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Sunday 11 October 2009

Josh tells his story at Chch's Candlelight

Posted in: True Stories
By Josh Chapman - 19th May 2008

Josh Chapman
22-year-old Wellingtonian Josh Chapman was invited to speak at Christchurch's AIDS Candlelight Memorial last night. He took the opportunity to honour his late father, and remind us why he puts himself out there as a 'Poster Boy'. Here's the full transcript of his speech.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

My name is Josh Chapman. Most of you may know me as the 'Boy Next Door' of the Safe Sex Poster Boy campaign. I have been asked to give a speech for the HIV Candlelight Memorial here in Christchurch tonight, because of what I have been through in my life, because I and also the people that I work with feel that I have something powerful and moving to contribute, and also to remember those that we have lost to HIV/AIDS.

What I thought that I would talk about tonight is personal. I will be letting you all know why I am here.

The reason I want to talk about this is because I hope that my message - my story, can at least be passed on to people and taken on board. So that our community will understand why we push our message of keeping ourselves and each other safe.

Part One - My Dad

My Father was Peter Bryce Holtom; Born January 21st 1959 in Auckland. Quite a few of the older gay community knew my dad while he was alive. A number knew him prior to being diagnosed positive and many after. I'd like to thank all of them for their support in what I am doing in his memory.

Now we always refer to my dad as being a gay man, although he was married, and had fathered myself and my two brothers. For a closeted gay man, this was common in the late '80s early '90s. Regardless of all that, my family, his friends and I choose to remember him as our father, husband, brother, son and dear friend. He had his misgivings but his love for us all is how we choose to think about him now.

He grew up in a time where homosexuality, whether talked about or in action was taboo, and it was illegal. There was a stereotypical image of gay men that was portrayed in many ways; flamboyant, effeminate, sex-driven, and in a lot of cases, was misconstrued as living a 'perverted' way of life. Because of this, my dad was never able to identify himself as gay and the mere suggestion – as was often raised by mum – was met with hostility and in many cases, domestic violent rages.

The other thing that was prevalent in the '70s, '80s and early '90s was the lack of understanding; not only from society but also from the medical professions and health organisations. Education around safe sex was minimal, and what was known was that what diseases you could catch were treatable.

Vague rumours in bathhouses, saunas and social gatherings in the '80s spoke of a 'Gay Cancer', and it was not fully understood how or why it was spread. This all will have played a part in how my dad's fate was sealed; to be a gay man in hiding – being out of the loop of knowledge of how one would stay protected.


From the records that were kept, we believe my dad contracted the virus about 1989. My youngest brother was conceived later that year, and either by pure luck, some marvel of the human body protecting mother and baby, or because the virus had not progressed as far through his system; my mum and youngest brother did not contract the virus.

The last few years of dad's life were when we spent more happy times with him. He came back to live with us up in the far north shortly after being diagnosed, and then out to Cable Bay, when us kids got a little too much for him, he only ever could handle us one at a time. And then he moved back to Auckland when doctors up there weren't able to help him. He lived in several places in Auckland with his partner Gavin. Some people who knew him would remember they had a tornado bowl through their house in August 1992, followed by a house-fire in 1993. And through all this he was quite colourfully vocal about 'anyone up there' not giving him any helping hands when it came to tragedy. He'd been dealt some pretty hard cards in his life and he just kept trucking through it until the end.

When my father died on October 25th 1994 of HIV/AIDS, I was 8 years old, my younger brothers Ben and Sam were 7 and 4 respectively. My Mum and Dad had been separated for almost two years at this time. What caused their separation back then I feel I can pinpoint down to my father's lack of ability to accept an identity, as he never admitted to his family and friends what was truly going on inside his head – or what was going on inside his heart.

With Dad passing away, Mum, my brothers and I were subjected to numerous tests to confirm our HIV negative status, as well as going through several sessions of lengthy counselling. We were suddenly absorbing a greater knowledge of what HIV was, how it can be prevented and that there were treatments coming available. Sadly this was all too late to have extended my dad's life. This is where I first remember thinking and hearing 'Prevention is your best protection'.

