Brooks

AIDS COUNCIL OF CENTRAL AUSTRALIA 1988–1990

    An Elder from Hermannsburg came in one day and said, "We’ve had people coming into our community saying you have to use condoms because otherwise you’ll catch AIDS. We have talked about it and we know that if you use condoms you can’t get pregnant – and we think that they’re just trying to stop us having children" – which is not an irrational interpretation at all. They had a high index of suspicion, because they suspected it could be another genocidal government policy directed at them.

    My name is Megan Brooks. I worked at the Central Australian AIDS Action Council and then ACOCA from 1988 to 1990.

    I was the only person there initially. The first office we opened was a shopfront called Safe Sex Worx, very ’80s, with a big X. Some people thought it was a hairdressing salon, because we had big bottles of lube on the shelves, like shampoo. We sold condoms and lube and dams. Back then you had to order the dams from dental supply companies and, because they weren’t made for sexual purposes, you just had to try to get the thinnest and least disgusting ones.

    I was there on a day-to-day basis and did a lot of the grunt work, but of course lots of other people were involved. The board and all of the people who were involved in their voluntary capacities did huge amounts of work. So I was lucky to be getting paid, but I have to say it wasn’t enough money to live on and I had to have other jobs as well, working as a barmaid and in the disability sector.

    The way I came into its orbit was that I knew John and his partner Paul. I’d been living in Alice Springs for a couple of years prior to him starting the AIDS Action Group, and he had cobbled together a bit of funding – which I presume came from Commonwealth sources – enough to employ someone.

    John approached me about it and I asked, "Would you not want to have a gay man in this role?" and he said, "Look, we’ve talked about it and we think it might be best to have a woman, because gay men are going to be comfortable with a woman, and then women and heterosexual men hopefully will be comfortable with a woman too. So we think given our limited resources having a woman in the role might be the best bet." I had a background in the community sector and that was my sort of field of work, and I suppose they thought that I might be interested in the position – which I really wanted to do.

    The board had a pretty clear program of work they wanted to achieve. Also, with such a small organisation and so many people doing it on a voluntary basis, there’s a big overlap between the voluntary and more community social stuff and the paid work. For example, there was a regular gay and lesbian dance night which many people helped organise. We also had a small amount of brokerage funds that assisted people with HIV who were in crisis, so we were able to help people out with some of their costs.

    At that time when people were getting sick there were few services to assist them. People like Sarena Ruediger nursed people as they died at home. It was done with a
    lot of secrecy because people felt it was unsafe for it to be known that they had HIV or AIDS. I remember being in the hospital with my colleague Gavin Dale when he became sick and people coming in who didn’t know he had HIV, standing in front of the yellow infection control sticker so that they wouldn’t see it.

    Actually, there was lots of subterfuge. My understanding is that some people’s death certificates would say they died of cancer or heart failure. It wasn’t recorded as AIDS-related on their death certificate for various reasons.

    I’d do pre-test counselling with people because it wasn’t straightforward in that era. I had a checklist sticky-taped to the desk so that I could remind myself of all the things to talk through. Because treatments in that era were so lousy and the disadvantages of being known to be HIV-positive were so profound, there were some good reasons not to be tested back then. People needed to stop and really think through what it meant to get tested.

    I remember using diagrams of mosquitoes that showed that they couldn’t transmit HIV. That was a big concern for people and maybe particularly in the Northern Territory, mozzies, but there was a really widespread fear of HIV transmission.

    People would come and talk about things to do with sex and drugs, and for a lot of them it was focused on HIV. But once people knew that this place existed, some would just come and talk about sex. I remember a middle-aged woman weeping because she’d never had an orgasm, and she wanted me to help her with that. And this conservative heterosexual man who wanted to find out how to order sex toys. In that era before the internet, many people were in the dark about sex. So there was actually quite a lot of work that was just about sex.

    When we set up the needle syringe program (in 1988), at first nobody came. We set it up in a walk-in storeroom. We got an article in the local newspaper saying, "It’s okay to come to this place and get needles and the police will not be watching the building", and then people started to come in. People would rock up and walk to this cupboard take whatever they wanted, and off they’d go. I would never have thought that there was a lot of injecting drug use happening in Alice Springs before we set up the NSP. 

