Grief and the Gay Community

While AIDS does indeed affect everyone in our society, at the moment in Australia we are seeing predominantly a gay and lesbian artistic response to the epidemic.

It is hard to open a newspaper in Australia today, listen to a radio broadcast or turn on a television set without encountering some discussion of the ‘new’ disease AIDS and its causative factor, HIV. In the same fashion, HIV/AIDS has come under scrutiny in many forms of Australian cultural response, from theatre and dance, to fiction, poetry, music and soap opera; such that the Australian public often now finds its ‘entertainment’ engaged in serious debate around issues of illness, prejudice, medical research and death.

But while AIDS does indeed affect everyone in our society, at the moment in Australia we are seeing predominantly a gay and lesbian artistic response to the epidemic. This is closely related to the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS to date in Australia.[1]

In stating this, I in no way mean to deny the enormity of the tragedy HIV/AIDS has also brought to those infected in Australia by medically acquired means (through contaminated blood products or medical procedures), heterosexual sexual contact transmission or recreational intravenous drug use, and those infected from birth. To date, however, significant numbers of heterosexual Australian visual artists would seem on the whole to have either not been personally involved with HIV positive people from these categories; or have preferred not to address the topic of HIV/AIDS in their work.

It would be regrettable, therefore, were the exclusive discussion here of gay artists, critiquing the social and sexual impact of HIV/AIDS, to reinforce the misconception that only gay men are at risk from AIDS. This is clearly not the case, of course; although we are yet to see such an artistically diverse response (in terms of the sexuality and backgrounds of the artists) in this country as has transformed the art world in the United States, where the devastation of AIDS is so widespread, and has permeated into every conceivable corner of the arts.

While the Australian public now knows more than ever before about gay men and their lifestyles, thanks to wave after wave of mostly lurid and voyeuristic press and television reportage in the 1980s, few people have any real consciousness of the searing impact that repeated witnessing of death, anguish and physical suffering has had on Australia’s gay communities. This cumulative loss has forced a redefinition of personal identity for many gay men, and provided ground for thoughtful image making by a number of Australian artists.

Lex Middleton’s Gay Beauty Myth (1992) reconsiders Bruce Weber’s luscious photography of the naked male body for Calvin Klein’s celebrated underwear advertising campaigns of the early 1980s. The proliferation of Weber/Klein glistening pectorals and smouldering body tone across the billboards of the United States was reaching its crescendo at the same time as the gay male ‘body’ came under threat from a ‘new’ disease not yet identified as HIV/AIDS. In opposing the rippling musculature and perfect visage of an athlete with the fragmented image of a Calvin Klein Y–fronted ‘ordinary’ man. Middleton questions the ‘gay beauty myth’ both as it applies to gay men who do not fit the ‘look’ advertising has decreed applicable to their sexuality; and from the projected perspective of HIV-positive gay men who face the reality of the daily decay of their bodies.

Juan Davila’s Love (1988) proceeds from the same source as the Canadian artist collective General Idea’s AIDS1988 – Robert Indiana’s iconic pop art image Love (1966) – but to quite a different end. Where General Idea offer a cool 80s commentary on love in a changed climate, retaining Indiana’s bold, joyful colours, Davila subverts both the look and the message of Indiana’s original paean to free love. His canvas highlights the Western-specificity of Australian society’s reaction to AIDS by recasting the acronym in its Romance-language form ‘SIDA’. This new phraseology is inundated with a mix of molecular and spermatozoic imagery that resembles nothing so much as a cum-shot from a pornographic movie as dissected by viral researchers. The painting seems racked with grief, as its sombre tonalities ooze and drip a lament on the death of love.

Ross T. Smith’s L’Amour et la mort (sont la même chose), [Love and Death (are the same thing)] (1990-92) offers on an operatic scale the moving picture of intimacy between two men in a time of grief and physical decay. Smith’s use of ripped and crushed photographic sections, roughly adhered to their backing-board with carpet tacks, emphasises the fragility of bodies and souls torn asunder by the epidemic.

Sister Mary Dazie Chain (aka David Edwards)’s Untitled (AIDS Pietà) (1992) offers a gentle use of humour, tinged with sadness and empathy for both the dead and the surviving bereaved. The use of Mother Inferior as one of the models was a natural one for Sister Mary Dazie Chain, himself a member of the Order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Untitled (AIDS Pietà) by its coy replacement of the Virgin Mary with Mother Inferior, and the dead Christ with a svelte symbol of the post-AIDS universal gay body, acknowledges the role of the artist’s Order in the fight against HIV/AIDS, while utilising the same irreverent humour the Sisters have brought to their espoused causes of gay liberation and AIDS prevention.

