Karen Ritchie profile

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[00:00:00] This program was funded by a generous grant from the gay Oakland Business Association charitable trust. For more information, visit gabba.org.nz said, [00:00:11] Hi, my name is Karen Richie. And I'm 50, nearly 59 years of age. And for many, many years, I worked in the sex industry in Australia. And that took me back into the 80s and 90s. During that period of time, condoms and things like that weren't in a city or necessarily used in the industry. So when HIV became part of our knowledge arrived on the shores, so to speak, in the 80s, it became a very, very scary time. Nobody quite knew anything about it, although we knew that it was sexually transmitted. That's the one thing we didn't know. It changed a lot of things in the sex industry, then to where we used condoms, because of the fears around HIV. I had a lot of friends back in that era, also who were in the gay lesbian transgender community. And so for them to it was the unknown, and it was rather scary. And some of those people did contract the virus and died very early in the days of being HIV positive. And so that was that in itself was the stigmatization around that was huge, was just absolutely huge. People would go into hospital, they were get the nurses and things were bound up and infectious, nobody was allowed to see them. And back then, when they died, they were not inbound. Funeral Directors wouldn't do inbound, and they were body bagged, and, and closed up and gone. So the stigmatization, I understand that a little bit back then, because they didn't know what they were dealing with. But sadly, that stigmatization still holds today, not quite as fierce, but it's still there. And so for me to remain involvement with the gay, lesbian, transgender community, they were the ones that accepted my lifestyle very strongly. In the 80s, and 90s, it was the straight community. Were disgusted if you and I've always been up front with what I do. So, you know, it wasn't, wasn't accepted in that part of the community. So my friendship started back then. And all through for the last, I don't know, 25 years I've involved myself in in the community, and found a lot of wonderful friends and and it when I have a great amount of respect, [00:02:43] so So how did you get to that point in your life, where you're working in the sex industry, and Queensland, [00:02:50] and I had a son, and when I went to Australia, I couldn't get work. It was five months before I actually, you know, got work, the key was just a very good name back then, because they would get a job. And then they're trained more even go few months later, because they were traveling. So that was very difficult. And I was working in an office back here in New Zealand. And I had all references and so forth. I still had a family to support and rent to pay and food to buy. And I took the set up, and it was receptionist at a at a massage parlor brothel and I don't know how to go the. So I did that. And I remember saying to the owner, I this is you're not expecting me to work? And he said, No, I said, right. It's good. So I took that job on, meet some wonderful, wonderful ladies in the industry, no different to myself as in having a family supporting families. And, of course, they were earning good money. And I thought, Oh, I can do this. [00:03:48] So that was my transition, I jumped the fence. [00:03:52] And, you know, as I say, I have no regrets that side of my life, I think that has made me who I am today, [00:04:00] with the things that you took away from those experiences. [00:04:03] And not to be as judgmental, as probably what I could have been. In the earlier days, they were people in that industry for all different reasons. I'm sure people are aware there are so many that were for drugs, some of the need for supporting families, somewhere in there for being bankrupt and trying to get themselves back on top again. I worked with women who came from very good families like I'm talking police commissioner, I'm talking all sorts of families that they came from so and you know, in the early days, I think my son was about nine and I said to him that I'm what I'm doing actually is going off didn't have dinner with people I'm bit you know that so when you talk children what bacon except to me to the brain. And then I used to have barbecues in that round at my place. And the ladies used to come around with the families and things like that, and my son got to meet them. And, you know, just they weren't just family like we were. So as he got a bit older, then I explained to him what I was doing. He has always been fine with that, even today at 40. I've asked him if it's ever played a role in his life. And he said no, Norma, and he's a businessman today. So I've always been straight up with with him over everything I've done. [00:05:19] What about society, like the troops back then? How was the industry thing? [00:05:23] Oh, God, we were disgusting. [00:05:26] We were disgusting human beings, years were very much looked down upon its, it was a lot different to back then there was every possibility that you could have lost