Our youth years are a special, idyllic time in life, generally characterized by unparalleled freedom — one that is short-lived as we experience the inevitable perils of adulthood and its inherited obligations. But at an age when frivolity and nonchalance are justified, Tim Bartsch found himself forfeiting his youthful ways in acceptance of a sobering reality.

“By twenty-one, all my dreams were done,” shares Bartsch. He was an aspiring classical musician at the time, studying abroad at a prestigious arts school, Hochschule fuer Musik Detmold in Germany, when he had to cut his first semester short and return to Canada.

Bartsch was diagnosed with HIV in October 1996 after fleeing from a relationship that he describes as an “abuse of power” with his male cello professor, Robert Bardston who was also HIV positive at the time. Bardston was an esteemed professional in the small community of Medicine Hat, Alberta, and a known advocate for ending HIV/AIDS stigma.

But Bartsch alleges that his former professor, who was 26-years-older than him, was different to his public persona during their intimate relationship. He “broke me down and then tried to raise me back up,” said Bartsch. Speaking sombrely, the soft-spoken 45-year-old claims that he was manipulated into performing sexual acts in exchange for his instructor’s loyalty.

It felt like rape. Years later when reconnecting with him, he told me he was trying to be the macho man he thought turned me on,” Bartsch said.

Gaining inroads, red flags and a rocky foundation:

Despite identifying as a heterosexual male, Bartsch candidly reveals that he was determined to achieve success through any means possible, even appealing to his professor’s attraction toward him. “I realized that if I give him something he wants, he will make me into this star cellist,” he said.

Coming from a lower-middle class upbringing in British Columbia, Bartsch shared that his father would not fund his undergrad education, prompting him to pursue music in Germany where education is free. A serendipitous encounter with Bardston would make for a perfect storm and the opportunistic means of pursuing his long-time goal.

In 1993, Bartsch attended a masterclass at the Vancouver Academy of Music in which Bardston happened to be a guest teacher and performer. Bartsch’s mother, Lois Manuel, remembers her son’s steadfast determination to study abroad.

“Tim was highly determined, so the next summer when Bob [Robert’s name referred to colloquially] invited Tim to go to Shawnigan Lake Music School where he was teaching, he quickly agreed,” she said.

Tim Bartsch, founder of Southern Time Productions

Tim Bartsch in 2021.

Bardston developed a close relationship with the family, celebrating occasions together and visiting them at home. “I remember my dad cozying up to Bob to make sure he would get me to Germany and make me a success. My dad even gifted him a large photo of a black hand guiding a white hand on a violin,” Bartsch said.

Soon enough, Manuel recalls what she felt were potential red flags: “Bob said he could only get Tim a spot at the school if he was his roommate. We thought it was odd, but we knew you didn’t have to pay for that,” she said. And that wasn’t the only “odd” occurrence, according to Manuel: “In the fall of 1994, Tim’s father and I drove out to Medicine Hat, hoping to meet Bob, but he didn’t seem to be there,” she added. It was during that time when Bartsch explains that he was in an intimate relationship with Bardston, accompanying him across the country on road trips, as both his artistic muse and sexual companion.

A culture of domestic machoism:

Bartsch grew up in a traditionalist household where his father assumed exclusive rule. “He was very abusive, very authoritarian, homophobic and misogynistic. He thought might was right.” He further reveals that his father propagated a culture of bigotry, leading him to rebel against the very things that he was taught to reject.

In my late teen years, I was drawn to everything that my father was against. That is what drew me to get into this sexual relationship with my professor.

But this rebellion would have devastating consequences for years to come. In fact, the beginnings of this internalized psychology were modelled in his relationship with his older brother, “my father 2.0.” Bartsch admits that he engaged in sexual acts with his brother, in large part because of the unhealthy sexual dynamic and abuse he witnessed between his parents. “We would hear my dad being incredibly loud and aggressive in the bedroom with my mom and we were copying that behaviour,” he said.

According to the National Center on the Sexual Behaviour of Youth, “sex play” between children, in which behaviour is centred on body parts and involves kids exploring each other’s bodies, is a normal part of child development. Doctor Robert T. Muller, author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Love, believes that parents should not draw added attention to it because it is a part of normal exploration in very young children.

