Geoff Ruaine

Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer

Photo courtesy Geoff Ruaine
Photo courtesy Geoff Ruaine

Boom! What is that loud sound? “Are we under attack?” I ask my charming friend, Geoff Ruaine. This is my first time to The Lord of the Rings land. We’ve just stepped onto the street, having toured the newly built Auckland Art Gallery, an architectural achievement in Albert Park, when we hear this explosive caboom. He tells me that it’s the cannon that sets off each noon from Princes Wharf here in Auckland, New Zealand.

Geoff Ruaine (pronounced Roo-ah-ee-neh) has worked in the field of HIV education for a decade and has been living with HIV for two decades. He lives in Hamilton, New Zealand, about 110 km (eighty miles) from Auckland. (New Zealanders drive on the other side of the road from us Americans, too.) Geoff is of Maori descent and is currently in his final semester of his Bachelor of Nursing degree program. Geoff’s favorite film is The Color Purple and Patti Labelle [A&U, June 2005] is his hero. “She blows me away with her outrageous look and raw energy and her voice lifts my soul to a higher place. She’s an AIDS advocate and has worked tirelessly for the cause for many years.”

Finishing up our day together, we amble down colorful Queen Street to Victoria Street and the towering President Hotel, smack dab in the heart of town, where I have set my fanny for this jaunt Down Under. The building is one of the oldest in Auckland and was a former insurance company. As we enter the casual businesslike lobby, the ever-so-helpful Bruce MacPherson greets us from behind the front desk. Geoff sees me to the elevator and departs. On the way up to my room I encounter Eric Po, the manager, who inquires if I am pleased with my room. Damn tootin’! My pleasant spacious suite has two stunning views of vibrant downtown skyscrapers and even a hefty-size kitchenette.

The next morning, Geoff joins me for breakfast at the hotel’s ambiance-drenched Watergate Licensed Restaurant. Afterwards we taxi over to Auckland Domain, a massive multi-purpose park where the Auckland War Memorial Museum stands. It’s such an exquisite sunny day we just park our rumps on the neoclassical steps of the museum. The museum’s name is misleading as it houses many exhibits including Maori history and culture.

Ruby Comer: Geoff, tell me again about your ancestry. I’m fascinated by it.
Geoff Ruaine:
I am a Libran Earth Monkey of Polynesian descent. My mother is New Zealand Maori from the Te Arawa and Tainui tribes and my father is Cook Islands Maori from the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Mangaia. I identify as takatapui [NZ Maori and gay] and akava’ine [Cook Islands Maori and gay].

What roots you have! Since 1992 you’ve been HIV-positive and you’ve been straightforward about your choice back then to have unprotected sex. Can you elaborate?
In 1992 I went to New York City where I met and fell in love with a gorgeous Puerto Rican man. We don’t have Puerto Ricans in New Zealand; we have Polynesians, who are a different type of gorgeous! When we got down to it, he asked to make love without a condom. Knowing the risks, I took my chance and chose not to use condoms. I came into contact with HIV through this encounter but did not get diagnosed until four years later when I got shingles on my left shoulder. Do I blame this man? No. There is no blame for my actions, only consequences.

Talk about evolved…good for you. How did you handle the diagnosis?
It was a shock at first, but I accepted it very early on, which was the best thing I could’ve done—plus I told my family straight away….

You did?! My, what closeness you must share with them. What was their reaction?
They love and accept me unconditionally. I am truly blessed, Ruby. We knew nothing about HIV so I got to educate them while educating myself. Without them I probably would’ve handled it differently.

Soon after being diagnosed in August of 1996 I completed the Positive Speakers Bureau training workshop sponsored by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. At first I thought there is no way I could stand in front of a room full of strangers and tell my life story. But after doing the workshop I felt confident that I could make a difference, especially to my own Maori and Polynesian people. My first speaking engagement was to a room full of noisy Pacific Islander students. As soon as I disclosed my HIV status you could have heard a pin drop! [He momentarily looks out at the energetic school kids playing kickball in the park’s field.] To this day, Ruby, I believe telling one’s life story remains one of the best educational tools in raising awareness of HIV.

