Exclusive Interview: Irish drag star Enda McGrattan aka Veda on HIV documentary How To Tell A Secret “art has always been a part of our activism”

The brilliant hybrid documentary How to Tell a Secret busts open the conversation about HIV in Ireland. Winner of Best Documentary Film at the Irish Film Festival London, the film offers stories of HIV+ people, queer and straight, and the culture of silence that often surrounds them. Breaking through that silence are two activists and podcasters featured in the film, cabaret and drag performer Enda McGrattan aka Veda and former Mr Gay Ireland Robbie Lawlor, who co-host the podcast Poz Vibe.

How To Tell A Secret. Courtesy of Queer Screen’s MGFF 2023.

Ahead of his trip to Sydney to appear at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival where How To Tell A Secret will screen on Monday, February 20th, Enda McGrattan spoke with The Queer Review‘s Chad Armstrong about podcasting, his participation in the film and the history of art activism in Ireland.

Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: How are you feeling about coming down under for Mardi Gras?

Enda McGrattan: “I’m so excited. I’ve never been to Sydney before. We’ve got loads of stuff lined up with Mardi Gras and the local Irish have a party the Sunday after. That’s our last official function before flying home. We’ll be there for a month.”

The Diceman (Thom McGinty) outside Bewley’s on Grafton Street, Dublin.

Your story is one of the spines of How to Tell a Secret, giving context to the history of HIV activism through the decades. Tell me more about The Diceman, Tom McGinty?

“Dublin in the late 80s—we’re talking about before Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of the Pope on SNL—the Church was very influential and there wasn’t really much of a queer scene to speak of. So for a teenager like me, any evidence of queerness and queer joy was something I was sniffing out like a truffle pig! The best example of queer joy was The Diceman, Tom McGinty.”

“He was a street performer and performance artist. His performance usually involved standing very still, or moving very slowly, like a statue. He was very politically astute and active. He did a lot of things around queerness and HIV including, most importantly, coming out about his HIV status shortly before he passed away of AIDS. He appeared on The Late Late Show, which was a huge show here in Ireland and the host Gay Byrne was basically like everybody’s dad. Gay was so compassionate, and so wonderful in that interview with Tom McGinty, that it became a really iconic piece of queer television. It was like he changed the minds of the nation with that one interview about people living with HIV, or in this case, people dying of AIDS.”

“So cut to all these years later, when I got approached about making How To Tell A Secret, it came up in conversation with Anna Rodgers the co-director of the documentary and they want to include The Diceman in the story. They wondered if I would like to represent him in some way. I absolutely freaked out. We agreed that rather than it being a recreation of The Diceman, it would be more of a love story between Veda, my drag persona, and The Diceman. We could do our HIV activism together in the streets of Dublin. I wanted so badly to do him justice and to make sure that more people, especially younger queer people, got to know about him and his life and what he did for us and for them.”

Enda McGrattan aka Veda. Courtesy of Enda McGrattan.

Many people still have outdated ideas about what it means to be HIV positive, and think it’s the same as when The Diceman was talking about being positive in the early 90s, what message did you want to get across with the film?

“I knew that if The Diceman was still with us today his message would be U=U, Undetectable equals Untransmittable, which is still so underrepresented here in Ireland. I knew that we had to help people understand how much has changed since the time of The Diceman. Now people go on effective treatment and are no longer dying and cannot pass on HIV to anyone else. And we’re wonderful lovers!”

“Back then in Ireland nobody was talking about U=U. Even though it was already recognised around the world, it was already a fact. I found out because I was dating someone, I wanted to know how safe it would be for us to have sex. This person is now my husband, by the way, and we’ve been together ever since. Back then, I wanted to know how much risk would be involved for my boyfriend. That’s when my doctor told me that there wouldn’t be any risk involved for him. My doctor knew that, but he’d never volunteered that information.”

“We do talks a lot in universities and it’s astounding how little people know, especially women, becuase unfortunately there’s a hole in our sex education. They’re astounded and shocked by what we’re telling them. They think that HIV is a thing of the past or they still think it’s got to do with being queer and nothing else. They certainly don’t think about planning on protecting themselves which is crazy now that we have medication like PrEP and nobody needs to become HIV positive.”

Enda McGrattan aka Veda. Courtesy of Enda McGrattan.

