This transcript was generously sponsored by Jeri Castonia. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ralph Knowles: My name is Ralph Knowles. I came back to Christchurch in 1973. In Wellington I'd been involved in the Homosexual Law Reform Society and I continued to be their contact person in Christchurch. But soon after arriving at Christchurch I became involved with the new Gay Liberation Front, which was an active group of a very different sort of people, and through them and just through settling in to living in Christchurch I became pretty aware of the gay scene in Christchurch – we were, by then, using the word gay – and became politically active with and through them.
Gareth: In the '70s in Christchurch, the gay scene, what was going on?
Ralph: Well, from my point of view there was a lot of activity out on the beaches and the beats, cruising the areas. There was by then a sauna very similar to ones you find in other big metropolitan cities. And there was a lot of community work. There were some pubs that were known for short periods to be places where gay people would meet. What tended to happen was we tended to become unwelcome and would move on to somewhere else; that was the Ramada Inn in particular. There was also a community center run on a voluntary basis called the Lambda Center. That was a good place for people to socialize, and particularly for people who were uneasy about coming into the gay scene it was a friendly place to make an entry. And there were big GUS – Gay University Student – dances; that sort of thing.
In terms of sexual activity I guess it was mainly, apart from the people who were in relationships and living together, there was a lot of cruising going on at a number of sites, some of which were famous and some were infamous, and a gradual feeling that things were becoming less pressured. But that feeling wasn't necessarily mirrored by the attitude of the authorities such as the police, and one or two of us got into trouble with the police in one way or another through to the late 1970s.
Gareth: Can you give me some examples of some of the beats or some of the locations in Christchurch that were being used?
Ralph: The Christchurch Railway Station, wrecked by the earthquakes, was a very popular spot. Hagley Park was famous, and had been for many, many decades. Waimairi Beach at North Brighton was popular, particularly in summer. And there were other parks around the city, smallish parks, but that had public conveniences in them, and I'm thinking of Beverley Park in Richmond, Saint Albans Park in, I guess Saint Albans, and so on. But I would say... Oh, and Manchester Street; there was a car-parking building in Manchester Street and there was a public convenience on the ground floor of that that was very busy.
Gareth: When you say "very busy," what kind of numbers are we talking?
Ralph: Oftentimes any time of day or night you could pop in there and there'd be someone looking for sex. You might have to hang around for awhile and risk getting arrested, but you might have to hang around for awhile but there'd be someone drifting by.
I met a wide range of people there. I'll never forget one guy; I couldn't believe it because his car was parked immediately outside the loo and it had a baby seat strapped in the back area of it. [laughs] I mean, I know that plenty of married people... my own partner now has been married, but it just seemed.... I sort of thought, oh dear! What is happening in that man's life? He was a nice guy, too, and I was going to say we exchanged fluids, but what a familiar way of putting it! And then we went out, quite chatty, and he gets into this car with all the paraphernalia of a family man. I'm not... I'm just expressing surprise – no judgment involved.
Gareth: How would you describe the sexual climate of the time in Christchurch in the late '70s?
Ralph: There was still the frisson of being involved in risky activity, and of course if your sexual encounters are largely in public spaces, even if it's, you know, a bushy park and it's 11:00 at night, what you can do and what you choose to do is rather different from what you might do in the comfort of your own home, though sometimes people risked taking someone they'd picked up at one of the parks home, and that sort of changed the dynamics a bit.
Gareth: At that time, in the late '70s, what were the biggest health risks for gay men?
Ralph: I think just sexually transmitted diseases across the board, none of which were particularly dangerous; I mean, unpleasant, yes. The obvious ones: syphilis was a major one; gonorrhea. There was something else I was thinking of too. Oh, I was consulted by a young man who had managed to get genital warts, and that was very distressing to him, distressing to his girlfriend, too [laughs], and surprisingly difficult to get rid of, whereas things like syphilis in those days were well under control. So the range of sexually transmitted diseases, although unpleasant, they weren't life threatening.
