Australia recorded its first official death from AIDS six months after I was born: July 1983 at Melbourne’s Prince Henry Hospital. The man was 43 years old. He was the first Australian casualty and wouldn’t be the last. Being 29 means I’m old enough to vividly remember the Grim Reaper advertisements from 1987, but young enough not to have known a single person who has died of AIDS.

The realities of that era were largely lost to me until I saw Tommy Murphy and David Berthold’s stage adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man in 2008. Over six nights, the play sold out each evening, with over 500 people in the audience at every show. By the final scene, the only thing you could hear was the muffled sobs of every person in the room, my mother, siblings, boyfriend and me included. It was as though the entire theatre had become a funeral, strangers bound together by grief over the lost lives of these two men – Timothy Conigrave and his lover John Caleo – who were both real people, and would have only been in their early fifties now if they’d still been alive. I had never experienced anything like it.

Then I read the book.

Holding the Man was first published in 1995, only a few months after Timothy Conigrave died. It’s a monumentally loved book: just mention its title and it’s enough to trigger off a wave of people’s recollections of first reading it and the emotional toil it took on them. It won the UN Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995 and was issued as an orange-and-white Popular Penguin in 2009. Somewhere along the line, Holding the Man unexpectedly and quietly became an Australian classic.

As much as the book is about losing your lover – and, ultimately, yourself – to HIV and AIDS, Holding the Man is fundamentally a love story. It has the kind of premise that would sound unbelievable if it had been written as fiction. In the mid-1970s in Melbourne, high school student Timothy Conigrave meets John Caleo at their all-boys Catholic school. Timothy, a burgeoning theatre fag, falls hard for John, the captain of the football team, who has incredibly long eyelashes. Tim writes:

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.

It’s an unlikely pairing – Caleo is Best and Fairest of the rugby team, for Christ’s sake – but the boys fall for each other and the relationship works. As school progress, Tim and John’s relationship is subject to their parents’ ferocious disapproval – especially John’s – but some of their friends almost barrack for them. One scene that has stayed with me is where Tim and John’s straight male friends give them a friendly, blokey round of applause after they’re caught having sex together. It’s something I can’t imagine happening amongst Australian male high school students now. Teachers who discover the boys’ relationship have reactions that range from muted to tacitly supportive.

After Tim and John leave school, they build a life together and pursue their careers: Tim goes to NIDA; John becomes a chiropractor. And like most gay couples at the time, they begin to test and play with the sexual boundaries of their relationship. This all coincides with news of a gay-targeted disease, initially called ‘the gay cancer’, which becomes GRID (Gay Related Immune Dysfunction), which is then finally recognised as HIV. John and Tim are both diagnosed as positive in their mid-twenties.

Tim started writing Holding the Man in the early 1990s, after John had died. At a New Year’s party in St Kilda, he ran into the writer and editor Sophie Cunningham, who was then working as a publisher at McPhee Gribble. When Tim told her about the manuscript he was putting together, Sophie told him that she worked in books. For months at a time, Tim and his friend, playwright Nick Enright, would refine the chapters of Holding the Man closely before delivering them to Sophie. ‘It was in rough shape, but I knew I was onto something special,’ Sophie says now. ‘There was something about the voice, clarity, humour and directness of it. It’s the book I’m most proud of having published.’

At the Adelaide Festival in 1994, Nick met up with Sophie and said that although Tim had nearly finished the manuscript, he suspected that when it was finally done, Tim would be too. In September that year, Tim delivered the completed draft to Sophie over lunch, then died a few weeks later. ‘It’s like he held himself together through sheer force of will,’ Sophie says. True to his character, the last thing Tim ever said to Sophie was that she looked good blonde, and should keep her hair that way.

Cunningham says she still gets emotional about the book: she essentially read the manuscript for Holding the Man as Tim was dying in a room nearby. Timothy was the first person to whom Cunningham had been close who died. ‘The shocking thing about the AIDS epidemic was just the sense you could get a fucking epidemic,’ she says. ‘Suddenly thousands of people are dying. Yes, they happen to be gay, but next time it could be another demographic. It was that sense of having a disease where no one knew what it was. It was shocking to everyone. Still, I’d hate for Tim’s story to be seen as a kind of fairytale horror story of What Did Happen, because to some extent this stuff still happens. It was more extreme then.’

Everyone projects their own stories onto Holding the Man. Like Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo, my boyfriend Scott and I knew each other in high school. When I finished reading Holding the Man for the first time, it was 3am in Brisbane and Scott was away in New York for what would be three months. The book struck me as both beautiful and horrible, the way it demonstrated that so much of our luck – and our survival – depends entirely on the era and circumstances into which we were born. If Scott and I were contemporaries of Tim and John’s, it’s likely the both of us would be dead too. Wrung out and wracked, I tucked myself into bed after reading the book and silently cried myself to sleep. Part of the grief people feel when reading this book is over Conigrave and Caleo, but I suspect it’s also for themselves. Holding the Man might be a love story, but it’s also a book that forces us to confront the fact that all love stories – including the ones to which we belong, in real life – must end in death.

Join publisher Sophie Cunningham and Neil Armfield, director of the new film of Holding the Man, at MWF on Friday 28 August at 2.30pm, at Deakin Edge. Bookings here.

This is an extract from an article originally published by the Wheeler Centre as part of its Long View series of essays reflecting on Australian literary culture. Read the essay in full.