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Saturday 11 April 2015


Decades of making a difference - Pt3

Posted in: Our Communities, HIV
By Jay Bennie - 3rd December 2014

Bruce_Kilmister_7.jpg
Bruce Kilmister
It's clear that whether it was Homosexual Law Reform, Hero, social-equality driven politics or Body Positive, Bruce Kilmister has for most of his adult life battled against legal, social and health injustice.

“I've always had what I think all kiwis have, a sense of fair play, and I thought that criminalising homosexuality just simply wasn't fair and I should do all that I could to support decriminalisation,” he explains. “I don't say that I did more than anybody else, because a huge number of people did a huge amount of work, but collectively we achieved it. And no sooner had we got law reform than we had HIV to deal with, and that seemed very unfair.”

He remembers back to the darkest years of the HIV epidemic, particularly the 1980s and '90s with distaste. “You know 'AIDS' was said to be 'Anally Injected Death Sentence' and all sorts of other acronyms that really were horrendous because they reflected the homophobia that you would hear from some people. But it was important to work through the sensibility of that and make sure that New Zealand stayed out of the extreme responses to HIV and AIDS... because we saw ridiculous situations such as in Cuba where they put people with HIV into camps, and other countries made horrendous legislation - and there are still a few who do. But New Zealand has adopted rational legislation and a fairly pragmatic view on HIV.”

“We've made wonderful progress that I really am proud about. I just took a young man from South America up to the hospital to get his blood tests done and he was telling me that they don't recognise same sex relationships in his home country, they don't provide for marriage or civil unions and it's a pretty horrible situation. We have quite a number of people looking at New Zealand and wondering how did we manage it because we are so liberal in that regard... most people today would not think of [homosexuals] today in the way they would have twenty or thirty years ago. That said, there are still one or two ghettos of homophobia and they still have to be challenged.”

One important bastion of homophobia has been the Auckland City Council. Historically it has had more periods of hostility to its glbti citizens and ratepayers than periods of inclusiveness. It has been frequently dominated by conservative-leaning councillors under sway to religious conservatives such as long-time councillor deputy mayor David Hay, and Noeleen Raffills and her husband the late Phil Raffills.

And the country's gayest city has swung wildly between liberal mayoralties such as under Dame Cath Tizzard and – eventually – Dick Hubbard. The extreme anti-gay stance of Les Mills and more recently John Banks have also too often made the council an unassailable bastion of open or barely suppressed homophobia.

Kilmister entered that political bear pit, elected for several terms as a community board member, part of the Council's grass roots system of devolving just a little power and influence to a lower tier of representatives of the citizenry.

He regularly leveraged that position to prod elements of the council bureaucracy into pro-glbti equality action. “For instance, I remember when I was doing the first ever Auckland City Council civic event at the Town Hall for the gay community, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of homosexual law reform. Some of the councillors were mortified. In the end I had to find the money for it... it's the only Auckland City civic event that the council hasn't funded, we had to find the money ourselves to get the council just to agree to it.”

“But things have moved on from then. Now we have the mayors and prime ministers coming to gay events, because they recognise that we are part of this wonderful, diverse New Zealand community. But more that,” he smiles wryly, “we are votes.”

Particularly in his time at Body Positive Kilmister has had to focus on the small and personal as well as the broad and political. Too many people with HIV struggle with difficult and complex lives, fighting health, personal and social stigma issues. They are one of the main reasons Body Positive exists, with it's mandate to help, often with only the most meagre resources to hand and an all but empty bank account.

“People still come here and present with a range of tragic circumstances and I suppose because I've been doing it so long now I'm just so used to it. I'm fed up with people being discriminated against or being confused as to the help that they should be able to access as of right and their being made to feel like some sort of second class citizen. The prime job of Body Positive is to help people who do need support and unfortunately the gay community is not known for it's generosity. It's certainly known for its sometimes narcissistic enjoyments and there's nothing wrong for that but we have to remember that there are people within our community who are not privileged, who are not well-educated, who are not employed, who are not sufficiently nourished or housed and we have to find the conscience of the community to bring those people along with us. I like to think that that's what Body Positive has been able to offer some people.”