And the other big danger – it's not quite a health danger, but I suppose it is – but there was also the risk of being assaulted, of being gay-bashed.
Gareth: Did that happen often?
Ralph: Often enough. I don't know; one or two cases per year got into the papers. You occasionally heard of others. I had at least one friend who was badly assaulted in Hagley Park. Oh, and another friend who took someone home from the sauna and that was a big mistake, and he was well bashed-up, and I had to take him to A & E the next day to get wound stitches and treatment of one sort or another. That was pretty bad. He was also.... The perpetrator had also taken a wallet and valuables from the house; so, having thumped him up then cleared off with valuables.
Gareth: In that situation and when homosexuality was still illegal was there a way of going to the police without kind of incriminating yourself?
Ralph: Not quite. It would depend what exactly you were complaining about. I complained about a burglary once and the cops came, and I hadn't left stuff lying around deliberately but they spotted an obviously gay magazine at one stage and they just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, "Oh, I see you've got other interests," not unpleasantly, but just that they'd noted. I don't know whether they didn't develop the possibility that I might have been burgled by someone I'd had a liaison with. I hadn't; I'd arrived home from work to find the place broken into and a whole lot of stuff taken. You know, that sort of thing. But I was one of those people who felt that the police were there, in spite of my experiences, that the police were there to protect good citizens, and I felt that I was a good citizen and that I was entitled to their support and investigation.
Gareth: So, with the health risks for gay men in the '70s in Christchurch was there any documentation or pamphlets, educational material that was given out to people about things like syphilis and gonorrhea?
Ralph: Not that I was aware of in terms of it being targeted to gay people. I have in my collection of papers a number of handout magazine types produced by student's associations, all of which have a page or two out of twenty about homosexuality, and that do all contain information about sexually transmitted diseases.
I think the same could be said of the Little Red Schoolbook. Do you remember the Alister Taylor production? You don't know about the Little Red Schoolbook? It was sort of vaguely connected with Mao's Little Red Book from the great political and cultural revolution – the same sort of size and format. But it was radical advice for high school students basically about anything and everything: their rights dealing with parents, sex, homosexuality, masturbation, sexually transmitted disease and so on. It was quite an issue at the time. I've probably got a copy around somewhere.
Gareth: So in terms of getting health messages out to gay men there were those things from the student unions. Were there other things that were being published?
Ralph: Only once AIDS was on the scene, and then there was much more specific information produced, targeted at a gay audience. And by then the National Gay Rights Coalition was in existence and I was involved in some of its activities, and a group of three of us, Hugh Gaw, a nurse called Garry Cantwell, and I put together a little three-fold pamphlet with an eye-catching front page and then a lot of information about AIDS, or GRIDS as it was known at the time, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a little bit about the opportunistic diseases that were most prevalent in those early stages, and information about the STD clinic and guarantees of confidentiality and that sort of thing.
Gareth: Let's just rewind a wee bit, and can you tell me before we get to HIV and AIDS, what was the National Gay Rights Coalition?
Ralph: Right. Well, it was a sort of umbrella group for a lot of gay and lesbian groups throughout the country. It was national. Christchurch took quite a prominent part in it. It had conferences, sent people overseas from time to time. There was a lot of tension between the men and the women at some stages of that. And it took an interest in law reform, gay rights issues – especially for young people, especially for students – and picked up on things that were of concern to the gay community, and that's why they took an interest in, well, men's health in particular.
Gareth: And was it through the Coalition that you first became aware of AIDS?
Ralph: I was certainly in the Coalition at the time that I became first aware of that. I think not exactly through it, but it was the sort of thing we started talking about. I mean, I became aware of AIDS as soon as it happened, really. You know, the first reports, I think in the States, were in June, 1981. Well, within a month or two we were aware out here that there was this new phenomenon and that it was a worry, and that was those early reports of men presenting in the United States with Kaposi sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, both of which are diseases that would not normally be prevalent in younger people, and all of a sudden reports were coming into the Center for Disease Control, I think it's called, of these cases being reported.
