It’s been six years since the passing of the marriage equality act, and 43 years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in Victoria (1980).1 With the teaching of Queer sexual education, with programs like Safe Schools, and national access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure), it is hard for today’s Queer youth to imagine the dangerous, devasting HIV/AIDS epidemic that faced gay men in Australia, and around the world in the 1980s and ‘90s. Neil Armfield’s Australian Drama Holding the Man (2015) is based on Timothy Conigrave’s memoir of the same title. Conigrave completed the memoir on his death bed, and it was published just months after his 1994 AIDs-related death.2 The Queer-romance film authentically portrays Australia’s 1970s and the navigation of a schoolboy romance and homosexual relationship, disrupted by the 1980s HIV crisis. The movie not only embraces gay identity but also captures the warmth amidst the frightening challenges faced by the gay community, including widespread gay bashings, public outings, and family disownments.3 By blending biographical and romance genre conventions, Holding the Man goes beyond storytelling; it becomes a powerful tribute to the resilience of Queer Australia during a tumultuous era, shedding light on impactful civil rights movements such as the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP Inc). Most importantly, it stands as a testament to the enduring strength of same-sex love, defiantly flourishing amidst Australia’s authoritarian oppression. 

Aspiring actor Timothy Conigrave and footballer captain John Caleo met and fell in love during grade school, blossoming an incredible 15-year-long relationship that battled and survived parental resistance, prejudice, and adversity – before succumbing to a devastating end.4 The pair’s relationship was publicly revealed in Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir – his “love-letter to Caleo”.5  The memoir’s title is derived from Caleo’s cherished sport and life passion, Aussie Rules. “Holding the man” refers to a sporting infraction, a term used within the sport to describe when a player tackles or holds onto their opponent without possession of the ball. This action is deemed prohibited and subject to penalty.6 It symbolizes the way the pair perceived their relationship: as if it were challenging the ‘rules of the game,’ seen as shameful, and destined for punishment.7 Conigrave’s story, now an acclaimed work of Queer literature, offers a snapshot of the gay Australia of its time whilst immortalizing an enduring gay love story.

Unfortunately, Conigrave passed away before his memoir’s success, including the United Nation’s Human Rights Award for non-fiction and its stage adaptation in 2007.8 The memoir’s success and raw portrayal of gay love in the difficult landscape of Australia’s social history caught the attention of screenwriter and playwright Tom Murphy in the early 2000s. Murphy was fascinated by the story and its role as a reminder of the privilege of 21st century gay men who never faced the devastating world AIDS epidemic.9 

It depicts a time we might struggle to comprehend when a terrifying epidemic attacked a generation. It reminds us of today’s privilege… We live in a time when developed nations have it within their means to rescue the world’s poor from HIV.10

In 2006, Murphy adapted Conigrave’s memoir into a stage production for the Griffin Theatre Company which travelled the world, with several revivals and productions staged in Australia, London, Auckland, and San Francisco following its initial success.11 Referencing the many adaptations, Murphy said, “I’ve seen the emphasis shift with each time and place, but something always remains; this is a love story.”12 In the years that followed, Murphy’s Holding the Man clinched the Best Play award at the 2007 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and received a nomination for Best New Play in the 2010 Broadway World UK Awards.13 The book also achieved the status of an Orange Penguin Classic, earned the United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction, and was included in the ‘100 Favourite Australian Books’ list by the Australian Society of Authors during its 40th anniversary celebration in 2003.14 

With audiences around the world embracing the book and stage play, Murphy longed to produce a film.15 Thankfully, Murphy was approached by Kylie Du Fresne of Goalpost Pictures, an independent production company with prior successes including; Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires (2012), Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (2020) and Upgrade (2018). Du Fresne knew the success of the source material, having seen the stage play at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre:16 

I recall sitting in a packed theatre, with a diverse audience: mums, dads, grandparents, the young and groovy. Certainly not just the gay audience I had imagined would attend this production. The audience laughed uproariously then sobbed their hearts out, a sobbing that was guttural and not often something I had seen or experienced in a theatre… I was deeply affected by its level of humanity. It is so rare that you are taken through so many levels of emotion in a story.17