Part Two - Me

Now I was only just realising my own sexual identity around 8 – 10 years old, but I had a lot of information to process. I still had no idea what a 'sexual identity' was, my mum had clues about me but could see I was trying to make sense of it, so without pushing it she let me discover it for myself. Over the following few years I was exposed to variations of homosexuality, and like my dad I found nothing in what I encountered as anything remotely similar to something I could identify with. What I found I did not like – in fact I detested it; confronted with this identity I fell into a downward spiral of depression.

With my dad's passing, I had been robbed of someone important in my life, especially when I saw other people taking their parents for granted. My dad could have helped me understand who I was, given me some insight in to what my future would be like. But I was destined to face this myself, face things on my own and I know that I have grown stronger from that.

It wasn't until I was living back with my mum and my brothers from 2000 that I began to start realising that I don't have to follow the same paths as the people I'd encountered – I don't even have to follow the same path that my dad went down. I can love myself and I can be true to myself and the people who actually matter in this world to me weren't bothered or offended by this; in fact they supported me in anything that I did so long as I was happy.

I came out to my mum when I was 16 in October 2002, I'd come out to a few friends before that and knew I had some support there should things go wrong. This was just paranoia of a belief that I wasn't going to be accepted for who I was, just like I knew dad must have felt. In the end which I already knew deep down, my fears were unfounded; I found in my mother a wealth of amazing support and knowledge, and from this our relationship went from more than mother and son, to best friends. With being felt accepted at home by my family, I then felt able to look forward to my future.

I moved to Wellington at age 18 in 2004, and I met my ex, Phillip, through friends. From early 2005 we were officially dating. We even went through an 'abstinence' period where we didn't sleep together for a month, just so we knew we weren't after each other just because of sex. I think this built up a false sense of security for us two, because when we did start sleeping together condoms were only used the first couple of times. I don't even remember why we stopped using them and this happens a lot in young relationships. We had the best of intentions, but in the end that could have cost us our quality of life.

I don't regret what Phillip and I had, An English Poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson said;

"'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all"

I have learned from our actions, and I can pass on this message to others, in the hope that they will also be able to hear my message, and protect themselves also.

The thing I know now is I did have power of control back then to prevent something like that from ever occurring. If we had been using condoms, then there would be almost no risk to either of our health.

Josh as a Safe Sex Poster Boy
Part Three - Now

I now feel that with unsafe sex you literally put your life in the hands of the other person. If they make a mistake, however slight – this can have life-long consequences.

What I am saying is not in anyway meant to undermine trust in relationships. I understand that there are couples out in our community where negotiated safety is their own choice and I respect that. That is their decision. What I want to do is help educate those couples who do not have what they do.

I decided to get involved in our community with Gay Men's Health and with the NZAF because of all that has happened in my life. I've been raised by my Mum and Dad to believe that everything happens for a reason. I believe that by looking at what has happened in the past, we learn from to protect ourselves. And by protecting ourselves we also protect those whom we love from experiencing that same loss. What I never want for my dad is for him to be another statistic, just another person who died from HIV/AIDS.

If I can do everything I can to push HIV awareness in his memory – especially when so many cases are where transmission was preventable – then he is still with me, living on through me. HIV Awareness means we are mindful that the virus still exists in our community. You all know that just because HIV positive people are not dying in our faces like they were in the 80's and 90's does not mean that the virus is any less terminal than it was 20 or 30 years ago. It's a hard struggle, I know – I've seen it. What we need to do is remember those who we have lost to HIV, cherish the memories that we have of them, do good work in their name, volunteer our services to help those that need it. This is all we have left of them.

Doing this as I said, their lives will not be lost in vain. They will be proud of us, I know in my heart my dad would be of me.

Thank you.

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Josh Chapman - 19th May 2008