Gareth: Now, you're saying that about a month after it being reported in the States that you were picking up information.
Gareth: How did you get that information?
Ralph: Well I think there must have been some reference in local papers, but in particular a month or – you know, magazines from the United States took a month or two to get out here – but even the sorts of magazines like The Advocate that were coming to New Zealand carried articles about it in that first, terribly confused, 'God help us; what's happening?' sort of phase.
And of course in a very short period of time people started to die overseas, and the response in New Zealand was: because of distance we've got a chance to organize this before it hits. And in fact, with international travel it didn't take long to make an appearance in New Zealand, but we did feel that we had a tiny bit of lead time.
Gareth: So, if those first reports came out in June, 1981, when did the ball start rolling in New Zealand in terms of we've got to do something?
Ralph: Well, I can't remember when the AIDS Support Network, which was the precursor of the AIDS Foundation set up, but the pamphlet that Hugh and Garry and I wrote I believe was either late '83 or early '84, so that's a bigger gap than I had thought of, really, but in that time it was just a case of sort of what's going to happen?
Soon after that, once there was a real effort to get organized, I became involved with the group that petitioned – harassed – the District Health Board into providing premises for the AIDS Foundation or for the Support Network, preferably providing some funding for staff, organizing protocols for testing, and particularly confidentiality around results, you know, because we had the feeling right from the start that the most vulnerable section were casual positive people. We thought that by-and-large, people that went to the sauna picked up information, got condoms and so forth, but it was the casual I'm on my way home and I'm going to pop into Hagley Park and have it off with someone, they were the people who were sort of in more danger. I don't know whether we were right or not, but that's what we felt; so we felt that there needed to be some forms of publicity that could reach them. And they were particularly vulnerable in terms of privacy because you know if they were going home to a family they didn't want something from the District Health Board labeled "Sexually Transmitted Disease Division" arriving in the letter box, so there were a whole lot of things like that.
Gareth: And when you say "we," is that the people in the National Gay Rights Coalition?
Ralph: Yeah, very much so.
Gareth: Looking at those dates there is a good year to year-and-a-half between the first reports and the National Gay Rights Coalition putting out this pamphlet.
Ralph: Yeah. Yeah.
Gareth: What was the feeling in that interim time? Can you recall?
Ralph: Well I think, to be honest, almost worldwide there was still confusion: What is this? What's its cause? And there were years of debate about what the causal organism was. You know, it had various names: HTLV3, and then the French insisted on calling it something else, and eventually you know we settled on HIV – so, stuff like that. I mean, in the early days there was all that discussion about green monkeys and susceptible populations and so forth.
[chuckling] I remember one joke that must have been – and I'm laughing about something. But anyway, it must have been in The Advocate that I read it, but it was about a young Jewish man who had HIV and he'd had trouble persuading his parents that he was a Haitian; there was no way a young Jewish man was going to tell his parents that he was gay, and Haitians were one of the especially susceptible populations. You know, that sort of black humor.
And I think it was just confusing that in that period, yeah, from '81 really to '83, '84 and even later, just worldwide people were grasping on what is it? Where is it coming from? How do we control it? How bad is it going to be? And then of course people in the States just started to die in droves, and then bit by bit friends here died.
Gareth: At that time you were also visiting Australia?
Gareth: How was AIDS affecting the communities there?
Ralph: I didn't notice a great deal of difference, but then by the time AIDS was on the scene my visits to Australia were with my partner, and we weren't really engaging – we weren't socializing with people or engaging with people who were likely to be susceptible or involved. So, I mean I didn't get a chance to see what saunas were doing in Australia in '84. I read about it in some of the Australian magazines, but by and large what they were doing was similar to what we were doing.
Gareth: Now, I keep on saying AIDS, but actually at the time that wasn't the word that was used was it, or the acronym?
Ralph: I think it was by '83. No! Well, I'm pretty sure our '83, '84 pamphlet referred to GRIDS, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It was being used in the United States and that was because they knew it was immune deficiency because people normally threw off these diseases. For most of us even if we're carrying them they don't affect us because our immune systems deal with them, and those first 1981 reports were all young gay men.
