I Went On ‘Q&A’ And Had An Awesome, Terrifying Time

Going on Q&A is heaps of fun, and scary as all hell.

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Nic Holas was hand-picked (read: begged the producers) to go on a special episode of the ABC’s current affairs gabfest Q&A last week. The episode was focused around the 2014 International AIDS Conference, for which Nic was a delegate. As the only HIV+ person on the panel, and the youngest one there, he talks us through popping his Q&A cherry.

In The Beginning, There Were Phone Calls

The phone call letting me know I was going on the show came at a really great time. I was at my farewell drinks from my day job, the job I’d just quit to focus more on writing and my public-facing activism work (good timing, right?). “Hello Nic, this is Amanda from Q&A. I hope you have a lovely shirt picked out to wear on national television…”

Despite the call, I didn’t really believe it was going to happen until the Monday prior, when host Tony Jones read out my name, “Next week on a special Q&A, live from Melbourne Town Hall as part of the 2014 AIDS Conference: Former Justice of the High Court, the Honourable Michael Kirby, Nobel prize winner and the scientist who discovered HIV, Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Indonesian Health Minister Dr Nafsiah Mboi, former Howard Minister Amanda Vanstone, and…”

Here is where I assumed my name wasn’t going to be read out and it was not happening.

“…writer and HIV activist, Nic Holas.”

Cue phone explosion number one.

It’ll Be Alright On The Night

Thankfully, my appearance on Q&A was not happening in a vacuum; it was part of wider coverage of the 2014 International AIDS Conference, which happened in Melbourne last week. Some 12,000 delegates from around the world came together to report findings, exchange information and share stories, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them;it just so happened that I was also fortunate enough to be the HIV-positive person chosen by the ABC to go on national TV (“International, actually!” – some helpful Q&A producer right before I went on).

The mechanisms of live TV are fairly standard. A series of nice people greet you at various doors and elevators until you are brought before The Producers. The wonderful producer who had been in regular contact over the previous week embraced me instantly, which I took as a good sign.  You get several inches of makeup blasted onto your face. Then, you are ushered into the green room where there are some drinks if you want them. I met my fellow panellists, who were all polite and lovely, and all of whom managed to say something to freak me out:

Michael Kirby: “Oh, hello. You’re the one who is against gay marriage”. Okay, rocky start, but on the plus side, our most beloved champion of human rights has read my stuff!

Amanda Vanstone: “What sort of music do you like?” Me: “Beyonce”. Vanstone: “I like a good cello concerto, or Bette Midler”. Me: “My people invented Bette Midler!”

That was the last thing we said to each other until I cut her off onstage about asylum seekers.

The other panellists, Drs. Francoise Barre-Sinousi and Nafsiah Mboi, were both very charming and international. Both were worried about being able to understand the questions, given they learned English from people who actually know how to speak it, and I assume their time in Australia had been a baffling ordeal of accented confusion. The Producers were quick to point out that host Tony Jones was quite well spoken.

My wonderful producer came over to make one last point: “Now, I don’t want to sound like your mother, but just be yourself and you’ll be great”.

“Oh you don’t sound like my mother at all. She gave me the exact opposite advice,” I replied.

“Well, she must know you better than I do”.


Then it was off to meet Tony just before we took to the stage. He was wonderful, and very charming. Before I knew it I was walking onstage to the applause of 1000 people, all there to watch some famous people and me talk HIV and whatever else came up.

Lights. Camera. Acute Angina.

I have only a handful of memories of the actual show, and in my head I said about three things but of course it must have been more. A few people have told me that it was very nice of me to recognise when Russell, a HIV+ man in the audience, disclosed his status in the form of a question. That for me was a no-brainer. If you’ve been in the world of HIV, you know that disclosure and stigma are the most significant barriers to getting on with life. I didn’t want to pass up the chance to acknowledge his bravery.

The other moment I recall with clarity wasn’t one I contributed to, just witnessed up close. Dr Mboi told the story of how she convinced a room full of conservative politicians, lawmakers and policemen that HIV and AIDS was a problem in Indonesia. It felt like the entire room was directing their energy her way. I recall physically shifting towards her. It was a remarkable moment.

Then I got on my high horse about gay marriage, cracked some gags and was just starting to get into the groove of this Q&A thing when it was over. I easily could have gone another hour, but Lateline was coming on and Tony was getting the windup from the floor, so we waved goodnight Australia and were ushered back to the greenroom where the wine flowed freely (into my mouth). The very smart and very human producers grabbed young Russell from the audience and brought him backstage, and I’m honoured to say he’s become a new friend, and one that I was able to connect with some important services for HIV positive people – ones he knew nothing about.

On My Phone, Pretending He’s Beside Me…

Cue phone explosion number two. In the coming days, my phone melted. I had expected some reaction to going on the show, but I was overwhelmed by the number of people who reach out after such a program goes to air. I think the combination of no sitting Australian politicians and a very human topic made for a lot of goodwill towards the panellists, so I’m fortunate to have received minimum trolling. I also think it’s unfair to point out that as a man, I got one-tenth of the vitriol aimed at female friends of mine who have put themselves in the public eye. I take my hat off to those writers and agitators who cop daily abuse from faceless men.

All in all, being on Q&A was a surreal experience and I was honoured to sit as a HIV-positive person on the panel. To sit alongside some heroes of mine meant a lot, and to be able to speak with some authority on what HIV means in 2014 was a real privilege. The number of people who’ve since reached out and told me they are also HIV-positive and have no-one to talk to makes me sad, firstly, but ultimately proud. Those people now have been connected to support or social networks. The number of people who said they learned about PEP and PrEP was also fantastic.

And it didn’t hurt that people tweeted about how great my moustache is. In the days following, my Grindr was full of gay men interested in some very current affairs, if you know what I mean.

Nic Holas is a writer who focuses on the contemporary gay experience, and being a person living with HIV. You can find him on Twitter @nicheholas, or in his role as co-founder of HIV social umbrella The Institute of Many.