Catholic schoolboys' story of love and AIDS death


Jesuit schoolboys' story of love and AIDS deathTim Conigrave and John Caleo became lovers after they met while students at a Melbourne Catholic school in the '70s. Their same-sex relationship lasted for the best part of 16 years until 1992, when John died of AIDS two years ahead of Tim. It was the focus of Holding The Man, Conigrave's posthumously-published memoir that won a United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995.

It was also listed as one of the "100 Favourite Australian Books" by the Australian Society of Authors in 2003. Earlier this month, Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company premiered Tommy Murphy's stage adaption, which has already broken box office records in its production directed by David Berthold. The already extended first season is sold out, and there is now a second season scheduled from 8 February to 3 March 2007.

Mention of the religious order teachers' tacit approval of the relationship features at an important moment in the dialogue of the play. It is contrasted with disapproval from some lay staff members. The book goes into more detail, with one of the teachers telling Tim: "Well, if it is respectful, I wish you the best." Another—a priest—leaves them to their own devices when he sees the two in bed together while away on a school retreat.

From the moment the first teacher gives their relationship his blessing, the union evolves towards respect rather than lust. Official Church and other disapproval of homosexuality do not weigh on their consciences. Guilt features only when lust and the desire to experiment threaten to undermine the foundation of their love.

Conigrave becomes restless and wants to put the relationship on hold—or perhaps end it—so that he can pursue other men who offer a greater range of sexual pleasures. Caleo responds with a wimpering, but strident and piercing, "Why would you want to?". This comes across as a moral challenge, rather than an act of selfish possession. It is particularly evocative in the powerful interaction between actors Guy Edmonds and Matt Zeremes. The play is not polemical, but it is very moral, and protective of the integrity of the relationship.

The larger-than-life portrayal of the insensitivity of John's disapproving one-eyed Catholic father, Bob, as some kind of bogeyman, sticks out. He taunts Tim by staking a claim to John's possessions while they are sitting around John, who is unconscious on his deathbed. The possessions don't matter to Tim; it's Bob's implied claim to ownership of John that hurts. Bob's choice of this moment and place for the discussion is grotesque, fitting with the prop used to depict John's emaciated body. If the pain for all concerned is meant to be, it is reminiscent of Christ's words at the Crucifixion: "It is accomplished." For Tim, it was in fact accomplished much earlier, after a particularly tender moment at the beginning of their relationship. It moved him to write in the book: "If this had been it, if I had died then, I would have said it was enough."

Bob was the beholder of the tragedy in the story (for the other main characters, it was about pain rather than tragedy). He was unable to comprehend that there had been completeness in John's short life, and that the source of the completeness had been the relationship with Tim. For him, life's purpose would have been achieved only after John had been rescued from Tim and "the homosexual thing".

Jesuit schoolboys' story of love and AIDS deathThe perceived approval by the teachers at the school had been instrumental in setting Tim and John on a path that quickly put in place their respectful relationship, and that led to the fulfillment of their lives, and their premature deaths. It was the "anything goes" decade of the '70s, when those in positions of responsibility felt free to trust their instincts. At another time, and certainly in many other Catholic schools, the tacit approval would have been not for a respectful same-sex relationship, but rather for gay-bashing school bullies. Intimidated students suppressed—and continue to suppress—their sexuality, and the consequent link with the incidence of sex abuse, is not difficult to fathom.

Holding the Man does not set out to attack the Church and those like Bob who consider themselves loyal to its teachings. Rather its purpose is to celebrate the respectful relationship of two gifted young men, as a model for others. The status of the book as a modern Australian classic has made it plain that the message has been well-received, and now the Griffin Theatre production has successfully brought Tim and John's fearlessness, infectious energy and candid humour to the stage.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Any chance of this play coming to Melbourne?
Aurora Lowe | 28 November 2006

I am certainly not homophobic, or against gay relationaships being openly celebrated, but I can't help feeling that something has been lost somewhere along the way, I mean, how often in serious drama these days would a heterosexual marriage be portrayed so positively, and as something to be celebrated?
Cathy Taggart | 29 November 2006

I disagree with you Cathy - I think heterosexual relationships have the implicit advantage of being the norm, and therefore can be represented anywhere along the spectrum of positive to negative relationships without that representation being over-analysed. I can think of a number of positively-presented straight long-term relationships that have slipped by unnoticed in various mediums - and their existence is taken for granted.

Homosexual relationships, on the other hand, are so infrequently portrayed for something other the titillation of the audience - one only need to look at terrible shows such as the "L Word" to understand that they're mostly about having and not having sex. While shows like "Queer as Folk" go some way towards portraying homosexual relationships in realistic ways (in that positive, neutral and negative aspects of these relationships are explored), it is still a program very reliant on sexual content.

