VCA Digital Archive: Gay experience

Still from Heart Station, Tao Jia, 2015. Supplied.
Still from Heart Station, Tao Jia, 2015. Supplied.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection, which will be available for research from mid-2019. Enjoy!

By Aaron Hughes

Each short film in the VCA Digital Archive is a vignette: a passion project capturing a writer-filmographer’s idea as a moment in time for a future audience to revisit. And each of these moments – in the films Some Rainbow Never Grey, Postcards from the 60s, Heart Station and Battlefield –  took me back to a point in my life and some hard-learned lessons. These short films deal in their own way with the lived experience of being gay, and in my own vignettes below I’ve reflected on my own experiences in this regard.

Postcards from the 60s

Written in response to Some Rainbows Never Grey. Directed by Peter Jacobsen. 2013. Documentary.

The stories shared by the three gay men in Some Rainbows Never Grey is also the story of my father. In the documentary, Allan, Jim and Ian reflect on what it was like for them as gay men in the 1960s who made the conscious choice to marry women, and the consequences of living with this decision.

I’m a gay man, and the son of a gay man. My parents started dating in the mid-60s. Dad once told me he’d let Mum know early in their relationship that he’d been with both women and men before they met. And Mum told me she was OK with that.

I think credit is due to my parents, considering the era and the expectations placed upon them both by family and society. Before he died in the mid-90s, my dad said Mum was the only woman he’d ever loved, but that, as much as he loved her, he just couldn’t play it straight.

Some Rainbows Never Grey will be available for research viewing only via the VCA Digital Archive platform. Image courtesy of Peter Jacobsen.

My parents dated for about a year before they married, and were together for several more years before I came along in the early 1970s, bringing them closer for a time. They managed to make a life for themselves and stayed together until I was about five years old.

My dad and I didn’t talk much about his fidelity within the marriage. But Mum said she knew several years in that he’d started looking outside of their relationship.

Watching Allan, Jim and Ian candidly share details of their married lives in Some Rainbows Never Grey felt like watching my dad. These men did what they thought they should do – needed to do – to be happy at the time. It’s easy to blame them – perhaps too easy – for marrying their wives and having children, when they knew that they were probably more attracted to men.

I’m in my late 40s now and it took me a long time to realise my parents both did their best to be happy together. I think it took me living, loving and making my share of mistakes to develop that compassion and to stop trying to place blame.

I’m currently having all of my family’s photos converted to digital images. Watching the archival wedding footage in Some Rainbows Never Grey has echoed that process – I almost expected to see Mum and Dad in the background of the film somewhere, smiling and laughing.

They were young, hopeful and in love. They were embarking on an adventure, as were Allan, Jim and Ian.

The Waiting Game

Written in response to Heart Station. Directed by Tao Jia. 2015. Drama.

The scenario in the opening scene of Heart Station – a coming-of-age drama about a young gay man’s infatuation with a straight man in his three-month ‘HIV window’ – must surely be familiar to nearly every gay man: anxiously waiting to get an HIV test, or to get the results from one.

I’ve been there, felt that mix of dread and embarrassment. And I wish it had only been once.

I was in my teens in the late 1980s when the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign first ran. It was everywhere. It was terrifying.

At the time, I had just come out to myself, although certainly not to anyone else. I didn’t really know what being gay meant let alone anything about having sex with another guy and using condoms to protect us both from contracting AIDS.

Heart Station. Tao Jia. 2015. Drama.

By the time I came out to others in the early 1990s, I’d assimilated the safe-sex messages. Or at least I thought I had. I’d begun the gradual process of understanding what it meant to be a young gay man. But while I was out, I remained celibate for several years. It was still a bridge too far to share myself with another man. That would come later.

I moved from North Queensland to Melbourne in my mid-20s. This was where I finally felt room to breathe as a gay man. In the big city, I immersed myself in all of the elements of gay culture that I’d never seen or felt before.

And I ended up in the same waiting room as the young guy in Heart Station, waiting to find out if I’d really screwed up and contracted HIV.

We’re all supposed to learn from our slip-ups and errors and not repeat them. I’m afraid that sex and desire are easily confused with love. I discarded the condoms a couple of times in the heat of the moment. I ended up in the waiting room at the doctor’s surgery. And I walked around during the three-month window, wondering what lay ahead of me.

A couple of years later, I started working with the Victorian AIDS Council/Gay Men’s Health Centre. I was there for five years and it was some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. It was also eye-opening.

Working within the gay and lesbian community, I quickly came to understand the lived experience of HIV and AIDS. I learned about the early days of GRIDS (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) and how it later became known as HIV/AIDS. I was exposed to the sexual-health campaigns, the history of the epidemic, gay movies, plays and books.

I met guys who were newly-diagnosed, and I became friendly with the long-term-positive survivors. The latter were the men who had lived through the 1980s, when I was still in high school, a time when they had lost almost an entire generation of gay men worldwide.