children. Maybe that could be taken off you for the kind of life that you lead. And so it was just you had to be a little bit careful around who you told, in case somebody reported you and put you down as not a fit mother. And I was a very fit mother. Um, you know, I'd like to say that that my son was always my priority. And that's why I was in the industry to give him and myself a bit of life. [00:06:06] So can you remember the first experience of coming across HIV or AIDS? [00:06:12] Yes, I can. I had a friend in Australia that contracted the virus back in the 80s. And I used to sit with him regularly, you know, and we'd have a drink and just eat off the same plates drink out of the same cups, all those sort of things, our lives didn't change, you know, we were just we were friends. When he became very, very unwell. Nobody could see him in the hospital, they wouldn't allow anybody to see him. It was so it was an infectious disease Ward, everyone was bound up closed. And it was it and, you know, people got off and died alone back then. died alone, very, very sad. The families, all sorts of people just totally distanced themselves from them. So that itself was you huge, I'm really glad it's not quite like that today, although there is still a stigma, to the point where people still feel it's a gay disease. And that really irritates me because that the disease doesn't have a preference on culture or color, or sexual agenda doesn't have a preference, anybody can contract the virus, the disease. So that stigma is still there. [00:07:24] So seeing friends, passed away in that very kind of isolated way, how what kind of impact did that have on you? [00:07:35] Huge, huge impact, because I've always come from a very close family, so family, to where my family always knew what I was doing. So for people to not have some form of support or love, in that stage in their life, it really, really did, and still does today make me very, very sad. And that does just happen a little bit still today, sometimes the families you know, and not as close during that time as what they could be or should be. So that did have a very, very strong impact on on, on my life. And and no my son's to I mean, you know, as I say he's, he's very aware of what life's all about. And, and [00:08:24] just to think that people have to go through that alone really does, does upset me. [00:08:30] But some of those events, change your wife's direction? [00:08:35] Oh, absolutely. I've always I've always been a person that tries to give support to others in the best way I can. And pretty much that's been something I've done in my life. But it certainly had its impact. When I came back to Australia, New Zealand, I fought strong and hard for law reform with museum prostitutes collective, I'm making changes in the seats industry. And that, to me was for the human rights and adults to make choices that they choose to make. And for safety to the people couldn't negotiate safe six. So they didn't have to worry about whether it was a the police or something like that trying to, you know, bust them because they've got condoms, are they talking about condoms, or, you know, in the in the usage of sex, I fought strongly hard for that. And I strongly believe that that was a necessity of the prevention of HIV. [00:09:36] And that happened in 2003 2000. [00:09:38] us. So we got that through with one vote, which was I was in the gallery at the time of Parliament. And I worked alongside Tim Barnett very closely with that bill. So I was in Parliament the night that that went through. And it was it was really, really good. And as I say I think it's there are frozen, frozen everything, you know, you can't you can't get everything right, in a bill. But just for people to be able to negotiate condom usage was very strong for me in my fight. So and and that was, as I say, my main reason there was around HIV STI is that people couldn't negotiate that and feel that it was okay, they're not going to get busted. And secondly, if people had properties or had actually been in the industry and bought something that they couldn't lose their property, under the law of what is it the money, wrongful earnings and things like that, you know, so [00:10:44] that was all good. How was very, I said to my son, goodness, your mother's changed, you know? [00:10:51] That's a very public statement coming out in actually really advocating for a law change. Where does that passion and also so being willing to be out there in the public? Where does that come from? [00:11:05] I think probably again, we come back to the stigmatization. I've been a fortunate person through my life in the sense that I've not had to live a double life. I've been able to discuss this with my family. I'm still somebody's mother, somebody's sister, somebody's daughter. And I've been lucky to have it family to accept me for who I am, knowing who I am not what I'm for what I'm doing. So that strengthened me, I think came from that because through those years, I certainly saw and have seen many people throughout life who don't have family support. And I think it's important, and you must have it. [00:11:51] What do you think