Tony Hand

AIDS Council of Central Australia 1991–2006

    Because if someone had have walked in the door and said I'm HIV-positive, or I want to get tested, or what's safe sex, or you fucking dirty poofters or whatever – we had to deal with that and we actually did deal with it, just like everybody else did, with solidarity and strength.

    For me, the AIDS Council, especially in the early days when it was ACOCA, was very fresh, very primary, very under-resourced but full of enthusiasm, dedication and a willingness to tackle a big scary issue and do whatever was necessary. I was asked by the coordinator at the time, Jim Buckell, if I would do the needle exchange one day a week as a peer educator. I went, great! Peer educator. That was in 1991 and back there was a potentiality and a growing concern that HIV would go bananas in Central Australia.

    Anyway, Jim said to me "Tony, you're the only person I know who's injected drugs before, and would you be this person". So I went, "peer educator? Okay sure." I didn’t actually know quite what that meant but I did know it was going to be a challenge. The Outreach program was funded initially for one day a week. There were the usual service visits you do in the beginning, the getting to know me thing. Bloody hell I had dreadlocks, what looked like jail tattoos and, oh my God, bare feet. Talk about look the part. 

    I was 26. I was from New Zealand and lived in very rural and remote parts of northern Western Australia, so I didn't really know much about AIDS at all, or HIV, it was just AIDS then. 

    The first taste I had of anything to do with the global reach of HIV/AIDS was the Big Tease that was happening in Perth around 89/90. Ricky Lee Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and other famous people had drawn graphics and slogans on T-shirts, it was a huge AIDS awareness project and it was held at the Burswood Casino. Jim took me along to it; I then discovered that it was probably more of an issue than I was aware of. Jim had already a big experience with HIV because of a friend of his Eric Michaels, who came here from America and worked at the Central Land Council, he wrote the book Unbecoming documenting his experience of living with HIV.

    I grew up in the shearing sheds, and never thought I’d be asked or have input into a primary health project like injecting drug user outreach in my life. Who’d of thought that one day a week project would be the start of a career that would take me to places and allow me to do what I didn’t even dream of back then. However I wouldn’t have been able without the professionalism and dedication of the people who mentored and supported me like Jim, like Sarena Ruediger, Alexis Young, Di Lane and Kerri Leitch.

    Back then, in the early '90s, we were dealing with new things that everybody else in Sydney, Melbourne and all the other big centres had had a taste of already. There were three of us when I started at ACOCA with a board of seven or nine and community supporters. 

    The first coordinator of was Megan [Brooks]. She lives in Sydney now; it was then the Central Australian AIDS Action Group. I first met Megan when the Action Group was above a pharmacy in town, and it was a rat infested shit hole which smelled of ether that seeped from the camera repair guy’s office down the hall, an alarming smell to greet people accessing to AIDS awareness information, condoms and lube. David Ben David was the next co-ordinator after Megan. The AIDS Action Group finally grew out of that home and we moved to across from where Malanka Lodge was, at the front of Gagliardi's on Todd Street. When Jim left as the coordinator, Di Lane took over. She did a fantastic job. I can't remember what year that was. After Di Lane a guy called Tony Cooper took over. We nicknamed ourselves Tony Cooper and the ACOCA nuts.

    I remember the first time we visited the police – it was to talk about the needle exchange and to introduce myself as the outreach worker and just to answer any concerns that they might have had. Anyway, Sarena and I went to this meeting and there was this row of chairs in a semi-circle and we had two chairs in front facing the semi-circle, we sat down and this group of cops walked in, sat down and looked us up and down. I went "Hi, my name is Tony and I'm from the AIDS Council, or from ACOCA, we'd like to talk to you about the needle exchange and how we've been going for a little while now and it's really great you guys aren’t giving it any attention, you know it’s about harm reduction", and all of that kind of stuff. They listened, looked at each other, said "no worries, thanks very much", got up and walked out. Sarena and I sat there; we looked at each other and said in unison "that went well?" We went back to ACOCA satisfied we got the message across, we think. Well, interestingly enough one of the people in that room is now a government advisor who I’ve had dealings with in my work for the NT Government.

    ACOCA when I first started was very much connected with Clinic 34, which was CDC [Centre for Disease Control]. We had to be aligned with other services, and there was an educator called Sue Grant also played a big part in supporting the cause and the many campaigns we organised.

