Farewell Tony Hughes (not an obituary!)
By Jay Bennie
4th May 2017 - 09:44 am
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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