The people we lost to the AIDS crisis are more than mere statistics. People like Cairns hairdresser Ross Stokes — a dynamic and much-admired member of his profession, a beloved member of the local gay community and a person who made his hometown a better place to live.
It’s funny. Well, not funny… I write history all the time. Yet seem to consciously avoid the AIDS crisis — something I lived through. I finally realise it’s still too raw. 2023 and it still hurts. We lost so many.
Be grateful today for your friends… cherish their qualities and embrace the joy they bring you.
Because we once watched our nearest and dearest drop like flies.
By the mid to late seventies, after centuries of prosecution and persecution, our future as queer inhabitants of a straight, straight world seemed brighter. Baby steps towards law reform… favourable portrayals in music… and on stage and screen. It seemed our time had come. But then this fcking disease snatched it all away. Many died. HIV also scarred the survivors. Haters called for our isolation, even eradication. Some prematurely celebrated our extinction. But we survived. We are a resilient mob.
Ross Stokes typified that resilience. Diagnosed while still in his teens, he never for a moment considered giving up. He fought off a related cancer and bounced back.
Ross Stokes, hairdresser
Meanwhile, he became the North’s most celebrated hairdresser. He wasn’t only a bloody good hairdresser. His longtime friend Amanda Macor describes him as a visionary. He was. Ross helped his customers look beautiful, and he also instilled confidence into them. It is remarkable how many of his female clientele went out in business on their own and succeeded.
In 1990, Christmas Eve fell on a Monday, meaning everyone took a long, long weekend. Ross sent out invitations for an all-day party at his hair salon, located downstairs in an old Queenslander. But on that day, Cairns came under threat from an intense cyclone. Joy to the world, the storm has come. Because of the wind strength and the cyclone threatening to make landfall in our tropical city, the police declared a curfew — no one on the streets.
Phones ran hot that morning. “Fck the curfew,” Ross declared, “My true friends are not scared of a little wind.”
And so, a rather splendid assortment of Cairns socialites, queers and young trendites made their way stealthily through the inner city streets, ducking behind palm trees and wheelie bins at the sight of police cars.
We then bunkered down in the unlikeliest of cyclone shelters. Downstairs in a rickety old house, enclosed on all four sides with plate glass floor-to-ceiling windows. But we were soon quite royally pissed and unconcerned by the increasingly blustery winds.
I’m sure it was a great party and I’d love to tell you more. But I remember little between the time of my first few drinks and making my drunken way home 18 hours later through howling winds as the sun attempted to rise on a tempestuous Christmas Day.
Ross was many things. Talented, hard-working, funny AF, infuriating, outrageously extravagant…
Once, illness caused him to leave a job despite his then perilous financial circumstances. But he received thousands in holiday pay and superannuation. He’d be okay.
That night, he turned up at the local gay bar. He was wearing a pair of YSL sunglasses which he refused to remove even at the midnight hour. He was proud to have bought them at a discount. Rather than lose the sale, the store discounted them to what he could afford — the sum total of his holiday pay and super. Ross couldn’t afford a drink. But he had on the nicest sunglasses of any nightclub patron in Cairns. That evening… and for weeks to come… those sunglasses never left his head.
I knew what it was to be broke myself. Back in the late seventies, as a young trans person and drag performer, I survived by buying the cheapest of everything. I purchased discount makeup and roll-on deodorants while gazing longingly at the Estée Lauder counter. Estée Lauder was the brand. Far beyond what I could afford. I dreamed of the day I could afford it. Yes, a shallow and superficial child — I know my failings. 😝
Twenty years later, I’d spent a decade performing wildlife shows by day and hosting the most notoriously sleazy nightclub entertainments in North Queensland by night. I could afford Estée Lauder. I bought her Double Wear Foundation and ridiculously expensive thimble-sized pots of translucent powder. And I bought her perfume.
But one night in the club, someone nicked my perfume from the dressing room. One of the strippers lent me Impulse. Ross swept in later, swooped up, gave me a big hug, and took a deep breath.
“What’s that you’re wearing.”
“Impulse,” I replied sheepishly.
“Thank fck! You normally smell like someone’s fcking grandmother!”
I’ve worn Impulse ever since.
The cancer returned in 2006 and the doctors gave Ross three months to live. This time, they told him, he would die. He started planning his funeral. He liked the multimedia element of my then nightclub act.
Over the next three months, we scanned photos, digitised videos, and synced his life and career to music.
One day a week we worked and cried and drank coffee and laughed — mainly laughed. Amongst his other talents, he was naturally witty. As I said before, funny AF. Never morbid. No regrets. Every minute we worked, a celebration of life.
DRESS to IMPRESS
The funeral was marvellous.
DRESS to IMPRESS, Ross commanded via the funeral announcement, and DRESS to IMPRESS we did.
Who knew Cairns was home to so many spectacular plumes?
Fashions on the Field, the funeral edition.
Chooky, a local DJ and community ally and I sat to the side of the church to run the digital side of things. But before the service, the church organist had control, and from high on a mezzanine, she pumped out mournful dirges as the most stylish congregation ever to adorn a Cairns House of Worship paraded their way down the aisle and into the pews. You better werq!
The service went well. Beautiful tributes to a life lived well and rather than hymns — photos and video highlights of that life set to music like Don McLean’s Starry, Starry Night.
Occasionally a single melancholic note sounded from the organ, the resident musician robbed of moments to shine.
His dying wish
The service ended and the pallbearers lifted the coffin to leave the church. We had instructions. Wait for the coffin to travel eight steps into the aisle, and then press play.
But the organist saw her chance and seized the moment. The first drawn-out notes of some glum funereal lament boomed out over the teary assemblage.
“What should I do?” asked Chooky, “It would be rude to interrupt her.”
“It was his dying wish,” I protested.
“Yeah, fck it,” he agreed, pumping up the volume and pressing play.
Whaaaaa, ruuuur, aaaaar, waaaaauur, went the organ.
Ooh,You can dance. You can jive. Having the time of your life! Ooh, see that girl, Watch that scene, Digging the Dancing Queen.
The roar of laughter lifted the roof. Our tears dried. And we danced. We jived. We jigged and we jiggled our way out of that church in memory of a man who was a fcking legend.
Ross Stokes. Rest in Power. 🏳️🌈❤️🧡💛💚💙💜✂️
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