of news reports? I mean, and there are still news reports that happen we're it's a very big part of a news report saying somebody has been murdered all they were a sex worker, [00:12:02] disgusts me, that disgust me So the same thing or he was gay? Does it really matter? Does it matter what what gender you are what you do for a living for goodness sake, you you've been murdered. And that really has always disgusted me that they've got to sensationalize something by the person's whether they be gay, lesbian, transgender, or whether they be a sex worker. And you'll always find those the two areas that they tend to sensationalize if something goes wrong, and you know, that just pulls me and hence throughout my life that I've seen people who I've known people who were raped, whether they be gay with a be sex workers, all sorts of things have gone on in their life. And not only from the people outside, who walked the strange I'm talking on on a police level as well. And it was they have never reported these things because they are they immediately stigmatized. And and that whole news thing is out. So over the years, people haven't reported a lot of things. And today, we don't live quite live in that world today where you can't go and report. And especially sex workers, because they can go and report if they've been mishandled or mistreated. And it doesn't become a big public arena as much as it used to, and that that comes through decriminalization. So that is a good thing. [00:13:31] So what are some other ways that you've tackled the whole kind of stigmatization area? [00:13:38] I think speaking with people who have got a child who has been diagnosed HIV, I think first things that ever come out of my mouth. And when I worked for the AIDS Foundation, and people would ring in and say, my flatmate or my son or whoever has been diagnosed, the very first thing that comes out of my mouth is your life can go on as normal. You know, this does not change anything in your house, you can eat from the same place you can drink from the same cup. You can wash your clothes in the same washing machine, all of those things which people who have never had to face this before, I have no idea. And I can remember who was saying, Oh, really, it's not a problem. Not at all. You know, that's you just your life goes on as normal. There is support available for you and your loved one or your flatmate or whoever, you know, go from there. But the one thing that always came out of my mouth, and I remember is your life can go on as paranormal, unless somebody is having sexual [00:14:43] education with this person. That's where they need to be aware and safe. But over and above that, everything's the same. So I get my little bitchy and every now and again. [00:14:57] In 2000, you establish the cafe trust. [00:15:00] I did, yes. Can you tell me about that? I am. Yes. Well, Courtney Kodiak, she was a drag queen in Auckland, and she was HIV positive Of course, and she died with an HIV related illness. She always called me mother and she was just a wonderful, wonderful person I love dearly she had the most beautiful personality. And I used to take her up to Auckland hospital regularly for her visit. she contracted cancer through the time of having the virus those take her up for treatment, her and her cousin and I would go up and we'd have treatment net. And then when she left the hospital, she was his facial so funny. Her birthday, Lucy she was a drag queen, it couldn't see and she was adamant that she was going to you know, go back to Clootie and have a few drinks and data john so birthday was occlude, see probably only a few weeks before she died. And she was in a wheelchair at that point because the cancer you know, going into a bad can things we propped up on the bow so that she could do her last trade show. And Courtney's mom and dad had had passed on and she was an only child. And she had her cousin which used to live with. And Courtney didn't have any money. So as a community, we rallied along with her cousin to to give her a funeral that she deserved. And she talked openly before she died about what she wanted. And, and as I say she went into her house. And her coffin was put in the garage and was decorated, so to speak. And she wanted it all decorator will it looked a bit like a float you see going down Ponsonby road, and she wasn't going to die until she saw the finish of her coffin. And so we finished that. And this associate passed away not that much longer. But she touched me she touched me a lot. She was she was a fighter. She was a wonderful person. And beautiful nature and and I think just to have her she had wonderful friends, but to not actually have a family mom and dad is to say they passed on. So I pretty much sleep on the couch or two in her house many nights to stay with her and took her up to hospital one night in the middle of the night to walk and because they couldn't get the catheter and things like that. And so they rang me and I went picked her up and took her up to Oakland. And I have to say even in the year 2000 I, her treatment I felt was not acceptable. I did explain to them that she was a friend, I wasn't a