I talked with guys who were on PEP, (Post Exposure Prophylaxis), like the young Asian guy in Heart Station. I learned about the side-effects. I met guys for whom the medication had stopped them contracting the virus, and those who had become positive. I was reminded of my own experiences: wanting that sexual intimacy with another guy, that desperation to love and be loved, without wanting the hassle of negotiated safe-sex.

And I remember the relief of getting the results that confirmed I was HIV negative.

Have Smartphone, Will Travel

Written in response to Sondr. Directed by Harrison Packer. 2014. Documentary.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines Sonder as:

The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

As one of the four young gay men interviewed in Harrison Packer’s film Sondr says of Grindr (“The world’s largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people”): “It’s a portable gay bar for your phone.”

The film charts the experience of these young men as they navigate the app, and shares their experiences of longing, disappointment and discrimination.

Sondr. Harrison Packer. 2014. Documentary.

Back in 2000, the year I moved to Melbourne, Commercial Road in Prahran was the epicentre of the gay and lesbian scene in Melbourne. The bars. The nightclubs. The restaurants. The caf├ęs. The shops. Rainbow flags. Drag queens of every shape and size. Gay men. Lesbians. Trans people. Anthems from our favourite divas blasting from every doorway. I dived into the community.

Then came the advent of the smartphone. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, people realised you could connect with anyone you wanted to, just by using that magical digital device in your pocket. You didn’t have to go out on the town. You could let your fingers do the walking. It didn’t just replace a camera, a diary, a portable hard drive and a GPS. It replaced whole blocks of real estate.

Like the four men interviewed in Sondr, when I got my first smartphone I went online and found Grindr, ManHunt, Scruff And Growlr. – a selection dwarfed by the current swathe of similar apps now on the market.

Like so many gay men, I moved away from going out to venues to cruising other guys online. Why wait until the weekend to head out to the bars to meet guys? I could chat with them on my phone 24/7.

The first thing I learned about was creating an online gay dating app profile. Call it what it is though: an avatar. It’s an idealised version of the best of who you are, the best that you look, even if it does represent only a slice of your whole real-world persona. That takes a long time, but then you spend even longer crafting the perfect text for your profile. Not too long, not too short. A little information, but short on detail. Sexy, but not slutty. Intriguing, but not weird.

And then there’s the searching through profiles. Or, what it should really be called: the Hunt. I found myself variously nodding and smiling watching the guys in Sondr talk about their journeys on gay dating apps.

It’s a rollercoaster. The racism, the body-shaming, the weirdos, the kink, the egos, the fetishists, the strict top/bottom divide (straight folks: ask your gay friends what this means). You swing from standing on your soapbox proclaiming that you’re on these apps to find a boyfriend, to just looking for a guy to get your rocks off with. You come to find that reality should probably be somewhere in the middle.

But, reader … I’ve had two long-term relationships with partners I met on gay dating apps. I kid you not: lightning can strike. And praise Jesus when it does. There are two things that make a modern gay relationship real. One: you both change your Facebook status from “Single” to “In a relationship with …” Two: you sit down, side-by-side, and delete all of the gay dating apps from your phone.

Love Is A …

Written in response to Battlefield. Directed by Timothy Marshall. 2011, Drama

I’d like to think that the title Battlefield – a contemporary snapshot of the dating scene of Aussie gay men – is a nod to the old Pat Benatar song, Love is a Battlefield. In this film, two men attempt to emotionally negotiate a one-night stand

Modern gay one-night stands, whether they start out as a date or chance meeting, are an exploration. Each of us is trying to ask the right questions, respond with the best answers. We’re both testing the waters to see what the night might become, and if there might be something beyond that one night.

You want to appear confident and sexy, but not slutty. You want to come across as normal, but also up for something a bit adventurous.

It’s a dance.

Battlefield. Timothy Marshall. 2011. Drama.

When we make it home, either to my place or yours, what’s the next move? Should we talk? Can I share some things about myself with you? Can I trust you? What do you want to know about me? What will you think when I respond? Will you think me cool? Do I sound like a nerd?

Such questions are merely the prelude to more: Who makes the first move? What are the dynamics? What do you like? What do I like? If I give you pleasure, will it be returned? Will you like my body? Am I too fat? Too skinny? Am I your type? And what about safe sex? What does that mean to you? Will we need to negotiate?

As is the case in Battlefield, sometimes a one-night stand doesn’t quite go the way you thought it might. It could have been this. It could have been that. It’s tentative and fleeting. We’re all looking for a connection, to find someone we can relate to.

Will you be that guy, if only for tonight?

And can I call you tomorrow?

Aaron Hughes is an emerging Melbourne writer with pieces featured in a range of publications. He has been the recipient of several writing prizes, including as a recent runner-up in the New Orleans Saints and Sinners Literary Festival Short Fiction Contest. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, and a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. His background includes LGBTI community services, and he is currently working in the higher-education sector. Aaron writes across a variety of genres, taking his inspiration from a variety of imaginative storytellers.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles were commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection is available for research.