Gareth: Can you tell me about the discussions that were happening within the National Gay Rights Coalition in terms of trying to formulate some kind of pamphlets or health messages for gay men at the time?
Ralph: The effort was to pick out the best advice from overseas, to convert it to New Zealand terminology, make sure that all the contact information was vetted in New Zealand. And of course one of the big barriers at that point was that homosexual acts were still criminal, and that of course became a plank in the law reform debate because those people that I mentioned before who were most susceptible or most positive and so forth, they needed to know that they could go for a test without the authorities making links with criminal activity.
Gareth: Did the Coalition have any discussions with places like the Department of Health or other government agencies?
Ralph: Oh, they certainly did; the Department of Health for funding, and my recollection is that the government did put up some funding quite early on.
And locally my biggest task, my biggest input locally was the arguments with the District Health Board over funding, premises, testing protocols and so on. And they probably weren't as early as '83, '84, but let's say '84, '85; you know, quite early on in the scheme of things – certainly before Law Reform.
And we had the AIDS Support Network form a local branch and we had regular meetings of the key people in that. And by then we had a young doctor who was a major help in terms of the relationship with the Hospital Board; and there was a counselor who I think was funded by the government, focused on AIDS.
Gareth: The leaflet that the Coalition put out, was that the first leaflet describing GRIDS/HIV?
Ralph: Well I think it was in the New Zealand context. I certainly hadn't seen any handout publicity. There may have... it was mainly a Christchurch initiative. I don't know what other centers were doing, but certainly in terms of the Christchurch area that was very early, and the three, or two of us at least, were recognized relatively recently for having been involved in that very early initiative.
Gareth: Why do you think it was a community driven initiative that put out that first material and not something like the Department of Health?
Ralph: I think because they had no particular interest in gay men. They didn't know how they could communicate with gay men, particularly of the type that we've referred to a couple of times who were perhaps more casual participators. I mean, the Department of Health publicity about a whole range of things seems to me to have improved hugely over the decades since then. If I go into a doctor's waiting room there's stuff about everything. I'm particularly interested in the stuff about diabetes, but I mean there's all sorts of stuff, pamphlet after pamphlet, and in several languages. Well, that's relatively new in my experience, and we felt at the time that we needed to do something targeted at gay men because no one else was yet doing that.
Gareth: So the pamphlet came out, and where was it distributed?
Ralph: Saunas; we put copies in loos; we put them on service clubs, health clinics, doctor's waiting rooms and so forth. Sometimes they were removed. Because it's a threefold pamphlet and it's ordinary paper it wasn't all that good for leaving in, say, the open-air conveniences at Hagley Park, and we were sort of conscious of that but we'd leave a few copies in a cubicle or whatever. There was one set of loos at the polytech that I felt – I was never involved in anything there – but I felt that it looked to me as though there were a few gay students sort of making use of that particular facility, so I put a pile of them in the cubicles there, that sort of thing.
Gareth: You were saying that sometimes pamphlets were removed, resistance to actually seeing this type of information; where was that coming from?
Ralph: Well to be fair the front page of it, it wasn't obscene or anything like that, but it was intended to be eye-catching, and as I remember it was sort of borrowed from an American magazine and it was a youngish man, nearly naked, and stretching up like this with 1980's long, flowing hair like so, and I think some doctor's receptionists just felt that wasn't an appropriate thing to be on their shelves. I don't know.
I don't think medically that anyone would have objected, although I remember there was a very common reaction throughout the community that, you know, it served you right.
Gareth: Is that through the mainstream community?
Ralph: Yeah, yeah. And I'm sure, because I've known doctor's receptionists who weren't very sympathetic of, say, unmarried mothers – it's sort of passé now – but there was a time when you weren't all that keen about going to your GP about a sexually transmitted disease. It didn't bother me because I would say if you're taking a blood test for blood sugar, I want you to tick the HIV box, but, you know, most people would rather go very anonymously and give a false name at the clinic than front up with the GP.
