The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial is a time for all of us to remember the many lives lost of HIV and AIDS. The first memorial event was held in 1983 and since then there have been thousands of events across the world.
This year the event was held at Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre and the guest speaker was Clara Tuck Meng Soo. Dr Soo received her medical training at Cambridge University and King’s College London. She worked for several years in the UK before migrating to Australia in 1989. In 2002 she became Practice Principal of IGP and Hobart Place General Practice.
Dr Soo has been at the forefront of Health Care not only at the local level but nationally within the HIV and the BBV sector more generally for over 20 years, making a difference in the lives of marginalised communities. Dr Soo added a unique insight to the event during another epidemic that has its fair share of stigma, discrimination and misinformation.
She works with LGBTQA+ communities, patients with drug dependencies, refugees and recent migrants, patients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and patients living with HIV/AIDS.
WELCOME – DR CLARA TUCK MENG SOO
I start by acknowledging that we are on the land of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge the elders of our LGBTIQ+ community, without whose struggles and sacrifices, we would not be where we are today.
Today is the 2021 AIDS Candlelight Memorial. It is a time for us to reflect on those we have lost to the HIV virus and to revisit our memories of them. I believe and I think some of us will share the thought that as long as those memories live within us, something vital will live on of those we have lost. So, today, let us reminisce, let us talk of our memories, let us revisit those times in the past. We tend to remember the difficult and sad and traumatic times. The emotional impact of suffering, death and dying is something that’s hard to forget. But it would be so unfair on the departed if that is all we see when we think of them. They will want us to remember the laughter, the love, the dancing, the sex, the parties so hard as it may be, we need to strive to remember the good times too. I had a friend with HIV who actually died of emphysema a number of years ago. He said to me in his last spring that the bottlebrushes were a more intense red that year than he had ever seen them. He knew he was dying and he was trying to drink in the last dregs of life and commit them to his memory. He wanted to savour all those pleasures one last time and really experience them in the intense way you do when you do something for the first time-like the first boy you fell in love with and the smell of his breath or your first glimpse of an intensely blue cloudless Australian sky. So, now, I will always be reminded of John whenever I see that flush of bottlebrush in spring because he has etched that memory in my mind.
I know it’s been a hard year for many of us. COVID 19 changed everything. For many people, it was the isolation. For others, the lost jobs and economic hardship. And for others, just the fact that all our normal routines had changed and were changing all the time. Change seems to be a permanent part of our modern lives now. I think the relentless pace of technological progress is very unsettling for many of us. It sometimes seems like we try to adapt to one change and before we have time to draw breath, the next new thing has arrived and we have to work at adapting again. But of course, in the midst of all that unsettling change, we remain the same human beings with the same human needs and desires. And one of the things that COVID 19 brought into sharp focus is our human need for connection. There are very few of us that can live truly solitary lives. Most of us need that human connection and in our pre-COVID 19 lives, work and play and even simple things like buying a coffee, catching the train, walking down to the shops all had a certain amount of human interaction. Of course, we adapted. We had Zoom meetings, we called our parents and friends a lot more than we used to when we were busy at work and some of us acquired a dog or a cat.
For many of us that are part of the LGBTIQ+ community, we still face discrimination in our daily lives. Discrimination can take many forms. The one that really obvious to us is the discrimination we face from the outside world. It really wasn’t until 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalised in the last jurisdiction in Australia in Tasmania. Of course, we all celebrated the success of the same sex marriage vote in 2017. I think that in many ways, things have really changed for our community in the last several decades and the legislative changes we have seen both mirror as well as propel changes in social attitudes. I know I would have been a lot more hesitant about undergoing a gender transition 20 years ago. I would have been very anxious about the effect it would have on my social and professional life. Whereas, today, it has had virtually no effect on my professional life and in a place like Canberra, I have encountered no overt transphobia in my day-to-day life. We should remember and acknowledge that courage and the sacrifices our LGBTIQ+ elders made to give us the world we have today.
There are still challenges for us. Religious bodies are still allowed to discriminate in their employment policies and given the large role that religious bodies play in the education and aged care arena, LGBTIQ+ people can still encounter significant barriers in their chosen field of employment. The Federal Government has talked about amending the Anti-Discrimination Act and the messages it sent out about this prior to everything being derailed by COVID 19 suggested it was going to further enhance the ability of religious organisations and individuals to claim religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against us.
I want to say something now about transgender kids. This is a subject that is dear to my heart because I was a closeted, unfulfilled transgender kid myself once too and also because the conservative forces have moved on from gay marriage and the treatment of transgender children seems to have now become the key battleground of the culture wars. For those of us who have lived through the decades of gay delegitimization, the arguments used against transgender kids bear an eerie resonance. The sort of rhetoric used to attack the treatment of transgender kids goes like this. It’s just kids struggling with their hormones and adolescence. These kids aren’t really transgender; they have biopsychosocial problems and if we sort those out, the gender dysphoria will right itself. Remember the stories of people who successfully underwent their conversion therapy and emerged having conquered their homosexuality. Well, the stories of people who have de-transitioned are paraded to question the gender identity of all the other transgender kids. These kids are just mixing with the wrong crowd. They’re being influenced by their friends and the media-never mind that the media everyone is exposed to is overwhelmingly heteronormative, cisgendered and binary. Parents have a right to decide if their kids can have gender affirmation treatment, whether or not it costs kids’ lives. Parents have a right to religious freedom, whether or not it removes choice form their kids.
