Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli is not your typical 61-year-old academic. She has led a colourful life and had an illustrious career as a sociologist, teacher, writer and activist.

In addition to autoethnographies and conference papers, Pallotta-Chiarolli has written novels, poetry, and letters, including Australia’s first AIDS biography, Someone You Know: A Friend’s Farewell. 

‘Respect the Person, Not the Labels’

“I’ve often asked myself as an ally,” she says,  “what right do I have to do this work? But others will often tell me, ‘sometimes people listen to you because you are straight, married, girly.’” She adds that sometimes she is mistaken for a drag queen. “I love that. It’s great!”

The Melbourne-dweller has southern Italian heritage and grew up in Adelaide “in the dirt” with parents who taught her to “respect the person, not the labels that come with the person.” 

The 2018 Globe Community Award winner says for her it has “always felt natural to challenge injustices” because she is descended from a “long line of protestors” who challenged fascism and the church. 

For the first few years of her life, she and her family lived in a backyard shed. 

‘Dressing Up While My Parents were Serving Pizza and Homemade Wine’

By the age of 16, she had queer friends. She says her parents’ place was where they “felt comfortable.” 

“We were having drag parties, as you do in the late 70s, early 80s. We were all dressing up while my parents were serving pizza and homemade wine,” she says.

She lost a handful of friends to AIDS during the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, including teacher, Jon Eliot and 21-year-old, Tom Munroe.

“It made us grow up and wake up,” she says. “I think it also really showed the injustices and the fact that some people will get treated better than others.” 

Member of the Order of Australia

The political ignorance and the lack of treatment options angered her. While there now exist viable treatment options, she laments the ongoing political callousness. She describes the Religious Discrimination Bill as “absolutely appalling”, but says it is an “example of people in power trying to grip and hold onto whatever they can.” 

 On Australia Day this year, Pallotta-Chiarolli was named Member of the Order of Australia. She said in her statement she will use the award “to make better our systems and society.” 

She dedicated it to the late Jon Eliot, her dear friend and former teaching colleague whom she supported when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987.

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