Sydney artist and author Guy James Whitworth takes the opportunity of World AIDS Day to celebrate the achievements of HIV activist and Sydney icon Julie Bates AO.
“Let’s not forget HIV and HIV stigma has not gone away, 4,000 new infections occur around the world daily and 38 million people living with HIV is testament to that fact, yet still there is no vaccine!”
The very first time I met Julie Bates, she and I were participants on a walk around Darlinghurst and Kings Cross, led by several original ’78ers, to celebrate 40 years since the first Sydney Mardi Gras Parade/riot.
I spotted her in the group, of about 20 or so people, as we wandered along. She was dressed in a no-nonsense fitted black outfit, swinging a scarlet red umbrella and I was utterly intrigued by her. I casually worked my way through the group towards her, and we ended up chatting as we wandered and listened to the ’78ers. Although I had no idea who she was at that point, I decided she was my new best friend.
Towards the end of the walk, while we were standing under the iconic Kings Cross Coke sign, one of the ’78ers pointed out a particular building and made a statement, and Julie politely yet confidently spoke up to offer another view, pointing out that the truthful enough statement he made was from a gay male perspective and that for female sex workers, there was another equally true parallel point of view. She was neither aggressive nor patronising, but she was right, and everyone present happily agreed with her and saw her point.
There was no way she was getting rid of me.
When I first moved to London, HIV and AIDS had only just risen its hideous head, just in time to curtail the fun the 18-year-old country boy me was very ready to have. I’ve written lots about how London was at that time and how I was one of the lucky ones to come out of it relatively unscathed and not to have been directly hit by the wildly ricocheting HIV bullet that took out so many of my friends. Recently, I wrote a piece about 2020 and how I was lucky to have manoeuvred through the year without coming into direct contact with Covid-19, but realistically this is all nonsense. It wasn’t because of luck that I, or anyone else, sidestepped either of these pandemics – it was because of accessible health care and the communication skills of people like Julie Bates.
Early last year, I reintroduced myself to her as I sketched her portrait for an art exhibition of LGBTQI allies. By this time, I knew all about her and how she was an out sex worker and sex worker rights activist. To me, she is also someone who represents so many different facets of the world we live in. She is a political feminist, activist, advocate and community elder, who sees the world through compassion and practicality, who actively works to empower others.
And oh yeah, she’s fucking fabulous.
In 2018, she was awarded an Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for ‘distinguished service to community health, particularly through harm reduction programs for sex workers and people who use drugs illicitly, and to those living with HIV/AIDS’. I could go on and on listing her achievements, such as serving on the Australian National Council on AIDS advising the government on their HIV harm prevention strategy.
It is people like Julie who gain the life experiences that guide, define and raise the alarm on sexual health practices that keep us safe and healthy. I’d say she is the canary in the mineshaft, but that just makes me picture her in a yellow feather boa and I know her well enough to know yellow just isn’t her colour.
Today, on World AIDS Day, she will be in conversation with Professor Basil Donovan of The Kirby Institute discussing, among other things, ‘the impact of Covid-19 on the sex industry, and what lessons are relevant now and into the future’.
One of my go to soundbites whenever I am interviewed about my art practice is to say ‘when people no longer trust politicians, they turn to artists to tell them their truths and process their fears’. There is a parallel in this, in as much as when people no longer have confidence in hierarchy or decision makers, they will turn to those in communities around them with greater life experiences for advice and information. I have definitely seen this many times, in both HIV awareness and, of late, Covid-19 infection prevention.
When asked about the parallels between HIV and Covid-19, Julie emits a big sigh, acknowledging the size of the question.
“Well, let’s separate them into two camps; we’ve got personal and social prevention strategies. So, with personal, when putting on a mask you are putting on something that some people find very hard to cope with or do,” she begins.
“Likewise, with HIV you’ve got condoms … No one wanted to wear a condom, but we got used to it. Getting people to use condoms, from the perspective of the sex industry, really wasn’t easy. Both these things are absolutely lifesaving and essential!
“Sex workers got, and get, the message very quickly; this is how ‘this thing’ is transmitted and we are going to prevent infection to ourselves and we are also going to prevent the spreading. We behaved back then as if we all had HIV and acted accordingly. And that’s one of the missing links with Covid-19, not a lot of people are taking that same responsibility.
“Many moons ago, in the early days of HIV, Basil and I, or ‘the professor’ as I call him, were charged with the task of creating what became known as the ‘contact tracing manual’. We brought together public health experts from around the country, I think they came from New Zealand as well, and we hired the Quarantine Station at North Head (Sydney) and we set about creating this manual. It was the first contact tracing manual ever developed in Australia looking at HIV transmission. With very specific messages and learnings around specific sub-sets of populations: gay men, prisoners, sex workers, people who use drugs, whilst employing the sensitivities that were necessary for that. That manual has now been revised, I think, about three times and I would imagine is now going into a new revision to talk about Covid-19.
“Recently I worked with [NSW Health], representing a consortium of 26 or so brothel owners to build up a pathway forward to reopening, after lockdown, and how they could develop the checklist that would become a Covid-19 safety plan. The people who are working for the Ministry of Health have got long memories and they still have this knowledge of how we did it during HIV. I think they were very pleased to have me on the phone saying, ‘Hello, remember me? Let’s do this again!’ So we all sat down and did a big Zoom meeting with a number of brothel owners around the state and … we helped the brothel owners write and develop their own Covid-19 reopening plan. That was in June and then on July the 1st, the sex industry reopened.
“We were able to do that, and be listened to with respect … because [they] knew we could all be Covid-19 savvy and put in as much mitigation and measures as are needed, and share that knowledge with clients, because that is what we did with HIV.”
Julie’s power lies not in academia or credentials – although she has those – but in her real-world common sense and lack of pretension. Last week, she and I met for a glass (or three) of bubbly and she told me about her first ever interaction as a sex worker. That’s her story, so I shan’t tell it here, but let me tell you, it really made me laugh!
I am very fortunate now to call her a friend and if ever you get the chance, you should be friends with her too.
A special World AIDS Day online event, featuring Julie Bates AO in conversation with the Kirby Institute’s Professor Basil Donovan will occur online at 1pm today, Tuesday, 1 December. To register for the talk, visit: https://WAD2020-sex-work-and-pandemics-hiv-covid-19.eventbrite.com.au.
Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney based artist and author. His book, Signs of a Struggle, is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter.
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