Du Fresne knew Conigrave and Caleo’s story belonged on screen and Murphy welcomed the opportunity to work with Goalpost18, immediately developing the material for the screen, with Keith Thompson as Script Editor.19 The team did not want to create a purely ‘Queer film’ or ‘stage play turned movie’; they instead wanted to create a ‘great Australian love story’ that would challenge and encourage new and prospective audiences.20 They also wanted the film to serve as a prompt for discussing ‘universal’ coming-of-age themes, such as the outsider experience and sexual awakening, while also delving into the specific social histories of the LGBTQ+ movements and the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the ‘crisis years’21 – as the epidemic impacted Australians and people all over the world. 

Indeed, Goalpost classified Holding the Man as a romance-drama film with Queer themes rather than a Queer film.22 Their motivations were, firstly, that the team did not want to limit its prospective audiences, as Queer films tend to only attract Queer and Queer-aligned audiences;23 secondly, the team wanted to display a “love story for everyone” – as the advertising tagline proclaimed24 – meaning a same-sex relationship equal to the ‘great’ heteronormative ones we see in classic ‘rom-coms’.25 Academic Stuart Richards26 characterizes the decision to downplay specific Queer content in the marketing of Queer films as a strategic move. This deliberate tendency, which emerged in the early to mid-2000s in the semi-independent sector, aims to emphasize the universality of these films, broadening their appeal for commercial success.27 Consequently, the marketing team for Holding the Man likely recognized the potential limitations associated with categorizing the film within the Queer genre, considering the ongoing debates among critics and scholars regarding its classification. GLAAD’s 2018 annual report showed that Queer genre films and television have quickly become popular in the last decade on streaming platforms such Netflix or Stan praised by LGBTQ+ organizations for providing greater access to Queer or Queer-coded content and characters.28 But the genre is too broad and, as such, is widely disputed by film scholars for lacking any distinct and identifiable genre conventions beyond Queer characters.29 MacAlister30 argues that labelling “Queer” as a film genre oversimplifies and confines diverse Queer experiences. Queer characters and stories can belong to various genres without reducing them to their sexuality. For example, Karyn Kusama’s horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body (2009), and Ang Lee’s romance-drama Brokeback Mountain (2005), are frequently classified as Queer film by streaming services and fan sites for their themes of bisexuality and homosexuality, yet these films share almost no genre or style conventions. 

Indeed, Holding the Man initially aligns with romantic comedy conventions before transitioning into a romance-drama, incorporating classic elements identified by academic Erica Todd.31 Todd suggests that romantic comedies navigate paradoxical gender roles, and uphold cultural ideologies such as the belief in opposites attracting.32 as Tim and John encounter each other during a school play rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This moment is echoed when Tim watches John’s football practice, grabbing his attention. As the narrative unfolds, the couple triumphs over barriers and obstacles to their love, including discrimination, family resistance, distance, and even an epidemic. Numerous intimate moments between the pair illustrate their enduring love. 

In terms of the foundational structural or what academic Rick Altman would call the “syntactic” elements33 of romance as a genre, the film follows the classic trajectory of strangers meeting and engaging in a whirlwind romance tested by the world. However, it departs from the traditional happy ending, remaining faithful to the unfortunate reality it portrays as a romance biopic, exploring real-life adversities.34 As such, the film adaptation of Holding the Man is a genre hybrid, aligning more with the syntactic patterns of the romance-drama or romance-biopic sub-genre than the conventional romantic comedy. Nonetheless, as Todd notes, a trend in romance films, particularly since the 1990s, is to incorporate elements of both sorrow and hope, presenting tragic conclusions as ‘bittersweet’ rather than purely sombre,35 a trend that continues in Holding the Man as a ‘contemporary’ romance film.