In the film you mention that it took years for you to open up about your own status with friends, what was it like holding that back for so long?

“When I became HIV positive myself, I was so riddled with shame and trauma that I didn’t come out for a really long time, almost 10 years. As someone who has a bit of influence on the scene and who works with the community, I built up a huge amount of guilt about not being more open. I decided to come out about it in 2019 in a very novel way. I recorded a song about it, made a pop video and released it on the eve of World AIDS Day. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my closest friends, or the people who worked with me on the music. I did that because I wanted to have the most power and impact I could, and I knew in a small town like Dubli that if people started talking about it before it happened it would weaken the message. So that worked out very well. I got a huge amount of support online and in person from the community and that stepped up my HIV activism.”

“During Covid, I was locked away and talking to a lot of people on social media and doing shows from home. That’s when I came up with the idea of having a poz-cast—as opposed to a podcast—for people living with HIV.”

I Came out One Night – Veda and Lady K

How’d you get together with Robbie Lawlor your co-host on the poz-cast?

“Robbie was on The Tommy Tiernan Show around that time and talked about living with HIV. I was so proud and so excited, I thought he was amazing. So first thing the next morning I sent him a message just to congratulate him on what he’d done. He replied right away and I told him my idea and Poz Vibe was born!”

Enda McGrattan and Robbie Lawlor, hosts of Poz Vibe.

How to Tell a Secret started life as a stage play, Rapids, by the film’s co-director Shaun Dunne, but neither yourself nor the work of Tom McGinty were part of that story. How’d you get involved with the film?

“I love to say this—but it gets me into trouble—when they decided to make Rapids into a film they needed a star, and here I am! Seriously though, I think that the drag element is important in the context of HIV/AIDS because art has always been a part of our activism. Right from the start people like Keith Haring did so much of the work, lifting the shame and stigma around HIV. Obviously, Shaun is already an artist and the play itself was already art, but I think that touch of drag magic brings a lot to the film and I’m really proud that it was my drag magic.”

The film is all about busting through any stigma associated with being positive and educating people about what it’s like to be positive, so what is your life like now as an HIV+ person living in Dublin in 2023?

“I take a single pill a day. We call them Tic Tacs. HIV medication has come on so much in recent years. I take it at night. It doesn’t mess me up at all. That’s something that I emphasize for people who are newly diagnosed, that the medication is so great. Some of the earlier meds used to mess with my head. I want to stress this to people, if your meds aren’t sitting well with you, talk to your doctor. There are new meds to try. I used to think HIV was destroying my mental health, but it was just a side-effect of the old medication.”

What else would you say to someone who is newly diagnosed and feeling anxious?

“Adhere to your meds is the most important thing. Get in the habit of taking them. Outside of that, I’d say take your time. Don’t be afraid. The majority of people don’t come out about their status and I don’t blame them, I can totally relate to that. I don’t push anyone towards that, but I do like to make people aware that my mental health and my life, including my sex life, all became so much better once I came out about my status. Don’t be afraid to tell people who you trust and to lean on people who you love. Don’t isolate yourself. I think the biggest mistake that I made was that I became really isolated through my secret. Oh, and listen to Poz Vibe!”

Speaking of Poz Vibe, how did you get Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters to record the opening?

“I started doing drag in 1997 at The Stud in San Francisco and the first drag friend I made was Ana Matronic. She was also a drag performer at the time and we’ve stayed friends ever since. When she comes to Dublin she stays at my home. Also her father died of complications from AIDS so she’s very knowledgeable and invested in HIV activism.”

You’re recording episodes of Poz Vibe while you’re in Sydney, how is that going to be different to the regular episodes?

“Rather than talking to community leaders to find out who to talk to before we get there, we’re trying to be a bit more casual and off-the-cuff with it. We’re more likely to go to the local drag bar and talk to the drag queens there and ask them who we should talk to. Not all the episodes will be about living with HIV this time. We want to do something very Irish and catch up with queer Irish diaspora and make the most of the fact it’s WorldPride while we’re there. We’re taking this as an opportunity to learn more about the world and what’s happening.”

Enda McGrattan and Robbie Lawlor will take part in a Q&A following the screening of How to Tell a Secret on Monday February 20th, 2023 at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival. Click here for tickets and more information.

Listen and subscribe to Poz Vibe, and follow @pozvibepod and @LadyVeda on Twitter.

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