“Interest and curiosity about your sibling or cousin’s genitals in children who are three, four, or five years old is not necessarily a bad thing, or abnormal. Worry when it crosses a boundary to sustained sexual behaviour, which goes on over an extended period of time,” he said.

Tim Bartsch after studying with Bob for one year.

Bartsch and his brother crossed the boundary from curious sexual behaviour to having sex from the ages of four to eight— and this secret was cause for much internal disruption and overwhelming guilt. “My guilt stemmed from Christianity and knowing what I did was wrong. It was a belief that was engrained in me from my mother’s faith and the notion that I was going to hell for what I did,” he shares.

Much of what Bartsch experienced manifested in unhealthy interpersonal relationships, like his eventual relationship with his professor. “They more easily put up with bad behaviour in others because people who have been abused have difficultly saying no and put up with a lot; so it does put you at risk for poor relationships,” said Muller. The psychology of abuse is complex and reverberates in choices down the line: “They end up feeling unworthy or unloved, particularly if you see physical or sexual abuse. Often, people get the message that they don’t deserve to be cared for,” said Muller.

Chaos inside and outside of the home:

Bartsch recounts desperately trying to drown out the noises of domestic terror coming from down the hallway and doing his best to appease his father’s erratic temper. “There was so much chaos when my father came back from work and suddenly everyone was on edge and we didn’t know what mood he was going to be in,” said Bartsch.

“It was either about the government or my mother’s dinner.” One way he avoided his father’s potential wrath was by staying far away from his “man cave.” While his older brother would be in the basement helping his dad fix auto-parts, Bartsch spent his evenings by his mother’s side, as she unwound from the day’s end by playing the piano. “It was like heaven,” he recalls.

Bob Bardston at the Bartsch’s Vancouver home in 1995.

But he didn’t always fall under the radar. Bartsch remembers a particular incident of abuse that haunts him till this day. “I remember my bum was almost bleeding one time after a belting. It was a black leather belt with spikes on it, and I was only five years old.”

While some children can escape an abusive household during school hours, he felt his classroom aggressors were an extension of the abuse he faced from his father. “I had it at home and I had it at school,” he said.

School was exceedingly difficult for Bartsch who felt like an outcast because he was into classical music. He was called derogatory names like “faggot” and bullied for his timidity.

Doctor Mueller says that being victimized can put you at risk of falling victim to a predator in the future. “People who are predatory, easily seek out others who will put up with a lot of negative behaviour from others. Certainly, there are people who are very good at recognizing people who are vulnerable,” he said.

Being diagnosed, confronting Bardston and going back home:

After Bartsch’s father passed away, things started to unravel. Manuel recalls asking her son about his relationship with Bardston, after discovering a painful revelation from a trusted source. “On the way back to Alberta after the funeral, I remember asking Tim on the plane if Bob ever made any advances toward him because I got a call from a woman who knew that Bob’s ex-boyfriend died of AIDS,” she said.

Still, Bartsch remained tight-lipped about his relationship until a trip with his professor across Europe was the tipping point he needed.

“The six-week vacation was hell for me. I saw all these other kids around me who had these free lives, and had none had these big, dark demons. I wanted to get rid of the burden and the guilt. I felt like while my dad’s fear was no longer present after his death, so nothing was stopping me from telling my mom. I needed her,” said Bartsch. After the trip, he confessed his relationship in a letter to his mother.

Manuel urged her son to get tested for HIV because he was sick. “I remember seeing those pictures from his vacation and he looked so thin and pale and a shell of who my son was,” she said. Bartsch eventually decided to get tested, only a couple weeks after he began his studies in Germany.

Receiving his HIV positive diagnosis was difficult, not only because of the devastating prognosis, but also because of the timing. Bartsch was diagnosed at a time when the disease was as much a victim to prejudice as it was the lack of medical research and overall understanding. Speaking with a hint of melancholic reminiscence, he shares the day he received the cut and dry prognosis.

All they did at the doctor’s appointment was tell me that these new medicines just came out and they look very promising. They said if you don’t take them, you have five years to live and if you do take them, you have maybe ten years to live. And then after the appointment, they pointed me to a councilor down the hall and told me that she had a pamphlet, which she gave me – that was my counselling.

Attitudes toward the disease were reflective of the notion of AIDS being a “gay man’s disease.” Picture Tom Hanks’ character in the 1996 drama, Philadelphia – a film that tackled AIDS discrimination and homophobia.