caregiver. And of course, it came to the point at the end of her being looked after by the medical staff, I had to redress her. And I say who I always related to Courtney, as she always so I can't change this [00:17:57] cow was [00:17:59] very nice to meet you was Courtney. So we then ran auction a lot of clothes when she passed away actually, and we bought things for her in my house to benefit other patients that were there. And from there, the trust was birth because I thought well, you know, there are people here that have had this virus for a long time they've gone through the savings they've surviving now. And that's probably all they're doing is surviving. And it's really important that that last part of the journey, they have some dignity. So that was my introduction to starting the trust. And I'm very proud of the trust, because we've been able to support and help a lot of people throughout the years, sadly, of course, but I'm very grateful that we've been able to, and loved ones and families have been very, very appreciative of that. So yeah, I'm very passionate, very passionate about carrier trust. [00:19:00] Last week, [00:19:01] we ran events, we used to run a lot of little events. Now we do sort of one annually, we're in a good stable place financially, which we were able to put about $10,000 back into the community of Walker. And I think that was 2000 and H where we put money back into outline and you know, different places that we were able to because there hadn't been a lot of deaths through a chance with the right here, we've got some surplus money here, we can help another gay, lesbian transgender organization with a time of need. So we did that. And, of course, things changed 2010, we had four dates. So things can change in a heartbeat. Yes, so And none of us get paid the trustees on the Tourist Board, they come on with a passion of it, or they don't come on at all. I don't have a full time job, I work for sexual health. So this is my voluntary work. The same as all the trustees all have full time jobs. And as, again, volunteer their time. We don't have office space, the office space is my my dining room, so to speak, when need be. And the end, you know, that's so we can keep money for the purpose of we meet for lunch, probably once a year on an annual annual meeting when it becomes our accountant and the trust members and we meet and go over everything and have a discussion. And yes, we do have lunch on how to trust we have a guardian trust. And that's come from accountancy, we must, you know, we must have something it's important. I mean, we could be claiming on our trusted pitch or anything that we do, but we don't I mean, in actual fact, it probably costs me more than you know anything else. But that's how I want it, I want our money to go into the trust, and he is we have a lunch. But as I can tell you quite often our lunches, I'll go to food town and get a chicken and some bands or something like that, and bits and pieces will go back to my place or one of the trustees houses and [00:21:09] and have lunch. [00:21:11] So, you know, people I remember somebody was moaning about that car, do you have lunch on us once and I and it was on a forum of guaranteed.com. And I just stay away from it. And I think I can't be bothered with this nonsense, you know. [00:21:23] So if they sort of caught about $90, for lunch for about five people or six people and for all the hard work, everyone does a problem will. That's fine. [00:21:34] All the other some of the Trust's around the world [00:21:37] know an interesting you should say that because in 2006, I was in Canada, I was flown by the six industry Canadian six inches industries talk about how we got Law Reform through and they were HIV positive people there. And because of the harm reduction conference, so it was all around the it was intravenous drug users true and you know, so forth, so on who were actually positive. And they were just No, they couldn't believe that they thought was the most fantastic, fantastic thing they've ever heard of. And I've had that come from many walks of life, actually, from different parts of the world, that it's just what we do is just awesome. They couldn't believe that, that somebody you know that an organization and community were actually doing that. And I always say to people that you know, it's owned by the community, I drive it that's that's the only thing is the community owners and I drivers, and we're very transparent. So, you know, accountant and all that sort of thing. As I said, they'll work for nothing, they will do everything for nothing. So we're very, very fortunate, [00:22:44] very fortunate to have some very good people on board. You mentioned earlier just a wee bit earlier about dignity. Is that a big thing for you? [00:22:52] Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that last part of your life, no matter where you come from, no matter what you've done, no matter who you are, whether it be acceptable or not acceptable. I think you have a right to leave this world with dignity. And and that is very important to me. Yes. [00:23:10] Where does that come from? [00:23:12] I think