This image, which may well seem blasphemous and provocative to some, is both humorous and heart-rending to others – a perfect symbol of the moral, spiritual and pathological morass surrounding the AIDS debacle. There is no universal truth or correct stance about HIV/AIDS – there is only your own perspective, based upon where you personally stand in relation to the epidemic.

It is impossible to describe, to those who have not experienced it directly, the emotion that washes over you in the middle of a crowded dance party at five am, surrounded by thousands of happy revellers, as the ghosts of missing friends come close to dance around you. It is hard to convey the manner in which AIDS turns one’s life into a series of ‘lasts’ – last dinners with ill or dying friends, last birthdays and festivals, last shopping expeditions, last year of health, last visits to hospitals and hospices, …but somehow never last funerals.  Only those who live on the razor’s edge truly know the sharp cut of its blade.

One of the more cruel ironies of HIV/AIDS lies in the amount of mortal pre-warning it gives those infected. Gay men with AIDS-related illnesses have frequently participated, for example, in the designing of their own Quilt panels, organising every detail of their own funeral or memorial service, drafting their own obituary notices, and staging pre-will distributions of their estates; planned suicide parties (which become wakes at a given moment of the evening) are also not unknown.

David McDiarmid’s latest candy-coloured laser prints come closest to capturing the bitter-sweet essence of life for many gay men in the 1990s. Their kind of tabloid ‘joke’ sensationalism is encased within the pure colours of the rainbow (itself, in a certain chromatic configuration, a gay icon of course[2]) over which sugary lollypop texts spell out acid tongued truisms: It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To, Sugar; Lifetimes Are Not What They Used To Be; The Family Tree Stops Here Darling; Honey, Have You Got It? Black humour is taken to an almost blasphemous degree, lending a queer new meaning to the term ‘sick joke’ and the expression ‘dying laughing’. These new texts are like games of Scrabble played out on the shore of the Styx. Pushing his black comedy to the limits McDiarmid has also produced, under the auspices of his subsidiary Toxic Queen Records, a thoughtfully tasteless cassette, Funeral Hits of the 90s, to help out wavering gays who can’t quite decide what music to have played during their last rites.

The defiant ghetto humour of McDiarmid’s confronting rainbow panels is emphasised by his most aggressive text: That’s Miss Poofter To You Asshole. There is a dignity and pride at the core of his macabre comic creations, that offer a perfect example of the instructive ‘shock’ and cathartic release obtainable through AIDS humour. David McDiarmid’s sparkling /bleak rainbow /text panels are aimed principally at an audience of other HIV-infected gay men. They convey from the heart his response, as an HIV-positive artist, to the epidemic, and his wish, through their pungent humour, to open up a dialogue about the emotional and political issues which shape the lives of people living with HIV /AIDS.

McDiarmid’s sadder panels, such as Don’t ask, Don’t Tell, Die Alone or Don’t Forget To Remember also offer an important commentary on the manner in which the funerals of so many gay men in Australia and the United States have brought death and grief, topics normally hidden or avoided and never frankly discussed in Western culture, blazingly to the foreground. Gay men have constructed a unique set of public rituals around the day-to-day reality of death for their community. The Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt and its ceremonies, candlelight processions, ‘remembrance’ attendance at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, anniversary-of-death dinner parties, private ceremonies to scatter the ashes of the dead in a favourite haunt, and timed ‘dance moments’ for the deceased at major gay parties are all now common forms of public and semi-public grieving for the gay community which have little or nothing to do with traditional funerary rites.

For most Australians, the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade offers the most cogent and controversial expression of gay visibility in the country. While the Parade inevitably means many things (gay and lesbian pride, unity and strength, visibility, dispelling myths, the fight against homophobia and anti-gay violence, etc) the public televising of the 1994 procession down Sydney’s Oxford Street (and its personal witnessing by more than 500,000 spectators) underscored again the extent to which the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade has become, in one sense, a forum for public mourning and a galvanising call to action in fighting the AIDS crisis.  This aspect to the Mardi Gras will have, no doubt, surprised millions of viewers whose knowledge of the parade was formerly confined to sensationalising sound-bites of naked bodies in TV news bulletins and condemnatory press reports focussing exclusively on the parade’s defiant expressions of gay and lesbian sexuality.