    I will never forget when the Ankali Project came to town and we did the Ankali Workshop designed around friendship and mentoring support for someone dying of HIV/AIDS. Ankali was huge a milestone in terms of HIV support and bringing the issue of death and dying to the forefront of reality for a lot of us who had experienced what was happening in other centres. The significance of the workshop was not just for us at ACOCA, but for other people who were supporters of the issues. There were some positive people, some gay men, people who had already supported someone who had died and other community members. It was a mixed bag of affected people and sentiments were high and raw. So, you could imagine the type of emotion and drama for those people sitting in the room listening to the facilitator talking about caring for someone to the end. Ankali was, if I remember correctly, based on the Elizabeth Kubler Ross philosophy of caring and supporting people through dying and death.

    I suppose we were, as I said, sheltered from a lot of stuff that was going on in Sydney and Melbourne and other major centres but that didn’t make it any easier. 

    People had died when we were around and my colleagues at the time had supported people at their most serious  illness and death. Some people diagnosed as positive left town. Also, some people diagnosed as positive decided they would be treated at other places, rather than in Alice Springs for fear of stigmatisation. There was a small group who didn't identify at all and who could blame them, and those who totally identified, which in this environment took absolute guts man. We were educated enough to know back then that there was so many different way you could stigmatise and discriminate against someone without even knowing it. So, we were very conscious about what we were learning and how we were delivering our services, and we didn't take it for granted. 

    One thing we did have in abundance was skill and knowledge around empathy or competence around empathy and a willingness to really show it. Saying you were non-judgemental was one thing, demonstrating it was quite another. I suppose, we really just embrace it as it is and was. After all we didn’t know where this disease was going to take us and for how long, we just knew we had to be ready for anything. It was about health rights, okay? In health, those rights are everybody's rights. 

    I was lucky to have worked with some very experienced professionals in that time of ACOCA that provided me with a diverse skill set. My colleagues had experiences working with different minority groups, or marginalised groups and discrimination issues in the past. So, HIV/AIDS was just another one of those issues but it was urgent and unknown. In the early days we had lots of people from all over telling us about how we should be doing things, but they didn’t live here or have our associations just as we didn’t live where they were or have their experiences. What was important to us in Alice was the validation we got from those who understood the complexities of being in a town like Alice, that we were doing great with what we had, and that this horrible fucking thing was affecting us just as much as anybody.

    Because if someone had have walked in the door and said I'm HIV-positive, or I want to get tested, or what's safe sex, or you fucking dirty poofters or whatever – we had to deal with that and we actually did deal with it, just like everybody else did with solidarity and strength.

    The Summer of Safe Sex campaign was a massive event held at the Todd Tavern, the local red neck pub. The Painters and Dockers from Melbourne came up and played at the event. It was fantastic, very well attended by different members of the community. It was a big community event and very well organised. 

    We had World AIDS Days, Candlelight Vigils, all the events that promoted raising awareness nationally. I remember World AIDS day sausage sizzles in the Mall standing in forty degree heat cooking endless sausages with onion and rapidly drying out bread. Holy crap my sweat (and a few tears) literally went into those BBQs. The Candle Light Vigils where there'd be eight to fifteen of us standing in the mall freezing our fucking tits off, shivering in icy winds, constantly relighting candles and remembering friends, lovers, brothers, sisters and people we knew who had died, standing as a community in reflection and mourning. 

    That whole ACOCA/AIDS thing permeated through our social lives, which was also part of the deal. Everywhere we went, we were the people who worked for the AIDS Council, even today. I’ll never forget doing some education in another job role a few years ago for an organisation on an Aboriginal community west of Alice. I went to the local shop at lunch time where a group people were sitting out the front and one of group calls out, "Hey, I know you, your that AIDS fella." I hadn’t worked for the AIDS Council for more than 10 years by then. Nice to know we had an impact!

    When I got the job at ACOCA as the needle exchange project officer, I went to this international conference in Melbourne, and next minute I was the national secretary
    of AVIL (the Australian IV League). I worked with people like Marion Watson, David Herkt, Jude Burn and Annie Madden and some other really experienced people who taught me heaps, but it put Alice Springs on the national agenda for injecting drug user issues....hooray!

    My first presentation about ACOCA and the needle exchange project was for government alcohol and drugs agency. It was probably '91. There was one person attending and I still know that person today. I had, you know, the dreadlocks then and homemade tattoos, hippie dress code. But Margaret Borger was very patient with me and my little presentation. It was with transparencies back then, with an overhead projector. You took a transparency, put it on, did the spiel, took it off and put on another one. Well, we had to; there wasn’t much choice back then. There was no such thing as data projectors and laptops were just new, USB ports and sticks were probably just forming in someone’s imagination.

    The gay men’s community was small, the lesbian community was bigger. At one dance party we had twelve men and fifty women; slim pickings for us boys This hasn’t changed much over the years. I'll never forget the time there was this little gay rally in the mall, and I mean little. Three men with a candle standing under the sails in the mall chanting "we're here, we're queer, and we're not saying sorry." A group of friends and me were on our way to attend and show our support. On hearing the chanting my friends and I started chanting "we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going shopping. "If you were limited to K-Mart and one men's clothing store called Men’s Land, which probably should have called No Men’s Land, you’d protest too. This was probably about '93.

    We did have these dance parties called Asylum. They were going when I arrived in ‘90 to when I left for Sydney in 95. They were pretty fucking wild and great fun. We actually had a 50th anniversary party of Asylum one year. Not fifty years, fifty dance parties because there was one a month. The anniversary was at a place called Honeymoon Gap and there were people from all over Australia who had previously lived in Alice. The dance parties were fantastic, a really organic community event. We used to set it up, drag a huge heavy dance floor from across town with lights, extension cords and a box of records fund raised for. It wasn't ACOCA’s, but the staff from ACOCA including board members, gays and lesbians and community supporters made them truly Alice Springs. ACOCA always had a presence though, whether it was with signage, posters or flyers, or condoms, you know what I mean? All of that health promotion stuff. We went from a pizza parlour to the bowling alley, to an underground sort of night club complete with fake palm trees and fairy lights. One of the best things was the look on the faces of the staff who worked at these places who could not believe what they were seeing. They never said a word to their credit, but you could imagine what they were thinking. Magda Szubanksi apparently came to one of the dance parties, I wasn’t there that night, damn it.

    The parties were one thing, but we also had some pretty big events here in terms of conferences and events. One in particular was the first national Aboriginal HIV conference that happened here I think in '93, or '92. And that was a big deal. There were positive Aboriginal people, their supporters, an array of health professionals and service providers; it was a very significant event for the time. 

    Anyway, so there was education and there was promotion of ACOCA through the dance parties and other occasions, of course. But of course it was going to be like that, we were the dance parties and we were ACOCA and we were the community. So you couldn't really escape the issues, ACOCA had a parallel to our lives.

    An enormous amount of great work was achieved back then by everyone and I feel very privileged and honoured to have been a part of that early foundation laying. 

    I came back to Alice in 2000 and Sue Fielding was managing ACOCA at that time. Then a guy called Eric took over in about 2001/2 and it wasn’t very long after that ACOCA started to lose its lustre and integrity and community support. Many rumours at the time tried to explain why it all went horribly pear-shaped and accusations were flying left and right. Employees left town in a hurry, Eric was never seen again. Holy crap, one minute ACOCA was doing fine, next minute it was a laughing stock and closed. Very sad. 

    I think about eighteen months went by before there was talk of the newly name Northern Territory AIDS & Hepatitis Council annexing what was ACOCA. Frank Farmer was instrumental supporting and driving the initiative, and Jill Meade was employed as the manager of NTAHC Alice Springs branch. I was employed in 2005 as the HIV/Hep C Support Officer then later in a community development role. Heaps of work was done to re-establish the service by the new staff team with support from Darwin and the community but there’s nothing like the passing of time, a re-branding and a change of address to revitalise anything. There were many highlights from that time I could touch on but that’s for others to tell. I left NTAHC in 2007 to deliver nationally accredited training for the NTG. Even though things have changed service wise, the dedication and commitment of the people who are part the amalgamated organisation continues to provide quality care and support to HIV and Hep C affected communities and people across the NT. May the bright star of responsive and decisive community action shine on.