because, well. [00:23:16] I guess we go back, if we go back to the early days of HIV, I guess we can go back to that. And and where I have seen that that hasn't happened. And my question is why? Why? You know, these are people, these are people that that have been unwell. You wouldn't treat cancer patients like this. So don't treat HIV people like this. So I think that's that goes back a bit. And as I said, For myself, personally, again, I've been fortunate to whereas we've made sure in our family that people have passed on with dignity. And I come from a great line of cancer, I have a lot of cancer through my family, my son was diagnosed at 27. He's now 40 I lost my brother six months ago, my father. To me, there's no difference. You're HIV or your cancer, you're dying for heaven's sake, you know, if you're at that stage where you're going to die, you're dying. Why should it be different? Why should we treat people differently in that last part of the journey? [00:24:20] So now you're working in sexual health has? Has that changed over the years in terms of HIV and AIDS? I mean, people still taking risks. What's your assessment? At the moment? [00:24:35] People are still taking risks? Yes. And of course, I'm out and about and K road or grin quite a lot. I still, you know, like to go out and socialize. And yeah, I mean, I'm sure between AIDS Foundation sexual health, whether you're out socializing, you can you can see that people are still taking risks. Yes, there [00:24:54] was like, [00:24:55] I think people are complacent. I think because people feel that all this medication, these drugs the today and what they do see is healthy looking people were in the 80s and 90s, you didn't see that you saw very unwell looking people. So the young world are just the old ones. But I guess my focus is on the young ones who are coming through Is that what you see is not always what life is. And they may look healthy. But that could change to you know, they could become resistant to their drugs, all sorts of things can change through that period of time. And as I say, I have still set with people who are very unwell and looking very unhealthy, it will live dying in hospital. So that complacency is there. I think we we need to put something back on TV like the drunk driving ads, the physical abuse aids, so that your mainstream can see that this disease is still here, and there is no cure. People who are out and about in the communities know where to find light, support and help. But if they're not out in the community, and the young ones coming through school, they don't know a lot about that on the education system. We've got some very wonderful people who have the ability to education schools, and they are educating, but we're to PC to PC that. You very, very careful what they say. And I'm afraid I disagree with that. I disagree with that. I I'm one of these people that you say it how it is. And how it is for me is that this disease is still the it's like the ocean. If you disrespect it, it can take you. [00:26:47] And we talk about having life jackets in the ocean because it's bigger than us. Well, we need to talk about using condoms because this disease is bigger than us. [00:26:58] And as I say it needs be on TV, the mainstream people who are sitting in the lounges and see it. You don't see anything in the doctor surgeries. You don't see HIV pamphlets or things like that. And the doctor surgeries. So how are they showing wants to know? [00:27:13] I can still remember in the 80s that Grim Reaper TV advert for HIV and AIDS, do you remember that? [00:27:19] Oh, it was huge. Gosh, I was living in Australia. And that was huge, was very, very scary. It was very scary. [00:27:28] I've got to be honest, back then, because of the unknown around HIV. It's certainly made a few people sit up and think and think Whoa, you know, and it certainly did. For a lot of people. I know. I don't think we need anything as harsh as that today at all. I think we just need to bring out the awareness in tape on TV, that this virus is a strikeout virus diseases, I don't know, it's just my go to ways that it is still here. There's two here and there is no cure. And you can you can avoid this. And it's giving people the power to make those choices. How can they make those choices if they don't have the knowledge? And that's how I feel very strongly knowledge is powerful. Don't leave it too late for them to get that knowledge. Let's stop being so PC in this country, let's get it into the schools. Let's get it on the TV. Because it's just statistics as to lay on the growing. The proof is there. [00:28:34] And that seems to be affecting a lot of people in the early 20s 30s. [00:28:40] Absolutely. I run a I co support. And under 35 HIV group and some of those Yeah, they are kids, the young, you know, the young people. I look at as I say, my own family, and I look at them coming through life. And I think boy, I'm very strong and each year name I mean, I give them every every bit of knowledge, every pen fruit from sexual health believe you may I pack it all out and give it to them to read anything about is to has an HIV, they've got it. And I'm very open and