Ultimately, Holding the Man is the immortalization of an Australian love story that was so powerful and impactful it captivated audiences across three mediums – there’s a stage tour scheduled at the Belvoir Street Theatre commencing March 2024. Holding the Man is a glimpse into the hardship of Queer Australia during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and the world’s devastation from the HIV/AIDs epidemic. The film is a reminder of our nation’s social development and medical privilege today. If the validity of same-sex relationships or love is ever challenged in this country again, this movie offers a fundamental artefact for debunking that debate. It is a true representation that ‘love is love’ and that, even in death, true love is immortal. 

Holding The Man (2015 Australia 127 min)

Prod Co: Goalpost Pictures Prod: Kylie Du Fresne Dir: Neil Armfield Scr: Tommy Murphy, based on the novel Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave Phot: Germain McMicking Ed: Dany Cooper Prod Des: Josephine Ford Composer: Alan John

Cast: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Sarah Snook, Camilla Ah Kin, Kerry Fox. 


  1. Campbell Rhodes, 2017, “The LGBTI community has a long history of struggling against prejudice and oppression, with many rights hard-fought and won over decades”, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (7 September, 2017).
  2. Michael Mullens 2006, “Jesuit Schoolboys’ Story of Love and AIDS Death”, Eureka Street, vol. 16, no. 18, pp. 28–29.
  3. State Library New South Wales, 2023, “Coming out in the 70s
  4. Screen Australia, 2023, “Holding the Man – 2015”, The Screen Guide (2018)
  5. Mullens.
  6. Transmission Films, 2015, “Holding the Man – Press Kit”, Transmission Films, 1 – 45.
  7. Transmission Films.
  8. Mullens.
  9. Transmission Films.
  10. Transmission Films.
  11. Transmission Films.
  12. Transmission Films.
  13. Transmission Films.
  14. Mullens.
  15. Transmission Films.
  16. Transmission Films.
  17. Transmission Films.
  18. Transmission Films.
  19. Transmission Films.
  20. Dion Kagan, 2017. “Sex, text and epidemic: Queer relationships, HIV/AIDS and adaptation in “Holding the man and remembering the man”, In Screen education (St Kilda, Vic.) (Issue 84, pp. 58–67). Australian Teachers of Media.
  21. Kagan.
  22. Transmission Films.
  23. Bryan Wuest, 2018, “A Shelf of One’s Own: A Queer Production Studies Approach to LGBT Film Distribution and Categorization”, Journal of Film and Video, 70(3-4), 24–43.
  24. Transmission Films.
  25. Transmission Films.
  26. Stuart Richards, 2016, “Overcoming the Stigma: The Queer Denial of Indiewood”, Journal of Film and Video, 68(1), 19–30.
  27. Richards.
  28. Nick Romano, 2018, “GLAAD TV report card praises Pose, Supergirl and Netflix amid record-high representation”,  Entertainment Weekly (25 October, 2018).
  29. Wuest.
  30. Sally MacAlister, 2022, “Queer is not a genre”, Watershed (23 June, 2022).
  31. Erica Todd, 2014, Passionate love and popular cinema: romance and film genre, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, p. 11.
  32. Todd, p. 11. Holding the Man begins with the rom-com trope of the “meet-cute”,[33. Leger Grindon, 2011, “The Hollywood romantic comedy: conventions, history, controversies (1st ed., Vol. 19), p. 9. Wiley.
  33. Rick Altman, 2012, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre”, in BK Grant (ed.), Film Genre Reader IV, University of Texas Press, Austin, Tex., pp. 27-41.
  34. Adrian Danks, 2021, “Beethoven Had His Critics, too… The Australian Biopic in the Twenty-First Century”, Australian Genre Film. Routledge. Pp. 43 – 49.
  35. Todd, p. 29-32.

About The Author

Drew Baker, a 28-year-old Australian journalism student at RMIT University, relocated from Queensland to Melbourne to pursue his passion. Intrigued by human and impact stories, Drew's interests extend to writing, film, photography, and exploring narratives within Queer media. His academic journey reflects a dedication to storytelling that resonates with diverse audiences.

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