Queers of the Desert

Eric Michaels

© Empress Publishing.
I clearly remember the first time I met Eric. It was the same day as I arrived to live in Alice Springs; August 11, 1984. Not that we were strangers. We had been corresponding in the months before I left Sydney and established that not only would we both be gay men living in Central Australia, but that we would both be researchers working with Aboriginal people. Quite a coincidence! 

Eric was so keen to meet me that he appeared at my hosts' house within hours of my arrival and dragged me round to the Gap Hotel for a drink. I can still vividly recall watching the replay of the Los Angeles Olympics closing ceremony while listening to his critique of his own American culture.

Although we got along well and maintained a long friendship and professional association, we were never very close. He would drop into my office when in town, or I would bump into him at a party or on a field trip to Yuendumu. On a few occasions I was lucky enough to hear him speak on Indigenous arts at conferences. Eric's perceptions and analyses were quite brilliant.


In the foreword of Eric's diary, Paul Foss summarised his career in these terms:

"After finishing his doctorate, Eric accepted a fellowship from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra to research the impact of television on remote Aboriginal communities - eventually published as The Aboriginal Invention of Television, 1982-86 (Canberra, AIAS, 1986). He remained in the Central/ Western Desert region where he involved himself in claims by Aboriginal media associations for increased local autonomy in video production and circulation (cf. "Aboriginal Content: Who's Got It - Who Needs It", Art & Text, 23-24, 1987; and For a Cultural Future: Francis Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu, Melbourne, Art & Criticism Monograph Series, Vol. 3, 1988). At the same time, Eric became interested in the new acrylic 'dot paintings' carried out at Yuendumu and Papunya, occasioning the essays "Western Desert Sandpainting and Post-Modernism" (in Warlukurlangu Artists, Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors, Canberra, AIAS, 1987) and "Bad Aboriginal Art" (Art & Text, 28, 1988). With these writings, exemplary in their refusal to romanticise indigenous cultures, Eric gained a wide following in Australia for his non-ethnographic approach to Aboriginal video and art."

Michaels, E. (1990).Unbecoming: an AIDS diary. Sydney: Empress Publishing. pp. 12-13.

But, what distinguished Eric's life as much as his brilliant career was its end. Eric was one of the first known residents of Central Australia to die with AIDS. And, in typical style, he did that in a very public and assertive fashion by documenting the last months of his life in a diary that was to be published after he had gone. Unbecomingis a remarkable volume. It is a confronting, 'warts and all' account of what seems like everything he did and said and thought as the virus took its final toll.


Eric left the region before his death, presumably to seek treatment, and ended up in Brisbane. From there he reflected on many things, including his life as an isolated gay man in Central Australia:

"16 February 1988.
At Yuendumu, something else happened, over time. In the beginning, I would arrange to get down to Sydney every few months for a weekend, and then, look out Daddies! I knew what cowboys felt like when they got into Dodge after months on the range. I barely had time to talk. Curiously, during three years of this, I barely met anybody (except Martin), never was invited home, went to any parties, etc. etc. The fault was mine; I didn't have time to date. When back in the bush, I carefully nurtured a small gay video collection (safer than magazines), and used to cherish the rare occasions of privacy that provided an opportunity to jerk off to them (privacy soon becomes the most cherished and rare commodity for the modern Westerner living in most tribal societies). I developed quite elaborate relationships with my video images. But over time, even this novelty wore off. Something curious happened also to my appearance; I stopped posing in mirrors or considering my 'cosmetology'. I felt quite liberated in some sense, acknowledged that what mirrors were available was the community itself, and yet I was limited in my ability to read those mirrors. By the end of the fieldwork, my gay identity was problematised and backgrounded in ways I never could have imagined, let alone tolerated, five years before. It has made the transition to enforced celibacy easier."

Michaels, E. (1990).Unbecoming: an AIDS diary. Sydney: Empress Publishing. p. 100.

As the end drew close Eric entertained the possibility of coming 'home' to die:

"10 August 1988.
Lots of good local and bushy gossip. Jim B. was there just back from the Hobart AIDS conference. He tells me about this Michael somebody from San Francisco who has been at terminal stage for three years and, with massive doses of bactrim, treats it merely as a chronic illness, and keeps on keeping on. I told Jim I didn't know if that seemed such an attractive prospect, staring yet again at the blank walls of Wattlebrae as I spoke. Then, after the phone call, I thought: Why not go to Alice Springs? Even if I die getting there, the project still has more style than lying here and being bored to death. There really are a full dozen people there who would take on some responsibility for me, the AIDS group is Jim and my friends, the aesthetics are appealing - it would sure be cheaper than Sydney. So I indulged a fantasy of Buckell driving me out, lying in the back of the stationwagon, watching the desert go by again, getting to Alice Springs and receiving in state for the few weeks left. Even if by doing this I cut off a few possible days or weeks extra, it seems worth it. I sure can't motivate any optimism for continuing on like this here in Brisbane, but a few extra weeks might seem worth it in Alice."

Michaels, E. (1990).Unbecoming: an AIDS diary. Sydney: Empress Publishing. Pp. 184-185.

I doubt Eric realised it at the time, but his announcement sent those of us involved in the then Central Australian AIDS Action Group into a major spin.

As far as we knew Jim would soon be driving to Brisbane to collect Eric and bring him back to see out his remaining days. Various strategies were discussed and a quick succession of phone calls and meetings ensued.

We canvassed a range of options for his accommodation, settling on the offer of a caravan in someone's back yard as the best option available. And then we waited for the call to tell us that the arrangements had been made at the other end and he was ready to be collected.

© Empress Publishing.

But, the call that finally came was simply to tell us that it was all over. The wild idea to return to the desert was actually the final entry Eric made in his diary. He died two weeks later on 24 August, 1988.

The last image of Eric shows the ravages of Kaposi's Sarcoma; a rare form of skin cancer prevalent in the early years of the epidemic. It is almost unheard of these days thanks to advances in treatments. It is definitely a shocking image, but one that Eric chose to be published as his final one. As well as a clinical photo to evidence his ultimate reality, it was also clearly one last opportunity for him to poke his tongue out at the world.

After his death a group of Eric's friends and colleagues from Yuendumu and Alice Springs produced an AIDS quilt in his memory.

Eric's significant contribution to Aboriginal and media studies are also remembered through some online publications including the Web Archive in Visual Anthropology which has published his doctoral thesis;Tribal TV, and a complete issue of Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture published in 1990.

John Hobson

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