    I can remember when we worked in the Safe Sex Worx office, an Elder from Hermannsburg came and said, "I want to talk about AIDS", and I went, "With me?" because I was a woman. He said it didn’t matter – I think because I was non-Aboriginal – but he’d been sent in by his community to find out more about this, because I believe there had been quite a lot of Commonwealth AIDS education happening in Aboriginal communities, much of which had not been understood particularly well. It wasn’t done in a way that was making much sense to people.

    So he said, "We’ve had these people coming into our community saying you have to use condoms because you’ll catch AIDS. We have talked about it and we know that if you use condoms you can’t get pregnant – and we think that they’re trying to stop us from having children" – which is not an irrational interpretation at all. They had a really high index of suspicion, because they suspected it could be another genocidal government policy directed at them.

    So one of the good things about having that shopfront set up was that people who came into Alice Springs would see it and go, "It’s about sex", and all kinds of questions came your way.

    I was the Central Australian rep for Scarlet Alliance, the sex workers organisation that still exists, because I had worked as a sex worker and was quite involved in sex worker issues. We’d have get-togethers with the sex workers, we would do spaghetti and education. We’d have slideshows of really disgusting STIs, because the medical slides show extreme versions of diseases that you’d never see on an actual body, because no-one would expose themselves to another person if they looked like that. 

    Sex workers would come in to buy their safe sex supplies. We’d talk about safe sex and occupational hazards. But they often needed to debrief about their work as well. They just needed to tell someone all the weird, crazy and sometimes distressing stuff that happened in their jobs – and it’s pretty interesting!

    One night this random drunk at the pub where I worked said, "I know you. You work at the AIDS Council, don’t you?" And I went, "Yes, I do, that’s my other job." And he goes "I know you’ve got AIDS." And I went "Really, how would you know that?" And he goes "I’ve been watching you and you’ve been losing weight." I thought, "Yeah, this is a really small town."

    So, I was talking about things like the brokerage or some of the support services we offered to people, but if I saw them on the street we would pretend we’d never seen each other before in our lives. You had to be very, very discreet about everything. I’d go to the supermarket and would see people – the woman who’d had been sobbing about being anorgasmic, or a person who’s got HIV and there’s all this stuff going on – you literally had to look through each other. It was social death to be seen on the street with me, because I was quite associated with that organisation and people who had something to hide really didn’t want to be seen anywhere near me.

    There was me initially, and then Gavin Dale came on as another employee. Gavin had come to Central Australia with his boyfriend to work at Yulara. He was a pastry chef, and I think he was still living at Yulara when I first met him. He came in wanting to buy condoms and lube and he only had a credit card. I remember laughing because we were such a small operation and we didn’t have the facilities for credit. It struck me as very cute. He started working at the AIDS Council, but became very sick. He died of AIDS in the beginning of 1991, by which time I had just moved back to Sydney. Gavin and his boyfriend had moved back there when Gavin became very unwell.

    I think for me, the fact that my time at the AIDS Council and then leaving Alice Springs coincided with Gavin’s death was significant. Gavin is the only person I’ve been with when they’ve died, it was an enormous privilege. But afterwards it was like, "Okay, now onwards", because it’s very painful and of course he wasn’t the only person to have died. There were a lot of funerals back then. A lot.

    I would like to pay homage to Gavin. He was a gay man who’d been rejected by his family. He bore the brunt of homophobia, AIDSphobia and losing his life way too young, and in the midst of all that he worked with such grace for other people in the same situation. He was just amazing. He was a really beautiful man. I’d like his name to be remembered.

    Also, I’d like to pay homage to John Hobson, who was an extraordinary force who made this all happen through sheer force of will and his incredible intellect. I really don’t know how he did it. At the time, I just accepted that he did it but you look back on it and go, "Wow." He created gay community in that town. He created the AIDS Action Group. He found people to come and help him. He got money and support. He played the politics. He did it all, really. That’s how I see it.

    In those early days people really needed to get their shit together and do something about this terrible disease, and John was absolutely one of those people. He lived and breathed the cause and he took it really, really seriously, probably to his own detriment at times. I’m sure that his life was a lot more stressful than it might have been. I’m glad that he had Paul and a really lovely home life to counter balance it. He worked all week in in his paid job, which he was also really committed to, and then just worked all the rest of his time to bring that organisation into being and keep it functioning. All credit to him I say. So I’d especially like to honour and acknowledge Gavin and John.