Attendance at the Mardi Gras Parade and its follow-up Party now combines commemoration with celebration for many members of the gay and lesbian community. The 1994 parade was marked by its repeated use of Egyptian imagery, evocative of elegiac funerary rituals; moving floats offered in thanks to HIV /AIDS support networks (Ankali, CSN, Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Positive Women, etc); Brenton Heath-Kerr’s monumental AIDS snake surrounded by lantern and incense-bearers (commissioned by the AIDS Council of New South Wales); and a legion of flag-bearers carrying banners emblazoned with the motto “Remember Our Friends” who paused in procession periodically as flares in honour of the dead were sent up into the skies above Sydney’s gay and lesbian neighbourhoods. Today the Mardi Gras Parade has become the equivalent of Anzac Day for Australia’s gays and lesbians, as they remember their dead, celebrate their communities’ survival, and express their fierce will to rise stronger out of the fires of tragedy. Ron Muncaster’s prize-winning Mardi Gras costumes are a statement of pride in the individuality and difference of his life as a gay man in Australia, and a sign to the world of his determination to ‘carry on’ in the face of the grief and loss which have afflicted the gay communities in our country. They are lovingly worked statements of survival in the face of adversity, and of belief in the ultimate joy of life even when surrounded by so many reminders of its impermanence and fragility.

Just as his earlier photographic book, Sydney Diary (1984), captured the faces of Sydney’s counter-culture and high culture lifestyles before the dawn of AIDS, so William Yang’s photography over the past decade has played an essential role in documenting the tragic impact of HIV /Aids on Australia’s gay community and culture.

While Yang’s well-out theatrical performance, Sadness. A Monologue With Slides (which has been touring Australia since 1992), begins by poignantly examining the artist’s Chinese-Australian heritage, it is the performance’s account of the slow death from AIDS of Yang’s friends Nicolaas and Allan which has brought whole audiences to open tears time and time again. The Allan sequence pivots around the intimacy of Yang’s lovingly close-focussed portraits of Allan in sickness and health, in combination with a simple heart-breaking text:

“I hadn’t seen Allan for about three years … I recognised him immediately … but he had changed. He seemed like an old man and I had a strong desire to burst into tears.”

Yang himself remains philosophical about the loss of friends and the mourning he sees all around him: “I would like to wish all those spirits who have already departed, well. We should not pull them back to this physical world with our sadness. Let them go. They have a new journey to travel”[3] William Yang’s panoramic, sweeping photographs of candlelight AIDS vigils in Sydney record forever the public mobilisation of, primarily, Sydney’s gay and lesbian community in pain, fear, strength, remembrance and hope.

Inevitably, the Australian artistic response to the AIDS crisis will widen to cover more aspects of the dilemma, as the epidemiology of the disease changes to affect a broader population base. For now, the artistic record of the impact of HIV /AIDS on the gay community stands as a lasting testament to the heroism of the group which has, to date, borne the brunt of grief and infection in our country.


  1. ^ As of 31 December 1993, Australia had recorded 17,737 cases of HIV infection. Of these, where the cause of transmission was identifiable, 84.2% of cases involved male-to-male sexual contact (including 2.8% of cases involving male-to-male sex and recreational intravenous drug use). Of the 4753 Australian people who had progressed to AIDS by the close of 1993 (3212 of whom had died), 83.6% of cases were attributable to male-to-male sexual contact (including 5.7% of cases involving both male-to-male sex and recreational intravenous drug use). These figures are drawn from the April 1994 edition of the Australian HIV Surveillance Report, produced by the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Sydney. Over 80% of new HIV diagnoses in Australia still involve male-to-male sexual contact. In the United States, however, where some 339,000 confirmed cases of AIDS had been recorded by the end of 1993, only 55% of this total were attributable to male-to-male sexual transmission (plus a further 6% attributable to a combination of male-to-male sex and recreational intravenous drug use), reflecting the manner in which HIV/AIDS has now spread well beyond the borders of the gay population in that country. Given these statistics, it is hardly surprising that the strongest response to the impact of HIV/AIDS in Australia has come from artists who identify as gay or lesbian.
  2. ^ The six colours of the Gay Rainbow Flag symbolise the following: Red – life, orange – healing, yellow – sun, green – serenity/ peace with nature, blue – art, purple – spirit. I am grateful to David Thomson (1955-1994), Sydney, for this listing. The Gay Rainbow Flag was originally designed by an American gay man, Gilbert Baker, and was first unveiled at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in 1978. For a full history of the flag, see James J Ferrigan III, ‘The Evolution and Adoption of the Rainbow Flag in San Francisco’, The Flag Bulletin, no. 130, 1989, pp 116-122.
  3. ^ William Yang, quotation from Sadness. A Monologue With Slides, 1992.