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Wednesday 28 June 2017


Farewell Tony Hughes (not an obituary!)

Posted in: Our Communities
By Jay Bennie - 4th May 2017

Some office farewells are perfunctory, 'paint by numbers' affairs... the boss drones through a few overused cliches, a few tepid anecdotes are re-told, those present descend on the cake and sausage rolls and ten minutes later it's all done and dusted.

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Not so on Friday evening when the man who has been the intellectual and core strategic driver of the NZ AIDS Foundation since its creation was given a heart-felt and deeply emotional send-off.

He is probably the most influential gay man this country has ever known. He has affected, for good, the lives of just about every glbti person in the country and yet few know, or have heard of, him.

Probably due to budget constraints which are impinging on many aspects of the NZAF's activities the invitation-only farewell was modest in scale but it was sincere and genuine to the core. Past and present staffers, gay community stalwarts and human rights and political royalty gathered in person or sent messages of appreciation and gratitude for what NZAF Executive Director Jason Myers described as Tony Hughes' "inestimable contribution over 32 years to the fight against the spread of HIV and his commitment to broader public health and human rights progress."

Myers, acknowledging that he was only one year old when HIV arrived in New Zealand and gay and bisexual men started dying horrible deaths throughout the land, noted that Hughes' work in HIV was preceded by signature roles in landmark - and successful - campaigns to save the Whirinaki forest and the kokako. Those were roles he took on straight out of university where one of his lecturers, in zoology, had been the passionate and eventually vice-regal Cath Tizard.

As HIV emerged Hughes started working part-time for the Auckland District Health Board and as part-time liaison with the Auckland City Council, working with those affected by the then-fatal and still incurable disease. Little was known about the cause of the widespread illness and rapidly increasing death rate but early pioneers such as gay men Bruce Burnett and Ray Taylor and infectious diseases expert Rod Ellis-Pegler were sounding alarm bells up and down the country.

From a national network of small do-it-yourself AIDS groups the NZAF was formed, in 1985, and Hughes was immediately on board.

1985. Let's pause a moment and think about what life was like for gay people, and men in particular, in 1985.

Hundreds of years of legally-sanctioned and even -mandated persecution of homosexuals was still in force. Homosexual intimacy was a criminal offense which could, and did, see gay and bisexual men imprisoned and locked up in mental institutions where electrocuting their brains as a corrective procedure was not uncommon. Generations of widespread and institutionalised misinformation, fear and bigotry meant most average New Zealanders thought of homosexuals as, to varying degrees, child molesters, dirty, depraved, sinful, sick, perverse, perverted, evil, wanton and degraded.

In recent years a few good glbti souls and enlightened supporters had struck out against such venomous disapproval. Carmen was very, very visibly Carmen. A few academics and brave, urban, politicians had started pushing against the streams of public distaste. Hudson and Halls had brought entertaining home-grown campery onto TV screens without publicly acknowledging it.

But newspapers, especially Truth, continually weighed in with salacious and negative reporting of homosexual matters and court cases. In many quarters, especially workplaces and roles in the public eye, becoming known to be a homo, a poofter, a faggot, a shirt-lifter, was career, social and family suicide.

Many gay men fled to the relatively anonymous and slightly safer environments of larger gay enclaves in places such as Sydney and San Francisco. Others, such as those in historically more socially liberal artistic and creative fields, toughed it out, or kept their heads well down, here in New Zealand.

Behind often unmarked doors gay organisations and a few businesses such as sexually-charged saunas and a small number of nightclubs operated. Outside the main centres gay men met up in public toilets and shadowy corners. A furtive glance in a public place or bar could get you a nervous hook-up for the night or lead to your being bashed to death or near-death. A few, almost cringingly discrete, gay organisations worked to support glbti people in distress. And fewer still were starting to publicly rail against the injustice of being treated like shit by so many of our fellow New Zealanders.

Into this now almost-forgotten world (though it still exists in blighted places such as eastern Europe and much of the Middle East and Africa) came the 'gay plague.' The rapidly, exponentially, mounting levels of fear and misery were seized on by bigots, homophobes, the hateful and most of the religious. They started to use the tragedy of AIDS as a weapon with which to beat homosexuals down even further. That no one knew much about any of this from health, scientific, social and even personal perspectives created a vacuum and intolerance loves a vacuum.

Tony Hughes was one of the initially small group of gay men and their supporters throughout the country who decided that something had to be done to avert the kind of medical, social and humanitarian catastrophes which were emerging in gay communities around the world.


Tomorrow, through the words of gratitude expressed at his farewell, we reflect on Hughes' role in turning this grim situation into a remarkable success story.



Jay Bennie - 4th May 2017

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