Phil Walcott

AIDS Council of Central Australia 1993–2001

    The candlelight vigils would be in May and sometimes we’d walk up and down the mall, just silent vigil stuff, and then there’d be some readings, and there’d be a bit of an after party thing. The cohort of the gay and lesbian community was really quite strong back then.

    I arrived on the 26th of August 1993 to start with the AIDS Council – the AIDS Council of Central Australia, it was known as. ACOCA was its acronym. So it was down on Todd Street, further down past the mall, and is currently The Medicine Tree and Gagliardi’s was next door. We were a tenant of Mr Gagliardi. He’d roll in at 9:10 on a Wednesday morning to collect the rent. Tony Cooper was the coordinator at the time. Tony and his partner Mel. Tony Hand was working as the needle exchange person, and he was good friends with a friend I’d made in Sydney by the name of Jim Buckell. They were actually partners at one point in time. Paola Nadich was the women’s educator. Barbara Crowley was our bookkeeper, and Jana Obst was the social worker. So yeah, just a little band of people. 

    I got very friendly with John Cross who was the HIV educator at Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. We did a lot of work together, intercultural stuff. Looked at things like beat programs and trying to target M-S-M rather than G-A-Y, because they seemed to be more at risk because they weren’t identifying. That kind of stuff. John and I, we’d go to Tennant Creek. We just did some outreach kind of stuff there. 

    I got contracted to Congress for five weeks to help John set up Anwernekenhe conference out at Hamilton Downs. Paola was the president, I think at the time. It was exciting and I was just really delighted for John, because it’d been a passion of his since he was very young. He had this dream of bringing gay Aboriginal men together and being recognised for being gay and Aboriginal.

    My former partner Alan got to come up, because he’d been involved in another one prior to that. Not Anwernekenhe but he’d come to Alice Springs for an AIDS conference at some point before I got here. It was just very exciting, because out at Hamilton Downs there was nothing. There was a generator and you had to run computers off. So by the time that people from the Commonwealth come up on the Thursday, we actually had documentation from workshops that we’d generated.

    It was great. We brought together all these people from all over Australia. John and I put in a report. We got $35,000 in Government grants. Nothing from the Northern Territory, mind you, but we got I think 25 thousand from Queensland and 10 from New South Wales or something like that. You know how you send off submissions, cross your fingers?

    It was John's dream, and he cried when we were finishing up. I can just remember – and he just needed to be by himself. But he realised his dream and I was just so delighted for that to have happened. It was the first time in the world that a group of Aboriginal men and Sistagirls had come together to talk about HIV and AIDS. The conference subsequently generated national policy on HIV and Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people. And the dream is still going. We just had Anwernekenhe number 6 in Alice Springs, November 2015.

    I left the organisation in November of ’94 and went to work at the Health Department. There was a bit of continuing connection. John became quite ill with depression, not very long into my time there. It was kind of – he was your friend, and you're also working with him a professional level, but it was obvious by then that boundaries in Alice Springs get a little bit skewed from time to time. You still respect, and you have to respect confidentiality certainly, and people’s rights to privacy, but you just know people socially and then sometimes you just have to work with them on
    a professional capacity, so you’ve just got to draw that you know. Unfortunately, John completed a suicide in about May of ’95.

    I subsequently became a board member again, after a period of time. There was a lot of stuff that hit the dumper, because there was a guy called Eric that was appointed as the coordinator, and then he called himself the managing director or the chief executive officer, and he ended up paying himself twice whatever. That was the demise of ACOCA.

    ACOCA was dissolved, reluctantly, because it was running separately from the Darwin office. It was receiving its own funding for a period of time. Then Frank Farmer from Darwin NTAC came down and paid some visits, got a bit of community consultation together and said, "Well, do you think Alice Springs is ready to run its own? It would be a subsidiary of Darwin," and yeah, sure, okay. So that’s where all that sprang.