I think we need to be aware that sexual and gender diversity elicit the same visceral responses from certain sections of our society and the weapons used against one group can easily be used against another. We need to stand together as allies and support each other. At this point, I would like to commend Meridian Health and its predecessor, Meridian for being true allies of the transgender community in Canberra. As you know, I got a lot of media coverage when I returned my OAM earlier this year in protest at the elevation of Mrs Margaret Court to the highest honour in the land. Speaking to this crowd, I don’t think I need to elaborate on the reasons why we found the award to Mrs Court offensive. I was slightly surprised at the amount of media coverage I received but I felt good that I was doing something by standing up for my community. I know it’s not always easy to do but when you can, I want to encourage you to stand up too. There is strength in numbers and some surveys suggest that the LGBTIQ+ community is now nearly 10% of the Australian population. So, there are plenty of us and we need people to see our strength in numbers. If there are lots of us standing up, politicians are likely to take more notice of us too and be more careful about endorsing positions that are abhorrent to us. Standing up also shows other members of our community that they are not alone and makes them feel supported. One of the most touching messages I received after my media appearances came from the mother of a young non-binary child who told me that she and her child experienced discrimination and bullying and how much my actions spoke to them. Speaking up also helps rally our allies. One of the most important gestures of support of my action came when Kerry O’Brien declined his own award in solidarity. His fame helped to further highlight what I’d done and probably kept things in the headlines for an extra 24 hours. Having allies outside our own community lends further legitimacy to our actions because it shows that our views are shared more widely in the community. So, if we can, we should get our parents, brothers, sisters, children, partners, friends all involved in standing up for our behalf.
Discrimination can also be within our own LGBTIQ+ community too. A lot of you will know that I was a skinny, slight, effeminate, Asian man before my gender transition. How often do we see slight Asian men as objects of desire in the gay media?-apart from in a disparaging way as the objects of lust of older men who are disparagingly labelled as rice queens? Again, how often do you see effeminate men as objects of desire in the gay media-apart from being dismissed as being camp and not “real men”? How often are older men celebrated as attractive, vital, sexual beings? Do we talk about HIV positivity and sex in a positive way? All this lack of representation not only affects how the wider society perceives us but also how we perceive ourselves. As a gay man, I automatically accepted that most other gay men would not find me attractive and just accepted that I would not be appreciated for my intelligence and vitality. As a transgender woman, my experience of dating so far has been quite limited but that experience has shown me that quite a lot of men find me attractive but when I tell them I am a transgender woman, it then gets too challenging for them.
My gender affirmation and the journey it has taken me on has challenged me on the discrimination within. I want to learn to embrace my intersectionalities as a source of strength, not weakness. My Asian roots mean that I can order the food in a multitude of different Asian restaurants for my friends because I know more about the food than they do. The biggest fear of most trans people is being mis-gendered. Well, with my appearances in the media, I think I’ve well and truly outed myself so I want to stand there proudly and tell my trans sisters that it’s OK to be a trans woman. And to the men I might date-well, I’ll tell them I know more about male sexual pleasure than any woman they’ve ever dated. And maybe being HIV positive Has been a journey that’s given you wisdom beyond your years.
So I want us to tell new stories. New stories to change the conversation about bodies and sex. I want stories about sexy older gay men and women trailing an entourage of young admirers. I want stories about transgender women men and their male and female lovers. I want stories of non-binary people and their friends of various genders. I want stories about HIV positive men and women and the people who love and want them. I want stories about the friendship between Aboriginal sistergirl elders and the wisdom they impart to their young friends. I want stories about a kaleidoscope of colours, forms, ages, genders, desires, abilities and disabilities. Human beings have always told stories. Stories are about how we see ourselves and how others see us. Stories are how we create new possibilities and embed them in the public consciousness. We need these stories to change the narrative and celebrate us for the brave, wonderful and attractive people we are. For those of you who subscribe to Netflix, you may have been entranced like me by how they took a trashy romantic novel and turned it into the celebration of black beauty and intelligence and empowerment that was the phenomenal success that was Bridgerton. So, I ask those of us who can, to help us create new narratives, to write these amazing new stories of the people in our trailblazing community for our brave new world.
I end on a note of optimism. Most people with HIV can now have their HIV infection well-controlled by taking 1 or 2 pills a day and most of these pills have side effects that are quite mild compared to earlier generations of HIV medications. And PrEP works quite well in the prevention of transmission of HIV. Some of you will know that a combination of two injections, given once every two months for the treatment of HIV is on its way. And another injection, given every 6 months, is a bit further back in the pipeline. And both these formulations could potentially be used for PrEP too. Further back in the pipeline is a dizzying array of patches and implants and other cure devices. So, while we don’t have a cure for HIV, we really are on the verge of a world where HIV infection may be treated the way we treat diabetes or high blood pressure. Now, I think that’s a good story to tell at an AIDS candlelight memorial.