Literature, glamour and sex: vignettes from the age of style as defiance

Literature, glamour and sex: vignettes from the age of style as defiance

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Bridget Haire

One sunny Friday afternoon in the early 90s I was on a tram going from St Kilda Road to the city. A tall gaudily dressed transgender woman on the opposite seat was on the nod, peaceful enough, occasionally opening a single eye, and clutching a small overstuffed handbag.

She reminded me overpoweringly of my mother, also tall and thin, who was at that time ensconced in a hospital bed, frequently on the nod, with sly witty expressions passing across her face as the morphine floated through her.

Something about the woman opposite incensed the tram conductor. He loomed over her, shouting , ‘You can’t sleep here’, clapping his hands repeatedly in her face. She came to for a moment, stared about herself, and pulled a perfume atomiser from her bag.

As she did this, one of what seemed to be many wads of cash fell out, and she absently stuffed it back into her bag where it sat, clearly visible, as she concentrated on holding the atomiser to her neck, pressing rhythmically on the head, while rivulets of sickly pungent liquid ran stickily down her neck.

At this, the conductor resumed screaming, calling her a stinking freak whore, so I gathered my middle-class respectability around me an interceded on her behalf. Soon we were holding hands companionably, the conductor was sulking at the other end of the tram, and I had agreed to walk Rebekah safely home.

We got off the tram together, Rebekah still fumbling with the huge wads of cash that were springing out of her handbag, holding my arm as she tottered on stilettos. Our itinerary would include the Prostitutes’ Collective, the Salvos, the Mission, then home, and what an adventure it would be.

Rebekah was famous, she told me, with lots of friends and lots of enemies, and she described herself as ‘being HIV’. For that afternoon, I was to be her sister, and we would meet lots of these enemies and friends, and they would be jealous.

Though I had been deeply concerned for Rebekah’s safety, once we were on the street it was clear that she knew how to conduct herself, and that I did not.

She’d let down her guard on the tram, but she had it on the street, all swaying hips and watchful eyes, frequently reminding me to watch my bag, or to avoid eye contact, as required. After a couple of hours of sisterhood, in which neither of us was mugged or robbed, we returned to our separate lives.

I never saw her again. The next day, visiting my mother, she was more alert, had put on earrings and lipstick, and was flirting outrageously with my new girlfriend. Putting her best foot forward and showing that she’s still got it. Again, like Rebekah


So, what is ‘art’?

If representation, performance, communication, and the skilled manipulation of symbols to affect meaning can be allowed to constitute art, then fashion choices and the way that some people dance to inaudible music as they strut down the street can lay claim to some level of artiness. What is art really? My first Google hit gives me: noun

noun: art; plural noun: arts; plural noun: the arts

1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. “the art of the Renaissance” synonyms: fine art, artwork, creative activity
“he studied art”
• works produced by human creative skill and imagination.
“his collection of modern art”

synonyms: fine art, artwork, creative activity “he studied art”
• creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture. “she’s good at art”

2. the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance. “the visual arts”

Then we move onto Tolstoy, who writes about art as the medium for the transmission of emotion and experience from one person to another or others, expressed in this wonderfully homoerotic phrase: ‘we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man.’1; Germaine Greer helpfully tells us that art is anything that artists call art, that most art is bad, but that you don’t get the good without the bad.2

I started work in HIV in 1994. That was the year that the first combination therapy trial was presented showing exciting synergistic effects, and it was also the year that the AIDS death rate in Australia peaked.

When things got tough at work – and this was at a time when people who earned a living in HIV were derided as ‘AIDS careerists’, and when living with HIV often meant being branded with the stigmata of KS (Kaposi’s Sarcoma) and moluscum contagiosum – I buried myself in fictional worlds that could help me to make sense of what was happening around me.

One of the most memorable books from that time was Shadows on the Dance Floor, a deceptively slight looking novel by Gary Dunne. Dunne’s writing is pared back to the glistening bone, and his evocation of living as a high-maintenance image-conscious inner city queen (of any gender) at the zenith of AIDS in Sydney is searing.

Images stand out 20 years later: Mr Pointy Head, the character with HIV refusing to go to Mardi Gras in a wheelchair, then being swept off his feet and away to the party by a dyke-ona- bike, pride intact; and the party boys streaked with filth, because they assumed what a friend had in his canister was glitter, whereas it was a recently departed friend’s ashes (fabulous sites for the scattering of ashes being a key theme). Paying homage to glamour while staring down death.

Then there was A Matter of Life and Sex by Oscar Moore. How could I ever have had the faintest understanding of beat sex without Oscar Moore? His ‘24 hour toilet tango’ scenes brought cottaging to life, exciting and sordid and necessary. Then there was the harrowing account of Cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis, the darkness literally closing in as hope of ongoing sight fades, in which the fictional character mirrored the author’s experience.

In 1995, Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded exploded onto the Australia literary scene, not an AIDS novel, but full of sex and drugs and music and complex cultural alienation. Christos himself became the fresh new face of ‘dirty realism’. In the midst of his newfound stardom, generous, passionate Christos chose to teach a creative writing class at the Positive Living Centre, and write for Positive Living – all as a volunteer, despite the fact that literary success does not equal financial stability.

English performer Julian Clary also captured something of the brittle sensibility of the early to mid 90s, with his low-brow, high glam camp. I don’t remember any mention of HIV in his shows (my memory might be failing), but when on tour, he would also visit Positive Living Centres in each city and give not only cold hard cash, but lend his star power for an afternoon.

Never before in daylight had St Kilda seen such an assemblage of queens as turned out to meet Julian, bedecked in their very best leather and latex, cinched tightly over atrophied muscles, with Julian holding court and taking tea, air kissing and camp bantering until nearly sunset.

The symbolism of Mardi Gras loomed large at this time – the frothy confection of glitter, leather and sequins attesting the realities of an ongoing struggle for survival that eclipsed the basic political demands of the gay liberation movement. Sex and decay, dancing and performance, presenting a fabulous veneer no matter what the cost, ecstasy the drug of choice, proving chemical connection and instant love at the drop of a pill.

I am not nostalgic for the 90s. I like being older and fatter, no longer presentable in hotpants even with fishnets underneath to veil the, ah, vicissitudes of the flesh. I like knowing that my gay friends are aging with me, balding and greying, taking a pill or so a day to stay healthy and looking for more forgiving cuts of trouser.

But I do like to think back to those books, and to those outfits.


1 Tolstoy, Leo. (1896). Excerpted from What
Is Art?
, translated by Aylmer Maude (1900). Retrieved from:
Greer, Germaine. (2011, 7 March). Now please pay attention everybody, I’m about to tell you what art is. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Bridget Haire has 20 years’ experience in the HIV and sexual and reproductive health sectors as a journalist, editor, policy analyst and advocate. Bridget lectures in medical humanities at the University of Sydney and is Vice President of AFAO.