Gareth: How did the gay community respond to the pamphlet?
Ralph: I think it was fairly positive. It certainly felt that it was important that we'd made an effort. What I can't remember is whether there was anything in it about condoms, and yet by '83, '84 there ought to have been.
Gareth: Was there a feeling within the gay community that this is something happening elsewhere and won't happen in Christchurch?
Ralph: We thought it would come, but we thought we had lead time; that's my recollection of it. And so of course when the first person arrived back from overseas suffering from AIDS that was bad news anywhere in New Zealand, not Christchurch in particular. But it was quite early on that the first acquaintances, people that I had met and had some social contact with, died. That was pretty bad news.
I also had been... although I wasn't cruising a great deal, I mean I wasn't completely without risk, and so as soon as the clinic was properly set up, partly because I thought I needed a clean bill of health and partly because I was in the Gay Rights Coalition and I was monitoring all this, and I thought I want to see what actually happens if someone that they don't know is involved – not exactly the Mystery Shopper, but that sort of approach – I want to see how I'm actually treated right through the process, and it was fine. Whether it would be fine for everyone, I don't know. I mean, I wasn't a working-class Polynesian for example. I just don't know. But from my point of view, and that I was approaching it with a certain amount of information, a certain amount of political and public confidence, it was fine. I was pleased to have done it. And as I said before, after that anytime blood was being taken I just asked the GP to tick the box.
Gareth: So working on the information you had about HIV and AIDS, when you first became aware of it did that change your sexual practices?
Ralph: No. I knew enough about what activities were significantly risky and I wasn't actually participating in those with casual people. It did slow me down; it did change the pattern in that respect. And David was tested and I was tested and we were both negative. So, I guess I was just more careful, but I wasn't really indulging in high-risk activity.
Gareth: Can you recall when the first person you knew came back to New Zealand or was in New Zealand and discovered they were HIV positive?
Ralph: Yeah. This guy had had some contact with Ascent, the gay Catholic group that I was involved in. A nice guy, a very attractive guy, and I think that was a feature: young men who were in the gay community considered to be particularly attractive were probably particularly sexually active and probably were more susceptible to infection. That was very, very sad. I've been to a few gay funerals but his was the first and the saddest. It was just terrible, really, to have lost such a beautiful person, to have lost anyone, but to have lost such a beautiful person so early in his life, really.
Gareth: Had you ever encountered anything like that before in terms of his illness?
Ralph: No. I think it really made me very sad for his loss, but also brought it well and truly home that this was now a New Zealand issue. I mean, I'd known all that and I've said we were sort of preparing for it and waiting for it and expecting it, but here it was, it's arrived, and a reminder that we needed to be more careful and that there were people who were particularly susceptible for one reason or another.
Gareth: Can you describe how the gay community changed, if at all, from the period of first becoming aware of HIV/AIDS through to the first people coming into Christchurch with the virus?
Ralph: Just that sense of waiting and now it's arrived, and some of us involved in trying to set up the systems that would be needed to address it: the training workshops for carers, for example.
And I'm sure it did change some people's behavior, and certainly for anyone who was involved in... well, there were condoms at the sauna, and I think that anyone who was at risk and who was involved in anal sex was probably being more cautious. I think that's slacked off since, possibly now that it's not an absolute and automatic immediate death sentence.
Gareth: Were you involved in some of the training to become carers?
Ralph: Yes. Yep, and those were the days when we were trying to put together a pool of people who could be called on, and they were involved in a discussion of hygiene, basic care in schools, but the first thing was always confronting your own fears and checking out your own prejudices and anxieties about it, bringing them out in the open and dealing with them if you could. I remember a guided visualization, lying back and thinking about being led through reflections.
I was never called on to care for anyone with AIDS, but the training that I got was very valuable in caring for David.
Gareth: And David was your partner for 30 years.
Gareth: And he died of motor neuron disease.
