As a high school student, Joe McGrath, like most his peers in 1990 had only heard of HIV and AIDS from the occasional report on TV.
“In those days there was no internet, or social media and the news we got was from TV or newspapers,” he said.
In that time AIDS was considered a disease that was happening in big cities, in the gay community, not in places such as Labrador City.
So McGrath and others were taken by surprise when teacher Ray Condon spoke to students about his HIV, and being gay.
“It was a courageous move,” McGrath told The Aurora via Skype from Navan, Ireland, where he has lived for close to 20 years.
“Condon stood and told his story in an isolated town where there was fear and ignorance of not only the HIV, but of homosexuality as well. I can’t imagine what courage it took to do that.”
In those days there was little to no access to information about such matters and it was Condon’s desire to inform and educate.
McGrath says not only did he inform and educate, but also his words inspired.
“All of a sudden people realized, it was OK to stand up and speak out and to talk about issues that mattered or affected their lives, for a long time too many people sat silently,” McGrath said.
These days, it’s common to speak out about things like mental illness, PTSD, abuse, addiction and a host of other things. Condon, is seen by many as a person who opened the door to being able to do that in small communities like Labrador City.
After listening to Condon, McGrath went home and was inspired to write a play about AIDS and HIV and how it was something that young people now had to deal with, it was no longer a disease restricted to the big cities or the gay community.
“I never wrote a play before, I did some public speaking and that was all, I thought I must be crazy,” he said, but the script was finished in 11 days.
Fellow student Jacinda Beals wrote the music for it, and others agreed to take roles or help with the many aspects of the production.
“The play was performed for three nights at the local Arts and Culture Centre, all the schools attended, the support was unreal, it was amazing and proved to be a turning point in my life,” recounted McGrath.
Inspired by the positive reaction to the play. McGrath then entered a speaking competition, and at a national event placed second.
“My speech was about Ray Condon and how he turned his situation into a positive thing to inform and educate.”
The Condon family thanked Joe for what he was doing and presented him with a book about theatre with a message written by Ray. Condon was known for his vast book collection, and it was his desire that many be given to people in the community and elsewhere.
And then McGrath’s play took on a new life.
“Seeing the merit of the play, a local journalist got a copy of the script to Sheila Guy, who at the time operated a people’s theatre in St. John's,” explained McGrath, “She liked the play and the message, and it performed in St. John's and then it went across Newfoundland and Labrador.”
McGrath was offered a job to come to St. John's and act in the play on its provincial tour.
“It was surreal how it all came about, all sparked by that talk by Ray Condon in that classroom,” explained McGrath.
At the time, theatre writer and critic John Holmes heaped praise on the play and the performance, a big encouragement for a young Labrador City student.
Some 19 years ago Joe McGrath found himself in Ireland with an exchange group from this province for young adults, he is still there today.
In Ireland the play Fear of the Young took on a life of its own.
“I rewrote it into a one-person play, and it was performed all over Ireland, mainly for school audiences. I estimate close to 300,000 people have seen that play over the years,” said McGrath.
McGrath is married and has three sons. He continues to write, and is working on a book, writes poetry and has other projects.
And now as Labrador West celebrates Pride week, which is dedicated to Ray Condon who was an advocate and a mentor, Joe McGrath remembers the words that Condon Spoke, and the Message he now has for others
“Stand up and tell the truth, plant your two feet firmly on the ground, others may try to knock you down, and it can be tough, but it will get better, you have the right to be yourself and you can be yourself, with pride.”
A poem written by Joe McGrath for Pride Week 2018:
Colour Rainbow Beautiful
By Joe McGrath, 2018
“Silence, weird boy!
Short haired girl, silence, you!
And you, whatever you!
Silence, all you!
Be what they say you be!!
Be happy without ‘you.’”
They watch, ready to hate truth within – especially words from those masculine lips,
‘Cause your lips, once feminine lips!
But, oh . . . what manly lips you now own!
“Silence, boy-who-loves-boy and girl-who-fancies-girl! Especially you – man that was woman! Silence, you!”
Those who do not yet know - do not yet see - from life’s garden many colours grow, each giving much more, when each colour freely shines and for each we care.
You will colour rainbow beautiful!
No matter, if summer, winter or spring –bloom,
No matter how cold some may be – bloom!
When in bloom, you grow tall . . . you will stand free!
You, a beacon-of-hope for others will be . . . others will finally be.
Let truth grow, even when others block the sun, search, believe!
Through hatred, cracks of hope will appear,
So: reach and scream and yell and cry and fight and laugh and smile!
Love . . . who you are – love that person, dear.
“Silence no more, beautiful boy and precious girl!
And you, you are now you!
Silence no more!”