#RoleModelReading: An interview with Jacob Boehme

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

In the preview video for Jacob Boehme’s one-person show Blood on the Dance Floor, there is a moment where he bares his chest to the audience and shouts, voice packed with rage, You clean? It is the crescendo of a sequence demonstrating the question’s ubiquity in gay nightclub settings at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Boehme presents ‘You clean?’ as a quick, obligatory and loaded rite—ideally, but not always, resolved prior to the moment of consent.

The question, ultimately, is about blood. What is or isn’t in it, what it augurs, what it should or should not give way to. And blood, in more than this sense alone, is at the heart of Boehme’s show. Boehme, seen above on the left with his partner Stephen Borg (photo by Sarah Churcher), is a choreographer, dancer and writer from the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia, and the show pays homage to the ceremonies of Boehme’s ancestors while dissecting the politics of being gay, Blak and HIV positive.

Illness, wellness, heredity and individuality form huge parts of what it means to ‘be a man’ in every culture. It can sound simple, too, to be strong and well, to bring pride to one’s family, to walk your own path. Of course it’s not, and when you are indigenous in a postcolonial country, gay in a nation rife with homophobia, and HIV positive in a society still senseless with misinformation about AIDS, negotiating masculinity and finding a dependable sense of self is that much harder, let alone when you find your way through dance.

This interview with Jacob takes place ahead of his show’s season at the 2017 Sydney Festival and traverses role models, dance, identity, conflicting masculinities and surviving and living with what was once thought of as a death sentence. Enjoy.

Who was your first role model? Do you remember why?

I’d have to say that my first role models were my maternal grandparents. A lot of my earliest memories are of being with them. Both my parents worked so I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who taught me the ABCs while I was still in my highchair, and just as much time with my grandmother drilling elocution into me.

When you think of the years that were formative to your sense of self, be it to the man you are now or earlier incarnations of you, where do they fall in your life and why?

Two instances spring to mind. One, when I was in kindergarten, they’d make us sing that rhyme, ‘Farmer picks a wife’. So one kid would be the farmer, then he’d pick a wife, then she’d pick a cow, then the cow would choose a goat and you’d go through the whole farm of animals until all the kids were skipping around ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ style. One morning a boy in the kindergarten group chose me as the wife. And I remember that I felt so happy that he liked me. And I remember the kindergarten teachers having conniptions because apparently that’s not how the game was supposed to work. It was the first seed of doubt planted in my mind about brotherly love and rules around it.

Two, I entered primary school the next year and for the first six months, older school kids would bail me up in the toilets and call me a girl and a sissy. So then, I learned the cruelty my brethren were capable of and the expectations and limitations of boyhood.

What values or behaviours do you remember being encouraged to aspire to or live out in order to become or be a man?

Don’t cry.

What was the earliest kind of person you wanted to be?

I wanted to draw just as good as my dad. I used to humbug him all the time to draw for me. He would draw portraits and cartoons of people that I would point out on the television. I have a vivid memory of sitting right on top of him watching and waiting, waiting for him to finish a cartoon of ABBA that I asked him to draw.

How did you come to discover the creative arts, and how has being a choreographer, dancer and writer changed your values or sense of yourself, positively or otherwise?

My older step-brother is a musician. We used to be his ‘rock band’ when we were kids. He’d appoint each of us roles—I was always on air guitar. And then we’d rehearse and perform a concert to our folks and their friends in the back shed. Our concert always consisted of a mixtape of KISS, Queen and sometimes a bit of Alice Cooper or Black Sabbath.

I was directed to dance by Boon Wurrung Elder N’arwee’t Aunty Carolyn Briggs. She pointed me toward NAISDA. I started my dance career late—when I was twenty-two. It was there at NAISDA, under the direction and guidance of Song men and Song women, that a multiplicity of identities started to merge: the artist, Aboriginal, gay, fair-skinned, son, dreamer, brother, all essential and interconnected.

Was their friction in your life between personal or masculine identities—for example, between your knowledge of yourself as a Narangga and Kaurna man and the social norms of white Australia, or between yourself as a gay man and the expectations of an often homophobic society, let alone a racist one?

