Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and speaking truthfully about HIV and related co-morbidities is a cause close to Tim Moffitt’s heart. Tim is a proud Gammillaroi man. He has been a member of the ACON Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group for over five years He brings to the group a wealth of experience, wisdom, and passion from which we all benefit. We sat down and had a yarn with Tim about his life and experience on the RAP working group to date.
Tim, where you are from and where did you grew up?
I was born in the town of Inverell, it’s a couple hours north of Armidale, an hour west of Glen Innes and a few hours east of Moree. I am a country boy!
Can you tell me why you’re involved in community work?
From a young age, I understood that there are differences in the world. For me it started from birth, because on my right hand I have only got my thumb. When I was born, they wanted to put me in an institution because I didn’t come out “normal”. They wouldn’t let my mum see me for the first week of my life. But my dad prepared me for the world, and I was able to tie my laces from the age of five.
What else has contributed to your understanding of differences in the world?
When I was eight a teacher sent us home from school and we were asked to find out where we were from. Dad said, “You are Aboriginal, but you’ll never be accepted”. Dad grew up through the Great Depression and he saw lots of discrimination. He recognised that we passed as white kids, so he raised us as white kids and he did that to try and help us.
It wasn’t until HIV came along in the 1980s that I really learnt about discrimination. I first heard about it on the 6 o’clock news in about 1980; my dad said some terrible things about gay people and HIV at that time.
In 1988 I left Inverell and came to Sydney. When I was first in Sydney, I was part of a church group, but I was shamed out of my church community after a friend and I started to go out on Oxford Street.
That must have been hard.
It was but after I left the church, I made friends with my “gay mum and dad” and they became the key people in my life. They encouraged me to get a job as cleaner at the hospital, and I hated it, but they made me stay with it. I am glad they did because I eventually went to work in St George Hospital as a wardsman and applied to be a registered nurse and I got in!
Congratulations! I understand that eventually you became a HIV nurse?
Yep, I ended up specialising in immunology and HIV and I loved that big time! I had to leave HIV nursing after 10 years because within a period of three months, I had three young men come in who I cared for, they were the same age as me and they were my patients. When I had my days off, they would pass away. I’d come back, and their families would be there, and I would hear things like “oh they really liked you” and “they wished they could have met you under different circumstances, you would have been great friends”. And hearing that kind of thing really affected me. Over a couple of months, it was just too much, and I just felt “I can’t do this anymore”.
When exactly was this?
We’re talking about the 90s when treatments were totally different. Medication was horrible back then. In the 90s we lost a lot of people. I had funerals every second weekend. It was sad, you know the scene; you might meet one night, hook up, and then they became friends and acquaintances and then you started burying them.
And you were working at the hospital at that time?
I was at St George, but it was St Vincent’s Hospital at that time that did a lot of work to acknowledge same-sex relationships. It was important for our relationships to be acknowledged because boys were coming out and families were rejecting them, they had to find their tribe and that tribe was us.
I still remember the 1996 Mardi Gras theme was “We are Family”. Every float was playing that song “We Are Family”! Part of the debate that was raging around then was that “family does not mean blood”. That was really an interesting period, I went to a lot of the protest rallies up George Street. I went to the opening of the AIDS Memorial in Green Park, the big pink triangle. It’s really nice talking to you about all this, because I am realising that I have been part of some key parts of our history.
It’s really nice for me to hear about it too. At what point did you start becoming more involved in HIV activism?
Where my story really takes hold is probably around the year 2000. I fell heavily in love with a French guy. I’ve never fallen so hard for someone and we were sero-discordant, he was positive, and I was negative. I was open-minded, and it didn’t matter to me that he was positive, I really hated seeing discrimination in the world and I had been rejected previously because I was Aboriginal. I knew what I was getting involved with and it was worth the risk to me. I engaged in unsafe practices and I eventually sero-converted and now I have been living with HIV for over 20 years.
In terms of getting involved in community work and activism, I always lacked confidence of my skill set but when I worked with an employment service called Options, I worked with HIV positive people and throughout that time I realised that I have a lot of specialist knowledge and experience. Through my experiences, I came to understand that I am a valuable person, I have got something to share, and that I can educate and help in the community.
You absolutely do! Why did you want to get involved in ACON and the RAP?
I choose to work with ACON because I believe that things can be better. I had a negative experience with ACON when I tried to reach out for help in the early 2000s. I was encountering discrimination at work and I wanted ACON’s support and when I asked for help, I was dismissed. I was told that because I was working that ACON couldn’t help me. For a service that’s meant to be there for people, I was rejected when I presented for help and I was dirty on ACON for a while.
Mish Sparks eventually convinced me to go along to an Aboriginal retreat for HIV positive blackfellas that was hosted by ACON and that retreat was the pre-cursor to me joining the RAP Working Group.
Is there anything you’ve enjoyed or are proud of, being involved in the RAP Working Group?
It’s hard work but I am proud of the fact that I am slowly challenging ACON’s belief system, and I am opening ACON’s eyes to new ways of working.
In what way?
Sometimes an organisation is so successful they lose touch with grassroots people. In my view, ACON has become so great at policy that they are forgetting why they started. People can fall through the cracks and ACON needs to be reminded of that.
How would you like things to change?
I’d like to see ACON do more things at the grassroots community level. HIV is manageable disease and I’d like ACON to look more at co-morbidities. Look at the real issues at play here, issues around the negotiation of stigma, mental health, alcohol and drugs. If you want to be policy-driven, that’s fine, but ACON should never forget the human aspect.
What about ACON’s work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?
I’d like to see ACON doing the work with Aboriginal community rather than sponsoring the work. We need ACON to be physically there, at our events and in community. It does not cost money to work with Aboriginal people and funding should not be an excuse.
We can sometimes forget why we do what we do. There are still young Aboriginal people who suicide when they sero-convert, this needs to be on the radar for ACON, we need Aboriginal peer support services.
If you were going to talk to a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who was considering joining the RAP Working Group, what do you think you would say?
I’d encourage them to do it, to be in it for the hard slog and to be honest. I’d let them know that it can be frustrating working with organisations. Places can be slow to move but I’d tell them not give up. I’ve been working with ACON for 10 years and I have got hope, we’re chipping away slowly, and it gets through!
I’d tell them that it takes courage to stand up in front of a group of people or attend a RAP meeting and represent yourself and community, but you’ve got power as a community member. You can say things, you can tell the truth, you can say what you need to say. I’d empower the blackfella to stand up, be counted and say what they feel that ACON needs to hear.
Standing up, telling your story, and saying how you feel is a very potent thing because the person who is listening to you will say, “Oh I am not alone”, and that is one of the most potent things that you can do.
We’d like to extend our sincerest thanks to Tim for sharing his story with us and his continuous service on the RAP Working Group, bringing humour, enthusiasm, and honesty to all he does! We are currently seeking more Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community members to join the RAP Working Group. If you are interested please contact [email protected]