This film chronicles the short lives of two Australian gay men from their teenage years into the AIDS epidemic. Following the perspective of Timothy Conigrave (Ryan Corr), the audience witnesses the beginning of his relationship with John Caleo (Craig Scott) at an all-boys school in Melbourne during the 1970s. The two lead distinctly different lives: Timothy is a typical, sexually charged teenager involved in theatre, while John is a subdued, Catholic rugby player. With the help of three female friends, Tim finds himself kissing John at a private dinner party, beginning a stereotypically endearing teenage romance. Alas, their idyll dissolves with John’s father’s discovery of a love letter. He forbids the two from seeing each other, but being typical teenagers, the two disregard his wishes. They continue to date into college. While John is content with their relationship, Timothy expresses his desire to branch out, both in his romantic and professional lives. He applies to and is accepted by NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) and asks John for a separation while there. Tim, now unencumbered by a relationship, sleeps around in a montage of homoerotic encounters. Eventually Tim and John get back together, but their relationship, like those of most other homosexual men at that time, has become haunted by an insidious illness: HIV. On a seemingly routine check in 1985, both men are diagnosed positive. They assume that John was infected first given his worse lab values; however, Tim returns to his parents’ place for a wedding a few years later only to discover from the Red Cross that he was likely positive in 1981. Tim and John spend roughly the next decade in and out of the hospital, John’s condition being markedly worse than Tim’s. John dies in 1992. Tim is acknowledged as a “friend” in the funeral to appease John’s religious family despite their 15-year-long relationship. Having worked as a writer and activist since leaving NIDA, Tim makes use of his skill to write a memoir with John as the subject. Tim completes the memoir in 1994 Italy and dies ten days later.


Holding the Man richly details the experiences of Western gay cis men during the harrowing years of the AIDS crisis. Conigrave’s perspective relates a journey of realization about the reality of HIV, shifting rapidly from strange rumors to impending death. The sexual liberation he sought in his youth resulted in calamity. Life-altering, here essentially life-defining, diseases did not afflict young adults; a cure for tuberculosis had already become mainstream, polio was then preventable, and cancer was a thing of the elderly, of the future. The Sword of Damocles sliced clean through the illusion of invulnerability gifted to Western youth by modern medicine.               

Furthermore, the story bears great implications regarding infectious disease education and misinformation. Given the bog of information available to a society without Internet access, cis gay men were liable to ignore most reports for fear that the source was not credible. Many saw the claims for abstinence and condom-use as an extension of sexual repression, refusing to acknowledge their potential validity in protest. Although far from being universally representative, Tim and John’s experience shapes one of many archetypal narratives during the AIDS crisis.                

Beyond its relevance to HIV and other communicable diseases, this film provides a wonderful discourse on heteronormativity, a concept primarily disseminated by queer theorist Michael Warner to describe assumptions of cis-straight existences as being the standard. Tim’s acting professor at NIDA badgered him incessantly about presenting himself as a “leading man,” meaning a straight man. Likely speaking from experience and a sense of paternal duty, the educator acknowledges the near-universal code-switching historically required by queer people to appear less queer in certain spaces. This social expectation has lessened greatly for cis queer people, yet many trans and genderqueer individuals still face serious, sometimes lethal, repercussions when they do not conform to this standard, oftentimes even when they do. Trans people, and trans women of color in particular, experience the worst bigotry and violence of any other queer demographic in the modern United States. Hidden behind the identity politics of “bathroom bills,” heteronormativity allows for widespread, unmitigated violence against trans individuals, infamously known as trans bashing.

The merits of this film are innumerable. It tackles challenging topics with the charm of Australian accents, lovable characters, and youthful energy. Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo could have been anyone in our lives. Instead, they have become immortalized due to the tragedy of their circumstances. Of the thousands of narratives that disappeared during the AIDS crisis, theirs rests among the handful that survived. We would be remiss not learning from this story that could have easily been buried in an unmarked grave.




Transmission Films

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Based on

Holding the Man