Gary Lee

NORTHERN TERRITORY AIDS & HEPATITIS COUNCIL Life Member 1995–ONGOING

    I made the AIDS Council so safe, and welcoming, and a place where they’d get information, anything like that, anything; we’d be there to help them. And it was known that at the AIDS Council there was a lot of blackfellas that hang around there and all the sisters and it was great. 

    My name is Gary Lee, a Larrakia man from Darwin. I began working at the AIDS Council in 1995. I was employed by Danila Dilba and my position was placed at the AIDS Council, just down the street, and I was the first Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Peer Group Educator.

    It was my job to to invite Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander sistergirls, gay boys, to the AIDS Council. By the next couple of weeks I set up a program of one or two days a week at the AIDS Council. We had a lot of sistergirls and gay boys, a mixture, and they’d come and then we’d do things from that beginning.

    We had self-esteem workshops and we also did safe-sex messages, so it was a mixture of everything, whatever they felt most important. I think at the time it was safe-sex and also for homophobia. We had a thing on homophobia, but it wasn’t such a big issue – not as big as the other issues. It turned out a lot of things came out, like a bit of violence, you know, lots of those issues which are still around in a way.

    But the best thing was that the girls – we used to call them the ‘girls’ because they would come – mainly the Tiwi ones and some from Daly River, and we’d organise different things. Otherwise they could come down, they could read the latest magazines at the AIDS Council or other books or even just a big place to be there because a lot of boys were coming into town and at that time they were – I wouldn’t say it was homophobia but it was. A lot of them were, I shouldn’t say suffering, but they were being abused in a way. You know, this one would have this white malaga, this one and this one.

    The irony was that these boys, they had quite nice malagas around they would come and see. But then when I asked them about this person and were they good to him, it all boiled down to they were just there for sex. And that’s okay because for some of them, that’s all they wanted. But I think they actually had that thing where they thought they would meet the malaga of their life and they had that beautiful romantic dream.

    I didn’t put them off that dream but I had to talk about the reality. When I was talking about these men there, doesn’t matter what colour they are, some will be very abusive and they knew it and they still saw this person. So I had to deal with that sort of thing.

    ‘Malaga’ is actually a name, it’s a Gurindji name and malaga means ‘man’, it actually means ‘boss man’ which when the early Retta Dixon – not the Retta Dixon Home,
    the other one [Kahlin Compound]– they used to refer to the boss man as malaga. It’s actually not a Larrakia word but it’s a word that became socially accepted in Darwin. You know, "I’ve got a ‘malaga", so it was kind of ‘boyfriend’.

    During that period one of the boys who was from Daly River, beautiful boy, his behaviour was a bit different and he got HIV and he was only very young. I think he’s still there. And he was the first one but when he found out that he had HIV he stopped coming, and then one time I saw him in town and I asked him how is he? And he was very bitter. He was told by the doctor to go on this medication and then he became like a recluse. And then I met two or three other boys and unfortunately they’re all gone now through various things, not necessarily going through the HIV, it was through violence and this awful stuff. So at first there was no one but then later there was positive HIV people.

    At first people, like the Tiwi girls, they knew that HIV was ‘the one’ and when the other boys, especially this one from Daly River had come out with it that he’s got HIV and there wasn’t anything negative about that person, nobody – there was none of that at all, never. It was just like, "Poor fella". But there was no personal thing from the Aboriginal community, from the gay community, so I don’t know if he got that. But back on his community, where he still is as far as I know, I don’t know if he faces discrimination or anything. And around that same time he just stopped coming and he doesn’t.

    I remember there were a lot of fun times because I felt that I’ve got to make this a happy thing, and we would do things like organise every year a retreat. All the girls would come, so that was great and they were lovely times. But the message of safe-sex, even though they knew about that – and since that time when I found out two other boys became positive and I didn’t know about – I felt that the message is not getting through really, and it doesn’t. And I didn’t blame the boys because nice malaga came, they go together and he didn’t want to use condoms, so they didn’t. Just like that, so that was sad. But other times, it was mainly a lot of fun.

    On the weekends, even though I stopped work for the week, I didn’t stop working because I’d go round the beats and I’d be dropping off condoms. That’s how it was in those days. But I’d go to the beats and I’d give condoms out to people. But the sistergirls, I really didn’t see them much at the beats, especially down at Fannie Bay beat, which is the biggest.

    When I was first employed by Danila Dilba and placed into the AIDS Council, that was at the time of the very first Anwernekenhe Conference. I didn’t go to that because I had to go to India for work, but I said I would send Maurice [O’Riodan, my partner]. So he went and he worked his arse off. And that first conference there in Alice Springs, that they said that every AIDS Council should be linked to local Aboriginal Health Services, Medical Services – and they applied to Danila Dilba straightaway after that conference. They moved straight-away and they’ve had a good relationship between Danila Dilba and the AIDS Council, which there still is, and they formed this position straight-away that year. And I applied for it and I got it, so that’s my entrée, through the AIDS Council and Danila Dilba.

    I used to do a lot of work with Steve Sparks and he was very, very good. He’d do the white side, I’d do the black side, sort of thing. On the weekends, we’d do those condom runs, because that was the only way they’d get free condoms at that time. We’d go down to Vestey’s Beach beat and you’d know everybody there and you’d say, "Here, here!" It was lovely; it was kind of like a social thing but a safe thing. We’d say, "Well, you can come around and be a slut but be a slut with these." And also at that time the Hibiscus toilets was a beat, if you can imagine at that time. Yeah. And the sistergirls used to say, "There’s plenty malagas there." And I’d say, "Are you sure?" That’s what gave me the idea. I approached Pat [Anderson, EO of Danila Dilba] asking, "Can I write this thing about all these malaga to malaga [men to men]?" I said I would just go and do and find out, and I researched and wrote the report Malaga to Malaga.

    I’d like to think that I helped reveal the mystery of the AIDS Council to sistergirls. When I said to them, "You’ve got to come to the AIDS Council." They said, "Oh." You know, their reaction, "Why would we want to go there?" And I said, "Well, what do you know about the AIDS Council?", and they’d reply, "Oh, it’s really tough." But they loved me, you see, they loved me, I could tell you. And I said, "Well, I’m working there for the first time and they are so helpful." And they said, "Alright, we’ll come there then." So, when they came to the AIDS Council and there was Steve and I sitting there and we had everything: there were resources, videos, anything, and they could run amok, basically. And it was great. So I made the AIDS Council so safe and welcoming, and a place where they’d get information, we’d be there to help them. And it was known that at the AIDS Council there was a lot of blackfellas that hang around there and all the sisters and it was great. That’s one of the legacies, I think.

    Crystal was one of the first ones I met, so she helped a lot, and they just loved me. So, when I see them, they run up and kiss me like I’m an old aunty and I think, "That’s okay, you can call me that." You know, they do. And they’re very respectful. I would meet some sistergirl that I’ve never seen and ask, "Which one are you?", and they answer "I’m so-and-so, you know, when I was a little girl?" And I was "Oh!" It’s beautiful to have that.

    I’m lucky because I came from Darwin, I lived my history and my home and that was behind me, and so it made it a little bit easier. Other people would say, "You’re Larrakia" and I’d say, "Yes, I know", and then I would pull that sort of rank.

    I started my career through the AIDS Council. Because I have to tell you that working at Danila Dilba was okay, it was very good, but it was working at the AIDS Council I think that for me, freed me up. It was very, very, good working for the AIDS Council. And for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, it was the best thing when the AIDS Council hired me. It was beautiful.