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Tony Hughes: Research guru and tree-hugger

Mon 3 Apr 2006 In: HIV

He's been Research Director of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation since its inception, he's just been awarded a Queen's Service Medal, and he likes trees. There's a lot you probably don't know about Tony Hughes... Tony Hughes It may come as a surprise that Tony Hughes, recent QSM recipient and Research Director of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation for the last twenty years, was once a 'tree-hugger.' At heart, he still is, although these days he's probably whittled it down to gentle petting. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Back in early 1981, Hughes already had a couple of degrees in biology, as well as masters degrees in social behaviour and evolutionary biology. He started work for the Native Forest Action Council, and was heavily involved in anti-deforestation campaigns for the next several years in Poriora, Whirinaki and the Urewera National Park. His position saw him shuttling back and forth between Nelson and Auckland. "You learnt a lot about lobbying and all the other skills about political change, persuading politicians there are things that need to be done," he says. "We wrote a book, had David Bellamy as our patron. It was a very activist kind of exercise, but it was all based on science and arguments from ecology to make the case for the forest not to be chopped down." It was around this time that he first heard about an emerging new disease known as AIDS, which was ravaging gay communities in the United States. There was a sense of looming disaster on the horizon for New Zealand which motivated him to switch from trees to disease. "I lived next door to Ian Scott, a gay doctor. I used to go into the medical school from about the beginning of 1983 and collect material on HIV when I had a bit of spare time," Hughes recalls. "Ian and I started talking about it, and a couple of other people from the medical school joined that group, and we were just aware that nothing was being done. From what we were hearing from the US, if nothing was done it would be a disaster." Hughes went on to form a core group of people at the heart of the AIDS Foundation, where he still resides, a group that with a help of an active community helped to avert a major disaster. But the cost was still high throughout the late eighties and early nineties, with many casualties. So, is saving gay men's lives easier than saving trees? "Probably not," he laughs. "It's harder, because of all the social dynamics. But there are parallels. When you're working in forests, you had people who thought you were a bit weird, you also had people who were passionately opposed to what you were doing. We have elements of the fundamentalist religious right who are passionately and vigorously opposed to what we've been doing in this organisation around AIDS and gay issues for the last 20 years, so there are elements of that." What effect has that had on his work during that time? "That's always been difficult, but after a while it doesn't surprise you. I think the good thing is, it's changing. In a large number of countries around the world, the prejudice that leads to those attitudes and misunderstanding about sexuality is being slowly dismantled by challenge and fact. You can't help but look over a 20-year period in New Zealand and see that incredible change. You wish at times it would move faster, but it's probably unrealistic to expect it will. It takes work." That work, as far as Hughes is concerned, means asking questions – even when others don't want them to be asked. He frets about the "big knowledge gap" relating to the origins of sexual orientation, a topic that is of particular interest to him. While great leaps have been made in the last twenty years surrounding knowledge of HIV, Hughes doesn't think we know nearly as much about what makes gay men tick biologically. It's the question of "why" rather than "what" which, especially in the area of HIV prevention, is becoming more important. "It s a matter of getting a really methodologically rigorous scientific framework on sexuality – as opposed to ideological or religious – so we can better understand how this works." SCIENCE VS. BELIEF He worries about the emphasis – even in gay circles – on nurture rather than nature, and he has little time for those who dismiss the debate altogether. "My training is in science," he says. "There's no question that should not be asked. You get into deep difficulties when you tell people that questions shouldn't be asked. It's a legitimate and very interesting question as to why someone like me is attracted to males and someone else is attracted to women, and I don't believe we get anywhere by saying 'we mustn't touch that.' We've left a knowledge vacuum, and that vacuum gets filled by people who say – it's a sin, a crime, a sickness." And there have been plenty of those over the years, especially during the time of homosexual law reform. "When people like [Pastor] Richard Flynn said that gay people should have biblical penalties and be hung... you think – God, that's pretty bad. Then you realise the amount of damage he's done to the fundamentalist cause by saying that, it's enormous." In hindsight, some are even funny. National MP Graeme Lee, who would form the Christian Coalition with convicted child abuser Graham Capill a decade later, got his knickers in quite a twist over one of the Foundation's early HIV prevention campaigns – the traffic light brochure, which broke down sexual acts into categories of risk. The earthy language used did not amuse. "Graeme Lee read it out in Parliament," says Hughes. "It's the only time the word 'fuck' has ever been read into Hansard. He was very upset about it." Hughes, who recently turned 50, can remember what it was like to be a teenager in a country that imprisoned men for being homosexual. Like many gay men, he remembers feeling "different" from an early age. "I always had a sense that there was nothing wrong with me, but it was very clear that a lot of other people thought there was, so the solution was just not to tell them," he recalls. "But for the generation older than me it was even worse. I was just speaking to someone