discussion with them. very open and discussion with the men as I say even the teenage ones know where my journey Spain, so they know that I have the knowledge. They're not sitting back, they just sort of thinking about what how do you not, you know, you're an old lady now. They know I have the knowledge and they know that I'm still involved in the community of HIV. So you know, they do Did you hear what I'm saying? Whether they take it on board and and use it or remain to be seen? I hope so. But all I can say is they've been given the knowledge, they have the power. [00:29:46] So what's your role with the under 35? [00:29:50] Under 35? support group? What's that? Yes, we just was something that I wanted to do for some time. Because out in the community, a lot of these young ones, I used to say all the time being rather free and you know, alcohol and just, you know, I mean, I used to see such a lot. And I thought oh, dear, and then I get some of the young ones say or you know, I've been diagnosed HIV and and very withdrawn because all of a sudden, it's hit them now they've got it. And where do I go? What do I do now. So I approached Craig and Bruce edge body positive, see if we could So anyway, we've run it under the body positive umbrella? Well, it's called get connected, but it will use the premises body positive. So its first Sunday of every month, we introduce ourselves, when new ones come in, we can have discussion, we've either got a format that we might discuss around how they feel. [00:30:51] We might just have an open floor and [00:30:54] a strong emphasis is put on that they have responsibilities. [00:31:01] Now to make sure that they use condoms, that they don't have to disclose if they're using condoms, but if they're not going to use condoms, they need to disclose we haven't put a strong emphasis on that. So that we keep them safe from any ridicule and making wrong choices and wrong decisions. And it's a great little it's a great little organization or club, whatever. I have watched some of these boys grow in the 12 months, we've come in very sheepish very, you know, we were at benefit straight at to fundraise for body positive. And sure the boys with the under the 35 group. And I remember one of them coming up to me and saying, I feel normal. Karen, give him a big hug. I feel so normal, this is great. As it done and you are normal, you are absolutely normal. So to see that transition from fear, what people might think, how do I come through this? Where do I get the power to be strong in me, you know? And yeah, it's wonderful. I love this visual. [00:32:02] So where do you get the power to be strong? When for instance, you've you've seen friends pass away in the in the 80s. And, and people now are coming down with HIV, but it's like history repeating in some ways. Yeah. [00:32:14] Well, it is. [00:32:17] I suppose [00:32:19] given I suppose I get support from my trustees. There's a lot of things that go on, of course, under confidentiality, that I can't disclose, and I wouldn't disclose. So I probably walk around with more secrets and my as one of the drag queens into my Christ, you've got to go to her grave with more secrets than anyone's you ever know. So, you know, there's a lot that I've got to keep to myself. But I have support from my trustees, because they know, they know that I quite often and with people a lot who are unwell. [00:32:53] And I think probably the hardest one for me recently was I lost my brother or broken hospital with cancer. [00:33:03] And in five weeks late later, I was up there was a young boy, that young man, I should say, that had called me mother for years dying of HIV. So I was back [00:33:14] in that hospital, you know, five weeks after losing my own brother, so that was quite hard. I felt that very hard. I just, [00:33:22] you know, it was two very different people, but people that I that I loved and, and for different reasons. So but I do get my support. As I say I find my support somewhere, I find my solace by just shutting everything off at home and having some peace and quiet. [00:33:40] You mentioned to me earlier that you had mentioned to somebody at the support group that you were doing an interview about making a difference. And and what was the response? [00:33:50] It's quite interesting because I asked this person actually by email, and he said to me, [00:33:58] was his words. [00:34:01] You listen you love. [00:34:05] You don't judge. And it's just so important. That's just so important because it's three things that some of them can be lacking and not having, you know, somebody's got to listen to them. somebody you love them, and somebody not make judgment. And it really took me back because I hadn't really given it that thought to be honest. I hadn't honestly given it that thought. But it was very, very, very special, really. So I guess we're doing something right. [00:34:39] If I've got not much to give, I can give lots of love and support. [00:34:46] This program was funded by a generous grant from the gay Oakland Business Association charitable trust. For more information, visit gabba.org.nz id

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