I think a play that a) normalises a homosexual relationship and shows it to be no less loving and respectful than a heterosexual counterpart, and b) not solely based on sexual gratification, is incredibly important. We unfortunately still live in a society where homosexual relationships are looked down upon as "other". I think we need to be reminded that any loving and respectful relationship should be judged on its merits, not on whether both genders have been equally represented.
Marisa Pintado | 29 November 2006

I actually agree with you Marisa, but I still think there is another issue here. It's true that in the past you had to be in a heterosexual marriage to be "respectable" or even "normal", but marriage and family were never valued as something in their own right: if you gave your family life priority over your involvement in the public sphere, then as now you were likely to end up in a disadvantaged and/or devalued position.

I think this devaluing of the personal still continues in another way, in that while we may be more tolerant of different lifestyles, ALL relationships are considered to be just private concerns with little or no implication for society as a whole. While I hate to sound like either an "earth-mother" type or (worse!) the Church hierarchy, the heterosexual relationship is special in that it has the ability to produce a new life. The fact that not all heterosexual couples have children is irrelevant here: I'm talking about the significance for society as a whole.

Also, in recent times we have become very aware of how men have always been advantaged at the expense of women, and marriage is often seen in this context as being part of the problem, not the solution! Yet a marriage CAN work well, to the benefit of both partners, and I think such a marriage should be celebrated as both a model and a symbol of the possibility of positive relations between men and women.

I find it very hard to explain what I mean, so I hope I'm making sense! In any case, I think the important thing is that these sort of issues should be openly and honestly discussed.
Cathy Taggart | 29 November 2006

Ah Cathy, I understand now! I had approached my "rebuttal" of your question without putting enough significance on the first part of your original comment. In light of what you've said, I can understand now what you mean - particularly about marriage being seen as part of the problem in unequal gender relations, rather than something to be celebrated.

I would love to know where I could find a story that presents a strong, loving, respectful heterosexual union, which avoids an unequal power relationship. So I guess I reiterate your original comment?
Marisa Pintado | 29 November 2006

I realised after I posted my first comment that maybe I hadn't explained very well what I was getting at - I suppose I was acting on the assumption that a comment that was "short, sharp and straight to the point" was more likely to be read than a longer and more detailed one! Thank you for your articulate, thoughtful replies to my comments. As I said, I think it is important that these issues are publicly discussed, though I'm glad we ended up in the same place!
Cathy Taggart | 01 December 2006

I have seen this play twice now, and cried both times. There is something authentic in the portrayal of the struggle of these two gay men to find and hold onto their love, and to bravely face their deaths united and in love.
Martin Bain | 17 December 2006

Please bring this play to Melbourne! Any plans for it to come down soon!?! I am about to read the book because for some strange reason, I have been drawn to this play...I can already relate to things I have read and heard about this book and play.
Anonynous | 13 February 2007

I would like to commend the wonderful example of how to conduct discussions/make comments/air views shown by Cathy Taggart and Marisa Pintado. Instead of attacking each other or each others views, they show true charity while 'gently but firmly expressing their views. If only politicians and talk-back radio participants had half the charity and intelligence of these two. Thank you both.
Arlene Macdonald | 12 July 2007

Today I watched the movie Holding The Man. As a gay man and in a still loving relationship for 24 years with my husband I am deeply moved by this movie and still quite emotional after watching it. A beautiful movie and more importantly the lives of two beautiful people. Why the hatred is still out there in so many people for people like me and others. John and Tim RIP
Garry Lewis | 11 June 2016

I don't know which I like better the book or the movie. Both have different renditions. The movie emphasized the love and the book proved Tim's love by revealing all of his affairs that left him empty. Even when John was on his death bed Tim continued his lust escapade. Though i may not approve I can accept them. My difficulty is Tim telling John about it. I can't understand why Tim would want to hurt a dying man, especially one he undoubtedly loved. John was the anchor of their relationship. His staidness drew people to him like flies to honey. The proof of that is in the farewell barbecue. People even came from the U.S and all over Australia. John deserved a peaceful death and not one that Tim provided with telling John of his escapades. All in all I still give both the movie and the book the highest rating. I feel that, in the future, the book will become, not just an Australian classic, but a world classic Representing the tragic beginning of the AIDS era. ci vedremo lassu with John, Tim.
Robert Quade | 29 October 2016

Similar Articles

Tower of Babel

  • Meg McNena
  • 11 December 2006

Lean Cuisine and single flannelette sheets to the heaven / of anywhere else. Born for higher things, a fair share / of paradise beyond the pale of suburban confinement.


An alternative to the crude barometer of public opinion

  • Michael Ashby
  • 11 December 2006

Most political studies are poll-driven. Because qualitative data are far less likely to be available, little is known about the the political experience and imaginings of "ordinary" Australians.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up