in the office who had an older partner many years ago whose flat was raided by the vice squad in Wellington. And the warrant said, 'a house that is frequented by known homosexuals'. That was enough to have the vice squad raid your house." Hughes had a upbringing that he, perhaps underplaying, describes as "reasonably religious"... I was born in Opotiki, in the Bay Of Plenty, and I trotted along to the Presbyterian Church in the morning and the Salvation Army at night. I decided in the fifth form when I first got taught biology and learnt about evolution that clearly there was a choice here, and the choice was either believe in one or the other. And by the end of the fifth form I'd decided that the religion thing was a no go." Completely incompatible? "Yeah, completely. Didn't work." He says his religious un-conversion had nothing to do with being gay. "It was completely separate. Clearly a literalist approach to Genesis and seven days creation and evolution are incompatible positions. In the end, I didn't even find there was a contest between which one was the most sensible." Science and the natural world became his hobby-horse, reading everything he could get his hands on. He still does now. "I virtually never read fiction, which is funny. I never have," he says. "There's a set amount of time in life that you can spend reading, and I'm more interested in spending it on non-fiction." Is this why, I ask, he's never been interested in the Bible? He laughs. "I must say, I'm interested in theology." But there are no great religious figures on Hughes' list of historical figures to meet, should he ever be whisked away in Doctor Who's TARDIS. On that list you'd find (of course) Darwin. – "he just came up with such a brilliant idea which is so against what everybody had thought”; Bach - “I think Bach's music is just in a whole different league to everybody else that has ever composed music, I don't think anybody else has been close to it": and Einstein – "a brilliant innovator of really original ideas that nobody else had come up with." CHANGING TIMES, DEVELOPING STRATEGIES By the time of the Human Rights Act in 1993, the rabid opposition had largely disappeared. Hughes was involved in the campaign to pass this landmark legislation over a period of nearly five years, largely unsung work as the Act didn't capture the public imagination as much as homosexual law reform, or even as much as civil unions. But in terms of the Foundation's commitment to creating supportive environments, the Human Rights Act is arguably the most important political campaign they've been involved in. "It's one thing to say, we're going to throw you into jail for 14 years, it's another to say – you have a place at society's table," says Hughes. "I was very pleased that we got a very clean, very good Human Rights Act that didn't have exemptions for armed forces, because they voluntarily said they didn't want them. That was a wonderful highlight. The armed forces said we're happy to have people in the armed forces. The police exemption at the time was more heavily fought by the Minister, John Banks, and the commissioner at the time." But politicians come and go – HIV prevention work must go on. Hughes is particularly proud of the Foundation's burgeoning research programme, developed in-house and carried out in conjunction with university partners. The bi-annual Gay Auckland Periodic Sex Survey is now on its third outing, and this year has garnered more responses than ever before. "It's a great time of the year in terms of interaction with the community," he says. "We tend to be in here, bending over computers and reading papers, but it's a neat time of the year going out and dropping things off in the venues." So it's Hughes' chance to do a Dr Kinsey? "Something like that," he laughs. "[Senior Researcher] Pete's [Saxton] the main investigator and main driver of the whole project." Hughes isn't a limelight kind of guy. As well as emphasising the importance of Pete Saxton's work, he's also full of praise for Vern Keller, the Foundation's librarian. "They both deserve special thanks for all the work they've done for the community," he says. On the rare occasions that Hughes is interviewed, the subject never strays far from HIV and sexual behaviour research, and he seems slightly embarrassed that – as a QSM recipient – he's now having to sit here and talk about himself. He sees the QSM as a recognition of the work put in by the Foundation and the community, working together (and this is the key point he stresses), to stop more gay men being infected with HIV. "The thing about community based health promotion is, you have to do it as a team. The more people there are in the team, either because they're on the staff or volunteers or out in the community supporting it, the more successful it is," he says. So how did it feel during last year's board shenanigans, when it appeared the wheels were falling off the wagon? Rather than the Foundation and the community rallying together against outside forces, they were pitted against each other. "Last year was difficult," he says diplomatically, "I believe that those problems are solved." Hughes says its not the first time the Foundation has been caught up in internal conflicts, something which also dogged the very early years. "That's inevitable in a vigorous organisation that's trying to do something. If there's passionate people who are trying to do something and they believe in things then things like that will happen." Despite the ups and downs over the years, Hughes says he's never got depressed, chiefly because the dilemma of HIV infection has a solution, something for which he is grateful. "If condoms hadn't worked... lets be honest, if condoms for anal sex didn't stop HIV, the whole scenario would have been totally different," he says. "We would have been dealing with a lot of dying gay men over that time. But because there was an intervention that worked, it was positive." Does he ever miss trees? "I still like trees. I live in them," he laughs. "But I think I've still got a few more years left before I go bush entirely." Chris Banks - 3rd April 2006    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Monday, 3rd April 2006 - 12:00pm

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