I’ve got goosebumps, Geoff. You’ve spinned a negative into a positive.
I then took a job with the New Zealand AIDS Foundation as a Health Promoter for the Maori program, where I utilized my life story in HIV education sessions. I also went out on the street every year for World AIDS Day to sell red ribbons with the rest of the team of staff and volunteers. When I relocated to one of our smaller offices I organized several Candlelight Memorials alongside other health and community agencies. I was with the Foundation for ten years and…I loved it!

Then weren’t you invited to Cook Islands…or somewhere…?
Yes, during this time I was invited to Rarotonga, Cook Islands, by their Ministry of Health. After my father gave me his blessing I accepted the invitation and became the first Cook Islander to speak publicly about living with HIV. I was also one of the first AIDS ambassadors of the Pacific and helped launch the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation in Suva, Fiji. I have been on the board of Body Positive, New Zealand’s national organization for people living with HIV and I am currently a member of INA, the Maori Indigenous & South Pacific HIV/AIDS Foundation.

You should feel so proud, Geoff.
Thank you, Ruby. And at a more grass-roots level, I remain a support person to those newly diagnosed with HIV and have a core group of HIV positive friends that I keep in touch with for peer support.

[I raise my dainty fist fauxing a glass of wine in salute.] You know, I’m intrigued by your family’s ease with the situation….

President Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of President Hotel
President Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of President Hotel

In pre-European times my ancestors had no problem acknowledging the intimacy between two people of the same sex, hence the meaning of the word “takatapui” [intimate companion of the same sex]. The word was used holistically, so mental, spiritual, and physical intimacy was expressed naturally, without shame. When the missionaries arrived they brought with them Western attitudes and beliefs, with labels such as “homosexual” and “sinner.”

Those damn imbecile moronic ignoramuses! [I turn up my nose and let out an un-ladylike snort.]
[Geoff smiles.] Over the generations, homophobia and transphobia became the norm. Maori people today have various points of view toward gay people.My ancestors believed that every child born was a gift from the Gods.For the most part, we are accepted by our families as it is our birthright to stand tall amongst our tribe as a member born or adopted into that tribe. However, the ugly face of homophobia remains, instilling hate and intolerance.This is not acceptable.I do not wish to speak ill of Christianity, but as a gay person, Christianity or rather certain types of Christians, have done more harm than good!

I am in total—and complete—agreement my friend…! What meds are you on now and how’s your health?
I am on Kivexa and nevirapine. My viral load remains undetectable and my CD4 count has been over 900 for a number of years now. Generally my health is good but as a Polynesian I am mindful that I am disproportionately at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. I have made some positive life changes like stopping smoking, eating more healthy, and increasing exercise to balance it all out. It has to be a lifestyle change or it won’t work. If it weren’t for my pills I could easily forget I have HIV.

Have you done anything alternatively?
No not really. I did the Vipassanna meditation retreat once, which is a ten day retreat in complete silence! I don’t know how I lasted but felt fabulous after it. I find massage incredibly healing plus listening to music, especially Patti Labelle! I saw a beautiful proverb recently on Facebook, “The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter and the spirit heals with joy.” I’m not sure where it’s from but it’s my new mantra.

Your level of commitment is admirable, Geoff. As to dating, when do you reveal your status?
If it gets to a third date and things are feeling pretty good then I will disclose. His reaction will determine what path it takes. But for me it is better to get it out in the open in the early stages. I have used different approaches in the past but it is always hard to say those three simple words, ‘I’m HIV-positive.’ For me disclosing my status in a romantic situation is the hardest thing about living with HIV….

My god…sure it is! Anything else you would like to add?
I have lost ten friends to AIDS in the past ten years, Ruby. This has been very humbling for me. As I’ve kissed my friends goodbye, I’ve thought that this could have easily been me lying in that coffin. [His face becomes sullen.] Despite having some of the latest HIV medications available in New Zealand, people still die of AIDS-related illnesses in this country! [As we enter the museum, Geoff looks over to me with his puppy-dog eyes and grins.] Tell your readers, Tena koutou katoa [Greetings to all]!

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]