Aaaaahhhhhh yeh! All of the above. The biggest hurdle is overcoming the internalised homophobia and racism that societal attitudes inflict. When you hear it enough, when you’re accused of being ‘the other’ enough, when ‘the other’ is freely vilified on the street, in the press, on the television and in popular culture, the hardest thing is to try and not let your self-hatred turn on your comrades, who are also being attacked. The friction, or the battle within, becomes a war between hate and love. We can be so quick to jump to conclusions, opinions, conspiracies, paranoia, suspicion and fear. Hatred is the easy victor. Love takes a lot more time … and work.

How did being diagnosed as HIV positive affect your sense of self, your sense of your body and what was or would be meaningful in your life?

I was diagnosed HIV+ in 1998. Pills were changing, but there was still a sense that it was terminal. It hadn’t quite flipped yet into being considered a manageable chronic illness. The first specialist HIV doctor that I’d been referred to got quite annoyed with me when I questioned why he was prescribing me medications and expecting me to just take them when I knew nothing about them. I kept questioning him and he said to me, exasperated, “Well do you want another ten years or not?”

That was my introduction to HIV. That, and the man I met out on the balcony at the HIV clinic, waiting to see the doctor. He was wheeled out onto the balcony, an oxygen tank strapped to the wheel chair, covered in lesions. He lit a cigarette and sucked oxygen from a mask in between drags on his smoke.

Back then I thought I’d seen a glimpse of my future. All at once it shocked me into a declaration that that wouldn’t be me and instigated a six-year ride into self-destruction. I, in that traumatised response, thought I’d take matters into my own hands and do the Grim Reaper’s job myself, before the virus could. It took a while to figure out I could invest the same amount of time and energy into self-preservation and ambition, rather than succumb to self-destruction and defeat.

I watched the trailer on your website for Blood on the Dance Floor. The final scene—you clean?—was incredibly powerful. I was hoping you might talk about that fury and where it now rests in you, how perhaps it informed your decision to create Blood, even how it might give you purpose now that you’ve lived with it for a time.

I’m still furious. It infuriates me that gay men (not all) are top-of-the-list offenders when it comes to discrimination against people living with HIV. This fury drove me to write Blood on the Dance Floor.

A lot of time has been spent on educating (mostly) gay men about negotiating sex. Just sex. HIV campaigns—the posters, the booklets, the advertising is almost always just about sex. Even today. The conversation, until now led by gay white men for gay white men, hasn’t changed. And with that same conversation comes the same fear and shame and anger around HIV. You only have to go online—gay dating apps—to see that. I’d like to see a conversation about negotiating love.

Why did you turn to your ancestors in your time of crisis? What did that look like?

Research into epigenetic studies has proven we hold memories in our blood. Our flight or fight responses are already coded into our DNA, drawing on the lives and memories of our ancestors. It was instinct, pure instinct. I didn’t have to really turn anywhere. They’re already with me, inside me, part of me. If you want a visual, though, when I began writing Blood on the Dance Floor, I asked a nurse to draw a couple of vials of my blood for me to take home. I shopped around for a vessel to store my blood in and found a beautiful miniature crystal decanter in an op shop. I poured my blood into the crystal decanter and kept it on my writing desk as I wrote the script, as a visual reminder, that this story wasn’t just about me.

What have your relationships with men been like over the years, compared to your relationships with women?

I come from a family of very strong women, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. My mentors, my guides, my champions, have always been women. For a long time I viewed men as either potential lovers or enemies. They either wanted to fuck me or fuck me over. It wasn’t until my mid to late thirties that my relationships with men changed. It wasn’t until I grew comfortable in my own skin that I was able to sit with men as equals and not see my brothers as competition—in sex or work or life.

Who would you have encouraged yourself to look up, whose behaviour to aspire to, if you were a boy or teenager today? Whose words would you give yourself?

Uncle Brian Claudie, Uncle John Romeril, Uncle Larry Walsh, Uncle Jon Hawkes … these are just four names of men who I am encouraged by now. They exemplify in their own ways, ways of living, believing, thinking and being that I aspire to.

What do you value most? What do you love?

Time. Not in a “we’re all gonna die, better make the most of it” kind of way. Although I have a very strong drive to see and experience what this world has to offer, across all its corners. And that does need time. But I mean time to just be with myself, to sit with people, to be with the ones I love, time to learn and think and love and do and dream. That’s all.

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