A Wagga boys story

I spent an hour or so this evening at the State Library of NSW. There were a few old newspaper articles I was interested in, as part of a story I’m writing for this blog. During the early 1990s, I was one of a number of people who cofounded the Riverina Gay and Lesbian Social & Support Group.

The early 1990s were interesting times to say the least. AIDS was at its peak in Australia. Homophobia was rife. And in that climate, The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir came to Wagga, and won the Community Choir section at the National Choral Championships. Meanwhile, the local newspaper, “The Daily Advertiser” was running a fairly intense editorial campaign against homosexuality.

Our group received a lot of support from the local community, as well as from groups like ACON (The AIDS Council) and the Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby.

As well as my own archive of material from that time, I’ve also recently visited the archives at Charles Sturt University. But there was one article I knew about which I wasn’t able to find. The article was first published in “Talkabout” on July 30-31, 1994. and until now, it’s available in only print form. So I visited the library, and here it is, for the first time ever, digitally, on the internet!

Andew Bishop on the 1994 Wagga Wagga float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Hi, my name is Andrew Bishop. I have been HIV positive for the last seven years. Of those seven years I spent most of my time in Sydney neglecting myself and living the high life. Then it all went wrong. I ended up in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. My family decided, as well as me, that it was time to go home. That meant leaving Sydney behind and embracing the highlife of downtown Cootamundra. How exciting. Me, a Sydney queen, home in good old Coota. So I have been home now for almost one year. It has gone so quickly. But I believe now that it was the best thing I could have done at that time of my life. If I hadn’t I would not have been able to write this. I would have had to send it via the telephone from heaven or hell. I was lucky. My parents and family are extremely supportive and understanding. They have given me so much help, love and encouragement that coming home was not so bad. But leaving my social life behind was extremely hard. Being the social butterfly that I am.

Or, should I say, was.

Well, it took me about five months to get myself back on my feet. Most of the people that I came in contact with believed that the sun was setting, so to speak. I did not have much time left. Well I fooled them. I then joined the Riverina Gay and Lesbian Social and Support Group which has its headquarters in beautiful downtown Wagga Wagga. Just the name brings terror to ones heart. Wagga Wagga. I then attended their social event of the year. The Christmas party. That was fun. That was where I met the lovely Glen who was to become my friend and love.

This opened me to the endless social events on the Riverina Gay and Lesbian Support Groups calendar. (These events being private and public). I quickly formed a group of friends. They are a good lot of fellas and girls, as we say here in the outback. But the support and help for someone positive like myself is minimal. I have been very lucky. But I have spoken to some boys in the area that feel lonely and isolated. We don’t have the support groups as Sydney has. Sure, you have family, friends and nursing support, but nobody knows how you feel until you’re there yourself. To be able to talk about your anxieties, fears and doubts to someone who knows.

The stigma is still very much entrenched in the country. This makes it hard to be open and start any group related help service. This has not been helped by the view of the editor of the Wagga Daily Advertiser, a Mr Michael McCormack. He, in his unrealistic view of HIV/AIDS, and his bigoted heterosexual outlook on homosexuality, has impacted on the community.

The role of many gay people, in the community that makes up Wagga Wagga and its satellite towns, is secretive. Many gay people that live in these communities have fears of retribution and being named as ‘gay’. They would prefer to live a closeted lifestyle. This is how it is for some. But for me it is the opposite. I live my life in my country town as a gay man with AIDS. The Daily Advertiser has used this secret approach to its advantage. The articles that have appeared in their paper have been ill informed and very judgemental. When they are rebuked they say that they are unable to speak to people involved because of secrecy.

Most rural people are not as simple minded as the Daily Advertiser would like us to believe. I have hardly ever come across hatred or ill-informed judgment since I have been home. Most people have been supportive and caring. I believe this has come about due to the fact that I was born here in Cootamundra. That my family has lived and worked here all their lives. People have asked my brother how I am. People I worked with visit and give support. The local priest, my mother being catholic, has visited and become a good friend.

Since being home my eyes have been opened to the homophobia that exists. Living in Sydney, in the gay ghetto, you become sheltered from it. It is sad that people in their wisdom to condemn homosexuals have to revert to quoting the bible. They do not stop to think that we are people with family, friends and lovers. The disease is only part of who you are. So many times the media has not seen the person, they see HIV/AIDS. This is indicative of our society. It’s okay to have cancer, you did not do anything wrong to get it. But HIV/ AIDS is sexually transmitted, you asked for it. This is a sad attitude of people.

I have nursing sisters that come to the house three times a week. They have supported and encouraged me. Myself and my parents have helped them understand more about being gay and HIV.

Today the front page of the Daily Advertiser is again on the gay debate. They really enjoy something that incorporates gay or lesbian.

I personally believe that this all sells papers. The latest being that Mr Jim Eldridge, who is at the centre of this controversy, has received a death threat. It’s beginning to become a real circus. But most people would not be taking what Mr Eldridge has to say very seriously.

The gay group in Wagga is, or should I say — due to pressure — are, becoming more open. This does not apply to all members, but those who have the courage and the conviction are open and out. It is like they are being dragged out the closet screaming and kicking. The proverbial balls of the group have dropped. I only hope that we can continue to be able to educate and inform people in rural areas — for the good of myself and of the many young gay boys or girls growing up in this area. Despite the negative publicity, we must continue to break down the barriers. We are people.

— Andrew Bishop (Inspired by Glen Andersson who believes in me)

Andrew Bishop

7 Replies to “A Wagga boys story”

  1. I’m weeping reading the words of my beautiful friend, who I still miss dearly. Thank you for finding this, James

  2. It reads well, sincerely and from the heart and probably made some people have a rethink about their attitudes. Thanks for sharing the letter.

  3. Beautifully written, like Allan My tears are flowing also, remembering friends that passed away from AIDS.. They are and were People, just like you and I..My beautiful nephew committed suicide because he was gay and he just could not cope with the world how it was then.

  4. James, a moving post.

    It sent me looking and oddly enough I found this: https://www.positivelife.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/plnsw-talkabout-45.pdf – judging from the date in the title it probably hasn’t been online for long.

    1993-94 was pretty late for this kind of stuff, wasn’t it? Things had changed quite a bit in the city by then compared to the dark days of the mid-eighties, but I guess there was mileage out in the bush in making an anti-urban issue out of it. That’s always a rich seam to mine for some rural politicians.

    I wonder if things for gay people would ever have changed as much as they have (which is still less than we would wish) if AIDS had not started to become manageable as it did from – when was it? 1996?

    1. Great discovery, and yes, by the 21/01 date, it looks like it’s only been online for a couple of weeks. I was looking online a couple of weeks ago, couldn’t find anything, and so added to my list of things to locate. And bang – there it is!

  5. Fond memories of Andrew who was in a junior year to me at school.
    He was bullied by others and yet always had a smile.
    I think of him often and my everlasting regret is that I never stood up for him more at school.

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