The Black Survivors
For many gay Aboriginal and
Torres Strait islander men with HIV/AIDS, the prospect of dying alone is
very real, according to a recently established coalition of indigenous gay
BRITTA LYSTER reports on this and other concerns discussed by the coalition.
(meaning 'all us mob' in the Arunda language of the Northern Territory),
was formed last year at a conference of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
(ATSI) gay and transgender men at Hamilton Downs in the Northern Territory,
in an effort to tackle issues relevant to this small but vocal group.
According to conference participant Matthew Cook, the collation was established in response to the fact that HIV/AIDS is a very real and major threat to the ATSI community.
Matthew says gay ATSI HIV+ men in particular are dying alone and in shame, often rejected by their families and communities and marginalized within the gay communities.
The group of about 60-70 men, their partners and families met in an effort to tackle what they believe is a very real and growing problem within ATSI communities around the country.
Over the five days, the group aimed to address problems, develop substantial recommendations and establish an on-going working group.
One major concern of the group was funding, the lack of it and what appears to be a very small regard placed on gay ATSI input into HIV/AIDS research. The conference agreed that it was high time the community make the important decisions regarding funding and called for further research and development, especially the recognition of traditional information being given to specific language groups.
An Aboriginal HIV positive gay man, 32 year old Matthew Cook comes form the Bunjalung mob of the North Coast of New South Wales where he spent much of his childhood and early adulthood.
Identifying as gay at an early age, Matthew felt like he was a big and camp fish in a very small pond and decided getting away from the small-town mentality was the best thing to do. However, the move to Sydney has been a series of trials and tribulations for the man who has settled with his non Aboriginal lover in the inner-suburbs of Sydney.
If anyone knows about the issues affecting gay ATSI people with HIV/AIDS it's Matthew. For him 1988 - the bicentenary - was not only a great celebration of survival for him and his people it was also the year he was given his HIV diagnosis over the phone in Lismore, northern NSW.
He'll never forget the day and feels it's exactly the type of insensitivity which is still going on and affecting ATSI people around the country. For Matthew the establishment of Anwernekenhe was the best thing that happened for him and his love in a long. long time.
For them it was a long overdue attempt to get a wide cross-section of the community together in an effort to establish a support network of r gay and transgender men and their partners and families, in some cases living in the closet in communities around the country.
For many of the men, their partners and families, being attacked and ridiculed for being gay and HIV positive is all a part of everyday life. Group organizers decided that this shouldn't be the case and it was high time that community leaders and organizations took responsibility for HIV and established education and awareness programs on a grassroots level.
The conference was quick to agree on the point that much of the currently available education material was targeted purely towards the heterosexual community and any information relevant to the gay community was just not being made available.
For many men at the conference being diagnosed with HIV was often a scary experience and many people and the attitude of 'f... the world' soon after diagnoses. This was put down to the lack of family and community support.
The reality for many HIV positive gay men was that they had no support network and were often turning to non-Aboriginal counsellors or lovers for solace and much needed understanding.
For many of these men, the option of having an Aboriginal lover is just not open to them. Matthew said he felt that black men were affectionate and warm but had become staunch and unfeeling over the past 200 years through no fault of their own.
He says in some extreme circumstances Koori men have found out later that they are actually related in one way or another to their lover and in the Koori community that can be very taboo. Therefore it is not uncommon to see gay Koori men with non-Aboriginal lovers.
Matthew believes the white man has bastardized homosexuality and Aboriginal communities around the country look upon this view as gospel and neglect gay people.
But after the recent conference Matthew feels more strongly about the fact that this small but very vocal group of indigenous men refuses to be swept under the carpet and silenced by a few bigots who are continuing to deny people their basic human rights.
According to Matthew in some cases families are disregarding their children and that's not the blackfella way.
"Things are staring to change but much too slowly. We've got to make ourselves heard and build some standing in the community and teach our people that HIV does not discriminate," he said.
Present statistics give no clear indication of exactly how many ATSI people around the country are HIv positive. Until a couple of years ago, a person's ethnicity was not recorded when taking an HIV test. But it's clear after this recent conference that this issue remains untackled and it's high time that it is brought into the public arena in an effort to create awareness and understanding in ATSI communities.
One serious matter of concern arising out of the conference was the fact that ATSI people living with AIDS or HIV are clearly not making use of the mainstream services available.
According to Matthew often through no fault of their own many services are just not sensitive to these people's needs.
"The community has to realize the different positions that these gay men are in," he says.
"many of the current services and organizations do actually want to succeed but just aren't going about it the right way, usually because there is no consultation with these people."
"In some cases these people are clearly going without the care and support they need because the services just aren't available of Kooris don't go there because they feel the services are not sensitive to the needs and concerns of Aboriginal people."
Matthew believes this comes down to two issues: lack of funding and education.
"HIV can eat away like cancer at Aboriginal communities if something is not done quickly to tackle the relevant issues," he says.
"Hundreds of years ago, diseases like small pox and scurvy claimed thousands of Aboriginal lives. We can't let HIV do the same thing and decimate the community."
Matthew believes it goes back to the fact that no one wants to understand HIV/AIDS and the related issues.
"Much of this fear and loathing is directly related to ignorance and Koori communities have to learn to take responsibility for the disease or else Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are going to continue to die alone and in shame," he says.
Matthew is the first to admit that the children hold the key to the future. He believes that the available information, education and support are not filtering down to the children and the people on a grassroots level
Other major points of concern for the conference were the lack of support being given to lovers, carers and families of affected people, and that ATSI people are not being asked to participate in medical and treatment trials.
It is hoped that with pressure from support groups, the Federal Government will set aside money for the establishment of a safe residential indigenous healing centre to promote self care through ATSI, Western and alternative healing processes.
Such a healing centre could counteract these problems and concerns. Workers can receive nationally accredited training in HIV and sexual and mental health.
Matthew believes the traditional elders could help by passing on information about traditional medicine which some people believe holds the key to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.
But HIV positive Kooris are not able to contact these elders, who often live in remote areas and who have little or no knowledge of the disease because of lack of community education.
Looking back on the conference and its participants, who came from around the country. Matthew is quick to point out that when Anwernekenhe came together everyone realized they were all thinking the same no matter what part of the country they were from. He says it backs up his point that HIV does not discriminate.
Matthew doesn't know where life will take him, he just hopes that when he passes into the Dreamtime he and some of his brothers and sisters will have created recognition, understanding and some sort of status in the community as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HIV positive gay and transgender people.
For more information on HIV/AIDS and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contact the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations