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Thursday 29 June 2017

Farewell Tony Hughes - Pt2

Posted in: Our Communities
By - 5th May 2017

[You can read part 1 of this article here.]

When Tony Hughes joined NZ AIDS Foundation in 1985 he and the organisation faced an information vacuum.


Very little was known about the virus... if fact some learned authorities around the world were still disputing that the root cause of deadly AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, was even a virus.

The NZAF's primary job was to try to stop more gay and bi men getting sick and dying. Around the world horror stories were emerging of gay communities being decimated as some of the brightest and best succumbed... health authorities were largely ignorant, many health workers were scared of the sick and dying men and far too many wouldn't even provide medical care to the sick and dying men.

Hughes believed that the only way forward was for ignorance at all levels to be addressed. The only national gay media was the bi-monthly OUT! magazine, although there were several other more limited-circulation publications and newsletters. Otherwise the only way of reaching gay men who were hiding from the law was phones, the new-fangled faxes, face to face interviews at the few gay venues and word of mouth. Somehow Hughes managed to create the first nationwide behavioural survey of men who had sex with men.

It was clear to Hughes and others that the first barrier to overcome was gay sex being a criminal activity. He helped swing the NZAF in behind the campaign for Homosexual Law Reform and was part of a dedicated back-room information engine that also included the likes of Phil Parkinson.

In fact, he became a leading background figure in the campaign for HLR and worked hard to convince MPs that voting for HLR was not electoral suicide.

When that intense and frequently brutal battle was finally won Hughes settled into researching science and epidemiology to back up the NZAF's emerging prevention programmes. He had, from then until the day he retired, a total commitment to evidence-based programmes. Hunches, beliefs, hopes, wishful thinking, wilfulness and agendas were not the way forward. Everything done must be backed up by real, proven, demonstrable facts. This approach helped create the NZAF's reputation for the total reliability and excellence of its information.

When the likes of successive NZAF bosses Warren Lindberg, Kevin Hughes, Rachael Le Mesurier, Shaun Robinson and now Jason Myers had to front up to justify the need for resources their propositions and arguments were unassailable. Due to Hughes' work it was a rare politician or bureaucrat who could find a slightly grey fact or a less than 100% unsupported conclusion in any NZAF document. Most eventually gave up looking for faults and came to accept the NZAF's word as unassailable.

At his farewell on Friday he was saluted by political royalty. Past Governor General, NZAF Patron and still vice-patron Dame Cath Tizard and her daughter, past Auckland Central MP Judith Tizard, paid tribute to Hughes's total commitment to finding the truth and dealing with realities, however complex or unpalatable. Ex-Prime Minister Helen Clark, in a message that was by turns both personal professional, said that in her time in Parliament it was never hard to justify finding funding for gay and HIV projects as due to Hughes the preparation work had always been done so comprehensively.

The praised heaped on Hughes at his Farewell was heartfelt and unstinting.

NZAF boss Jason Myers called him "the giant of HIV prevention in New Zealand." "I thank him," Myers said, "on behalf of thousands of gay, bi and HIV-positive men in New Zealand whose lives are better because of him... his work has been unparalleled. I will always continue to honour that legacy and the outstanding work he has done.

NZAF chair David Friar recounted joining the board and eagerly anticipating what he thought would be a succinct induction process. Instead, due to Hughes' passion, he got a far more detailed and comprehensive than he had ever expected. It was, he laughed, "more of an indoctrination than an induction, but it has served me well to this day." "Tony has enormous enthusiasm and passion... he's a whirlwind of passion. His willingness to share his knowledge and experience, his work and drive have been invaluable." Our community, he said, is a better place for the work Hughes has done.

Gay Men's Health researcher at Auckland University Dr. Peter Saxton and his colleague Adrian Ludlam spoke of how Hughes had drawn them in to HIV and health research, mentoring them along the way and helping launch their careers, while within the NZAF and in subsequent organisations. "Tony makes everyone around him feel smarter, in large part to his skill at analysis and ability to communicate that," said Saxton. "But he has not only analysed the data, he has identified solutions. He is absolutely meticulous and has a total commitment to excellence. An exceptionally motivated orator, he has never lost hope."

"Thanks in huge measure to Tony New Zealand achieved one of the lowest HIV rates in the world... for that alone he can feel immensely proud of what he has achieved," Saxton said. "There is no limit to my admiration for him."

Glbti equality campaigner, past board member of the NZAF and a leading force behind HIV-positive people's support organisation Body Positive Bruce Kilmister described Hughes as "one of the great pillars of HIV prevention in New Zealand's history. We must remember that in the early days very little was known about HIV infection and the epidemic. His work to address this lack of knowledge and his contribution to the fight against HIV has been incredible."

Anne Carson, an early staffer alongside Hughes, on the admin side of the NZAF, said through his drive and commitment to the NZAF's objectives it had been "a privilege, and a ride," to work with him. Past prevention programme manager for the NZAF, Nick Lang, was another who praised Hughes, focussing particularly on his "integrity."

"So many people owe their lives to Tony Hughes," HIV-positive man and outgoing NZAF board member Vaughan Meneses, said, "even if they have never heard of him."

Others Hughes has worked with but could not be present saluted him for him in messages of appreciation and farewell. They variously mentioned his "global influence... exceptional breadth of knowledge... enormous contribution to the fight against HIV and AIDS... mentoring others... effort, impact and tireless dedication... the value of your insights an advice... never wavering in pursuit of better outcomes for this community.... your work has saved many lives... HIV work has lost its smartest, most esteemed and most scholarly operative... the prize heavyweight of the fight against HIV... you will influence NZ's response to HIV for many years to come."

After thanking those present and taking a swing at the current government for its lack of interest in HIV prevention work (see separate Daily News story) Hughes received a long and enthusiastic standing ovation.

- 5th May 2017

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