Ralph: Motor neuron disease, November, '95. Twenty-six months from first symptom to diagnosis – well, 13 months from first symptoms to diagnosis and another 13 months from diagnosis to death, so for just over two years.
Gareth: The carer training, was that undertaken through the AIDS Support Network?
Ralph: Yeah, that's as I recall it. Yeah.
Gareth: And you were saying that you were helping in the Christchurch region getting office space or pushing for office space.
Ralph: Yeah. Yeah. It was for the setting up of the Ettie Rout Clinic: where was it going to be? And there was a fair bit of resistance, not opposition, reluctance, resistance, I felt, on the part of the people we were dealing with in terms of fronting up with the funds and the premises.
Gareth: Why do you think that was?
Ralph: I think pressure on resources generally. I mean there always has been pressure on resources. And possibly a group that, you know, ought not to have.... There was a lot of reaction overseas by then, all this attention going on AIDS, and I was aware of this through the Motor Neuron Network, which is a terrible disease and affects umpteen-thousand in the USA and Canada, and so forth: they can't get any publicity, there's no film star promoting their cause, and all this money is going to these poofters sort of thing. There was an element of that. And I think – we never had this out with them – but I think that a certain reluctance and minimal cooperation was because there were lots of other groups in Christchurch or in New Zealand who needed funding and premises and staffing, who were more deserving, you know? You only get this disease because you've been up to no good.
Gareth: So were the publications that were put out in the early years about protection, so stopping people from getting the virus, or were they more about supporting people with the virus?
Ralph: That first pamphlet certainly described the symptoms and advertised the testing.
Gareth: Can you recall the types of language or specific words?
Ralph: We've always had that issue in gay relation matters. [laughs] You know, do you call a fuck a fuck or don't you sort of thing. That first pamphlet was fairly technical. I mean it would use anatomical words rather than slang words, and that's partly because the tone of it was talking about Kaposi sarcoma and describing that sort of thing. So that was part of it, and by the front cover I think it was a fairly serious pamphlet aimed to communicate information.
I can't remember seeing early public-health stuff, but I know that AIDS Support Network people like Ray would be wanting it to be blunt and direct, and I guess we got around to that, too. And there were campaigns: the penis dressed in a condom and all that sort of thing, so there was an easing, there was a shift in how clinical the information needed to be, so I think it had become blunter and more direct.
Gareth: At this time in the '80s were you quite involved in the church?
Ralph: That came and went. At about the time David was dying, '85 [sic], I'd really dropped out. So, I'd been strongly involved in the late '70s, early '80s. I went through a period of not being terribly involved, and then once David had died – it seems odd but once David had died I really returned to the church.
Gareth: Can you describe the church's reaction to HIV/AIDS in those early years?
Ralph: The local church was unsupportive. There were two nuns, Sisters of Compassion, Sister Sue and Sister Francie, who were involved in the early days of the AIDS Support Network. They're a community of nuns that, if I've got it right, were dedicated to health issues, and they got involved in the AIDS Support Network. The Bishop at the time forbade them to be involved, and I was absolutely appalled and I wrote to the Bishop saying that what you've ordered is absolutely disgusting. These women were dah-di-dah-di-dah, and furthermore, for God's sake, if you're going to have anything to say about homosexuality or AIDS in the future, don't use Father "X" as your spokesperson. [laughs]
Gareth: Just rounding out this chat about HIV and AIDS, did you at the time think it would become what it's become now?
Ralph: I think we knew bad news was on the way, and before some of the drug companies really got into research and development of medication there was a period where I thought it was going to be a huge toll worldwide. Now, I mean I know it has been. You only have to look at the AIDS Quilt Project and so forth; it's been terrible. But it's perhaps not developed in the gay community in the West to the extent that I might have once feared, so that now, I mean my compassion goes out to the populations of southern Africa where there are three in five people infected with HIV. It's just colossal. And of course some people – God help us – some people say that's God's way of controlling the population level. It makes you weep. I don't believe in a God who operates like that.
Transcript by cyberscrivener.com