    I’d attend the candlelight vigils from time to time, some of the fundraisers. Kalika Murti Suich who is a yoga therapist and social worker from the town would sometimes lead from a yogi kind of perspective. She’d have blessings and stuff for the vigils. The candlelight vigils would be in May and sometimes we’d walk up and down the mall, just silent vigil stuff, and then there’d be some readings, and there’d be a bit of an after party thing. The gay and lesbian community was really quite strong back then. It was a bit enclaved because it hadn’t received quite the same recognition as it does now, where now it’s all a bit like, "Yeah, so what?" Everyone’s got a gay neighbour or gay grandmother or lesbian aunty, so it’s not any sort of big deal. But back then it was.

    The biggest concern when I was here was that HIV would get into the Aboriginal communities, and given the high rates of STIs, that it could really decimate. There was a lot of MSM sex going on in the river, and a lot of people being pretty promiscuous. 

    Well, they worked in with Michael Howard who was working for the HIV Unit at the hospital, and Condo Man was adapted to here. This was the later ’90s, I guess. Because it was gradual introduction stuff. But fortunately, through a variety of programs and just getting people to adopt safer sex practices and that sort of thing, it didn’t get in to that, it didn't decimate. Prior to me coming here, on my trip overseas, I I’d gone to South Africa and it was just rampant, absolutely. I’d go along to things in Johannesburg, like health clinic meetings, and the denial level was just huge in black South Africa: "No, it’s a whitefella disease. We’re not going to get it." 

    In 2001, Kalika and I set up Alice IS Wonderland, which is the dance parties. I’d already set up The Rainbow Connection – the first gay and lesbian B&B. Off that, she and I developed the Alice IS Wonderland stuff. Well, there was ten weeks’ worth of stuff in the newspaper. We had condoms, gloves, all sorts of educative material was available there for people to use on the night. We’d hold them out at the racecourse, the Gap View Hotel, the Memorial Club, wherever. We’d move it around to keep it a bit interesting for people. Alice IS Wonderland was designed to just the bring the community together in a jovial kind of fun way.

    The culture of town was homophobic and fear-ridden. We were getting letters in the paper from the Christians, the born agains, Potter’s House and a few of those sort of organisations, that the mosquitoes in town were going to bite us people who all had AIDS and fly out to the ponds and lay eggs, and it all was going to come through the water system and it was going to infect everybody in town.

    Then all the other conspiracies that would come through, the green monkey story because media thrive on conflict. They just love it. Anything that brings up conflict, though, they’ll bond with it, and just spread its fear needlessly into people. Certainly it was one of those things you had to just try and have some sense of credible evidence. Again, it was all about evidence-based stuff.

    When I was at ACOCA, we tried men’s groups, and mixed men and women. So anyway, you just go on and just did it, because it’s what you do. But it was an exciting time to get to know Alice Springs and the country and stuff, and I was living in a group home. 

    Well, changes over time when ACOCA just became part of NTAC. But ACOCA reached an end and then NTAC decided to – Alice Springs as an outpost again. 

    Prominent achievements? Certainly Anwernekenhe, being involved in that. Some of the men’s projects, and just helping to elevate awareness as an educative process through the school system, and sporting clubs, and whatever groups that people were moving. I guess I was probably only there about fourteen months as a member of staff. The community action at the time was hostile, building into tolerance and then becoming acceptance these days. Because I think that’s probably where it’s morphed into. We’d got the beat program in Alice Springs and Tennant Creek. John and I would go up about every two months. Going in the pubs and toilets, and service stations, and just getting paraphernalia out there around. The old Cover Yourself posters. There’s still one in the airport at Alice Springs. Well, it’s pretty old. Yeah, that was more of an education awareness type program. 

    I’d often get phone calls at The Rainbow Connection for people who’d want a bit of sex. "Is there anyone there? Any workers?" Because we’ve had occasionally had sex workers in town who would advertise through the local press. Male workers, yeah. But I’d have people who would come into town who weren’t necessarily staying at our place, but just wanted to know what the local sex scene was like. I don't know. "How long you here?" "One night." "Can’t you go without it one night? Be okay. It won’t fall off. It’ll be all right." Anyway. So from what started off as a bit of a focused reason for being here, it just rippled away into what it’s become, and I’ve just had a whole bunch of really nice experiences living here.