‘Holding the Man‘ is the quintessential Australian love story most Australians probably never heard of.
Timothy Conigrave’s autobiographical book is a touching personal story of his life and love, John Caleo.
The title of the book is a reference to a rule in Australian Rules Football against holding or tackling another player who does not have the ball, which attracts a free kick as a penalty.
John was a star footballer at Xavier College, an all-boys Jesuit Catholic school in Melbourne, captaining the school’s team.
He was also an avid fan of the Essendon Football Club, another reason why Tim decided to use the term as the book’s title.
“On the far side of the crush I noticed a boy. I saw the body of a man with an open, gentle face: such softness within that masculinity. He was beautiful, calm. I was transfixed.
He wasn’t talking, just listening to his friends with his hands in his pockets, smiling. What was it about his face? He became aware that I was looking at him and greeted me with a lift of his eyebrows. I returned the gesture and then looked away, pretending something had caught my attention. But I kept sneaking looks. It’s his eyelashes. They’re unbelievable.“
Tim and John met as young teens in the mid-70s at Xavier College and embarked on an epic, and ultimately tragic, journey of love over 15 years.
“John Caleo, will you go round with me?”
The boys graduated from Xavier College in 1977. Tim went on to Monash University and John studied to be a chiropractor. Despite their parents’ disapproval, Tim’s move to Sydney to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and youthful indiscretions, their relationship continued.
In 1985, when Tim and John finally moved in together in Sydney, tragedy struck. They were both diagnosed with HIV. In the autumn of 1991 John begun to deteriorate, suffering from lymphoma. Tim continued to care for John while dealing with emerging symptoms of his own.
The book is a raw account of the destructive progress of HIV/AIDS. The reader is spared nothing as John fades away before Tim’s eyes. John passed away on Australia Day in 1992 with Tim by his side, gently stroking his hair …
Tim himself died shortly after finishing ‘Holding the Man’ in 1994. The book was published in 1995 just a few months after his death.
To us, the story of Tim and John highlights the need for the full social acceptance of LGBTI people and their loving relationships, and the legalisation of marriage equality.
The book was later turned into an award-winning, critically acclaimed stage-play and now a movie. The movie opens on 27 August.