“The most rewarding part of this job is when you see someone who has been an absolute basket cast, after a certain amount of time they have taken stock of their lives, they've re-engaged with humanity, they've found employment and accommodation and they are starting to enjoy life again. It's quite amazing.”

While he has been general Manager of Body Positive dealing with boards and funding and the big issues, he also has to deal with problems at the coal face, assisting with HIV tests, using his own car to get HIV-positive people to medical and other appointments, sitting in on their meeting with often intransigent and sometimes downright unhelpful WINZ and other social agency case managers.

His years of knowledge of how to go up against cold and impersonal systems are put to good use. “Just simply sitting in with them with bureaucrats and talking in a language that the support agency people can understand... sometimes it seems an alien language from the point of view of the person who is experiencing difficulties and they often aren't the best person to advocate for themselves because they are experiencing depression or deprivation and they have some real problems. We've been given the privilege of earning that person's trust, learning what their real problem is and assisting where we can. From drugs and alcohol to HIV to other STDs to social issues, and everything else that makes up the fabric of life.”

Increasingly, durfing his time at Body Positive, Kilmister has become one of the people most often publicly identified as being HIV-positive. He's on every newsroom' and feature writer's HIV-related contact list and makes himself available for public comment when most people with HIV hide their status, fearing the all too real stigmatisation and denigration being openly HIV-positive can attract, even in this day and age.

How has being so openly HIV positive affected his personal life? Kilmister laughs. “It's certainly not good for my sex life, I can tell you that. Initially I was a bit horrified when the NZ Herald ran a full article with a big picture of me, all about being HIV-positive. Then I thought 'Well, now it's out there, I am going to have to live with that and do the best I can.' I guess because of the stigma of HIV which others feel it's one of those things that people are reluctant to come forward with and I admire those who are brave enough to voluntarily stick their necks out.

Not every gay man with HIV is able to come out about being gay let alone having HIV. “I feel particularly sad for the young guys who are HIV-positive because they are re-closeted all over again, like we were decades ago about our sexuality. Too often the young ones just simply don't discuss it and that's especially sad.

Kilmister sees a changing future for the way HIV positive people fit into, and are perceived by, the wider community. “I think the HIV-positive population, although small in New Zealand, will have to follow the same way as I see the positive populations in, say, Australia or America or the UK where they become bigger and bigger populations because more and more people are becoming infected and more and more people are living well with it. And that will start to normalise it to the extent that people will think of HIV no more than what we think of syphilis today in that it's something that we don't want but it's certainly something we can deal with and we can certainly control it. Normalising it to the extent of it not being an impediment in our lives any more and not stopping us from achieving our dreams or certainly pursuing happiness."

Over two decades Kilmister has been one of the anchors of Body Positive, to the point that it's occasional detractors accuse it of being 'Bruce Kilmister's fiefdom.' That's an exaggerated and denigrating charge but hidden beneath the rhetoric is a kernel of truth. To a considerable extent the organisation has developed around Kilmister's passions and energy, the man and the organisation have too easily seemed to be one.

“I suppose it's just been my dogged determination that we will succeed and that we will be a success story, not only for body Positive but the people living with HIV,” he reflects. “And perhaps that's been partly my downfall because I've been here for over twenty years and on reflection that probably was too long. I'm delighted now that I have what I think is a board with the strength and energy to take Body Positive on into a new era, I'm delighted to see Mark Fisher appointed to replace me because I think he's got the intelligence and energy to do it.”

As he clears his office Kilmister feels one of his greatest achievements is that “Body Positive is in the position where it can attract the talent it needs, it can remunerate a CEO of some standing like Mark. And whilst it's not well funded and uses what funding it gets very wisely, it can take its place and make sure that the voice of people living with HIV is heard because I am not one of those people that allow others to tell me what I should do with my life.”

“I say 'This is how I am going to live my life and this is how you can help me.' And I want that for other people with HIV. I don't want anyone to be compromised in any way at all because of HIV.”



Jay Bennie - 3rd December 2014

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