The Man Casts a Long Shadow
WORDS BY CAMERON GOOLEY
Activist, actor, and award-winning writer, Timothy Conigrave was creative, opinionated, and as passionate as he was infuriating. Friends lovingly describe him as a “cunt”, and by all accounts his stubbornness earned him as many enemies as admirers. The exhausting nature of his friendship seems unavoidable when one considers his fervour for politics. Fighting for social equity and gay rights, Tim’s opinions stirred as much ire as awe, and he could be as problematic as he could be progressive. Perhaps his most significant impact on the Australian psyche was the story of his fifteen year long romance with the captain of his school’s football team, which has been cemented into contemporary legend with the publication of his memoir Holding the Man and the following stage and film adaptations. Despite his numerous flaws, I have grown to hold Tim in exceptionally high esteem – he is a man whose story has touched my life in a way I can’t begin to describe. Tragically, I will never have the opportunity to meet him. Timothy Conigrave died of AIDS related illness in October 1994, ten days after he finished his critically acclaimed memoir, and three weeks before I was born.
I first heard of Tim in 2012, after a friend lent me his copy of Holding the Man. He was shocked I hadn’t read it – it has been printed continuously since it was published in 1995, and in 2009 was added to the orange gilded Penguin’s Classics collection. I would later learn that this is a fairly common means of introduction to Tim. Tommy Murphy, the acclaimed Australian playwright and original adapter of Holding the Man for the stage, told me that it must be the most ‘lent out’ book in Australia.
Tim’s memoir won the UN Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995, and was named one of the 100 Favourite Australian Books by The Australian Society of Authors in 2003. Funny and brutally frank about his life as a gay man living through the AIDS crisis, the book is distressing, relatable, and deeply personal.
Reading it was like opening a personal diary. The end of the first page had me hooked.
“… In contrast was Miss O’Leary who gave us Catholic kids our injection of religion, all five of us in a cupboard at the end of the hall. At Christmas she gave us a crucifix made of foiled glass. As she handed me mine she said, ‘You don’t deserve this because you’re wicked.’”
I found that to be particularly funny. An almost identical thing had happened to me when I was eleven – although my experience ended with a girl across the classroom throwing a mahogany crucifix at my head.
In spite of the years between us I was astounded at how similar our growing up experiences were. The casual cruelty of children, and the structural homophobia of the education and religious systems we were raised in aren’t so different. In his memoir Tim recalls a speech given by a Catholic brother to his class:
“Remember you can’t always pick a homosexual, but should one approach you, remain calm and go and get the police.’”
I wish I could say that this sort of behaviour was a relic of the 70s, but authority figures were still equating homosexuals to paedophiles in my own childhood. Many dear friends of mine were so traumatised by internalised Catholic guilt that they are only just beginning to process their queer identities now in their mid twenties, despite their progressive upbringings.
Writing about a dead man is not without its difficulties. With research consisting of friendly testimony, second hand anecdotes, and a written memoir, I struggle to conceptualise Tim as a ‘real’ person. This may seem bizarre considering his impact on the psyche of gay men across Australia, but a lack of anything I can see or hear makes it significantly harder to paint my own picture of the man himself. Luckily for me, with enough digging, the sources I needed presented themselves.
In 1993 Tim participated in an oral history project about AIDS for the National Library of Australia, where he was interviewed by theatre critic and part-time historian James Waites. Now Tim has a voice, and I can no longer see him as simply a character in a book. Despite the surreal effect of the recordings, listening to Tim helps me connect the dots of his life into a cohesive image.
Tim’s voice is authoritative and strong. He has a habit of ending his sentences with a gentle inflection, making the initial harshness of his words more palatable. It is the voice of a man used to commanding attention, and well aware of the resentment this may cause.
I would hesitate calling Tim arrogant or conceited, but he was certainly confident – perhaps even self-righteous and condescending. His language was grandiose and vividly descriptive, and his insistence on calling his partner “lover” brings forth the imagery of a paramore and muse. Comments that should be unbearable are instead charming; his words are aural decadence.
Born in 1959, Tim was raised in a stereotypical middle class Catholic household in Brighton, Melbourne. His family was fairly intellectual and, according to Tim, “being well read was a major currency.” He was prone to “intellectual sparring” with his father over issues ranging from pacifism to fiscal political policy. As I hear him say these words I get an acute sense of discomfort. I struggle to count the number of times my friends and I have vented our frustration over our disagreements concerning issues such as climate change with our own parents.
In his high school years Tim attended the prestigious Xavier College, a Jesuit school, and it is here that he met the love of his life – captain of the Aussie Rules football team, John Caleo.
Later, during his university years he was particularly insufferable – his sudden interest in politics was often invoked to justify behaviour ranging from insulting his friends to unashamed infidelity. Tim himself remarked that he was surprised John stayed with him during this period.
I too am a little surprised. When he described himself as a cross between an anarchist and a Maoist I rolled my eyes so hard they nearly ejected from their sockets. He easily would have given any unbearable stupol hacktivist a run for their money in a “uni student caricature” contest.
However, despite his pretension, he possessed a remarkable wit and harboured great compassion for the ones he loved. Once, on a holiday to Byron Bay, he struck out at the diners of a restaurant for treating his dying lover John as a pariah.
“That night we had dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was quite swanky, it’s patrons dressed up. We were wearing t-shirts and track pants. John had his naso-gastric tube in and was carrying his Big John bag, I noticed that people were mumbling to each other and secretly looking at us. I caught the eye of a woman with a very tight perm, smiled at her and waved. She waved back, embarrassed. I wanted to say, ‘This is what someone looks like when he’s dying.’ But instead I called, ‘Hi, I love your hair.” His memoir reads.
Tim’s resilience was hardened by years of being an outsider. He was treated with disdain by many of the students at his school, and was frequently referred to as a ‘fag’ and other derogatory terms. It’s disappointing to see that his experience was so similar to many today, even with a forty year difference. Tim often had trouble opening up to people when he was younger for fear of them discovering his homosexuality. His early self-loathing explains a great deal about his ego and the intensity of his politics - after all, Catholicism and guilt go together like Adam and Eve.
“I was afraid that if people really saw my soul they’d know I was evil,” he told Waites.
Over time Tim transformed his difficulty in opening up into one of his greatest strengths. His memoir – written in the last few years of his life – has been universally acclaimed for its honesty as it depicts the gay experience and destructive nature of AIDS. According to Guy Edmonds, who played Tim in the original Australian and West End stage productions of Holding the Man, the time setting is a particularly bleak one.
During the 80s so many gay men in Sydney were dying that entire communities were completely eradicated. “There was a time where you would have to choose which funerals and wakes you could go to because there would often be days where two or three of your friends had passed away and you couldn’t go to all the funerals … you can logically understand it but the loss is unfathomable,” Edmonds said.
Tim and John themselves were diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985. The rest of their story follows, as too all many gay stories set in the 80s are wont to do, with tragedy and a slow death by AIDS related illness. John died in 1992, and Tim followed two years later.
Reflecting on John’s death, the last words of Tim’s memoir Holding the Man read:
“… I guess the hardest thing is having so much love for you and it somehow not being returned. I develop crushes all the time, but that is just misdirected need for you. You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned. I miss you terribly. Ci vedremo lassu, angelo [I will see you up there, my angel].”
Tim’s willingness to share such personal details of his life humanises his memoir in a way I have come to appreciate as exceedingly uncommon. It’s easy to identify with a man so exposed – there is a haunting sense of beauty in his flaws. I mention this to Tommy Murphy when I speak with him, and he agreed with me.
Tommy first read the book on a trip home to visit his parents, and spent the last few chapters openly weeping into his boyfriend’s lap. After a decade spent adapting Tim’s life for the stage productions and film adaption, Tommy is a self proclaimed expert on one Mr Conigrave. The original 2006 production of Holding the Man with Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company became its best selling production in 30 years and ran four sell out seasons. It gave Tommy his second NSW Premier’s Literary Award for best play in 2007 – having also won in 2006 for his play Strangers in Between. Tommy was not only the youngest person to ever win the award but also the only person to do so two years consecutively. Since 2006, Holding the Man has seen similarly successful productions in Melbourne, Brisbane, Auckland, London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
It is Tommy’s opinion that Tim’s skill as a truth teller is his saving grace.
“I think because it’s such an honest telling of a life and a love affair, people readily connect with it … having connected with him via this project I feel that he has become somewhat of a mentor to me, or more accurately somebody who I aspire to in terms of his honesty, poetry, and skill as a writer,” he says.
The word “mentor” sticks out to me. Asking Tommy what he meant, he tells me that he identifies quite strongly with Tim: “… personally I’ve always understood his actions and needs and see something of myself in him.”
I empathise with Tommy’s sense of connection to Tim. As a gay man raised in a Catholic environment, I understand the conflicts Tim faced in regards to his identity. Or perhaps, like Tommy, I simply see too much of myself in Tim.
In fact, perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned from Tim’s life was a lesson he himself learned from his partner John:
“I stretched out on the couch and drifted to la-la land. There I met an angel sitting on a rock.
‘What did you learn from John?’
‘That you don’t need to be concerned about what people think of you’.”
I am far from the only person who has been touched by Tim’s story. Although there’s no true method of measurement, there is no denying that, in the absence of so many senior members of the community Tim has had an enormous impact on the lives of countless gay men. Tommy, in an interview for the Gay News Network, calls him a gay elder, and Guy is still approached by people who have been touched by Tim’s story through the theatre production.
“It’s now ten years on and people still talk about the play. I still get people coming up to me in the street and telling me that they saw this production. Sometimes it’s, ‘thank you, I knew Tim and that was beautiful’. Sometimes it’s, ‘I have a gay daughter and seeing that production helped me understand her’. Sometimes it’s, ‘you helped me come out’ … that play did send ripples out into the world,” he says.
When I finished reading Tim’s memoir, I felt a profound melancholy not just for Tim, but also (somewhat selfishly) for myself. He died with almost an entire generation of gay men. After speaking with Tommy I realised that I too had come to think of Tim as a mentor of sorts. He was born in the same year as my own father, and lived in a world so different to my own – one with more fear and hate. However, his internal struggles and humanity transcend time, regardless of the many civil rights won since his death. Gay men have arguably experienced the greatest leap in socio-legal rights of any minority group in the Western world, so it's distressing to see how similar our experiences still are across time.
Tim’s story has impacted on people across the world, and during my research I came across one theme in particular. The men I spoke to looked up to Tim, and found a sense of connection in their shared experiences. They saw him as a mentor, a parental figure. Those of us who fall under the queer umbrella are the only minority group not to share our minority status with our parents and families; for the most part, we have been born and raised as outsiders without guidance, representation, or mentors.