Tim Bartsch as a teenager before he met Bob Bardston.

It was also a personal battle — a lover scorned by the ultimate betrayal. “Once I found out that he had been lying to me, I felt so betrayed. I felt he was a hypocrite because he always taught me about honesty and integrity, and he was lying to me this whole time.”

In the fall of 1997, Bartsch finally decided to teach music after he described spending “endless days brewing in my mind and misery.” And just when Bartsch thought it was the beginning of the end of his former life, he remembers Bardston showing up in the middle of one of his classes.

“Bob showed up and knocked on my door as I was teaching a cello lesson. I made some small talk with him and I said I would call him because I just wanted him to go away,” he said. “Days after, I just shouted at him over the phone and threatened that I would report him to the police if he ever showed up again.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a condition that is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The virus attacks cells that help the body fight infection, placing a person at greater vulnerability to contracting disease and infection. It is spread through contact with certain bodily fluids with a person with HIV, mainly during unprotected sex.

A CD4 test measures the number of CD4 cells in your bloodstream. The CD4 cells are also known as T cells, which are white blood cells that fight infection. These cells are exceedingly important in the role of a healthy immune system. HIV tacks and destroys CD4 cells, which when lowered, disable the body’s ability to effectively fight off infections.

When antiretroviral therapy first became available in Canada in 1996, the complex regimen required specific food and water requirements and consisted of several pills taken up to three times daily. Current ART is much simpler, and entire regimens may be available in a single pill. Early use of ART can reduce the amount of HIV in the body, which can prevent ongoing damage to the immune system, heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and vital organs. These medications also lower the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

HIV Dissidence:

Advances in HIV science are still living under the haze of AIDS denialism – a belief that HIV does not causes AIDS. While some proponents of denialism do not believe in the existence of the HIV virus, others falsely believe it is a “passenger virus,” meaning that it is a virus that has no causative role. There is much divergence between the dissidence beliefs; however, at the core of this movement is the opinion that pharmaceuticals and those in positions of greater power and medical authority have more to gain through the prescription of HIV therapies.

Bartsch ascribed to the denialist belief, refusing to undergo treatment for his HIV for ten years. “When I first started the medicine for HIV, we were guinea pigs. I got two bouts of kidney stones, I had to take nine pills a day and felt sick to my stomach all the time and had trouble sleeping. But I was never scared – I never feared death, really,” he said.

Happy moments

Perhaps this indifference reflected the naiveté of a simpler era in which the information surrounding this novel virus was similar to the COVID-19 dissidence of 2020/2021.

Bartsch recalls his decision to withdraw from life sustaining therapy for nearly a decade when he developed PCP pneumonia in 2007. Still, that experience wasn’t enough to deter him from his apathetic approaches to the disease that plagued him; the disease that was continuing to manifest in various ways. The following year, he describes a feeling that would foreshadow a dreary fate. “I kept getting this intuition that I had a hole in my brain.”

Finding out he had a hole in his brain that caused nerve damage and a loss of partial mobility eventually led him to spend six months in the hospital. But Bartsch does not reflect on that year despondently and describes 2009 as a transformative period in life that “changed everything for the better.”

“I felt it was a blessing that I faced death because now I knew I would take no moment for granted. Don’t wallow in your sorrow. I used to get depressed and now I don’t,” he said.

I wouldn’t be who I am if I decided to take the medication at that time. My purpose wasn’t being fulfilled. I have much more impact on the world as a disabled man than as someone who has his mobility.

Turning HIV/AIDS apathy into empathy and awareness raising:

HIV/AIDS pandemic has been largely met with a culture of apathy, prejudice and misinformation. The epidemic has profoundly influenced our attitudes toward healthcare and been, at very least, a muted catalyst for self-advocacy in approaching practitioners and the system at large. The knowledge, which has largely been resulted from mistrials and a lack of medical efficacy, has promoted increased awareness on the role of human immunity, drug research and regulation, as well as human rights.

After nearly dying from AIDS and losing his ability to walk without the assistance of a cane, Bartsch identifies with those in lesser, more disenfranchised positions and is compelled to be a voice for people in similar and worst positions.

“As a white man who came from a position of privilege, I now identified with the Global South because I experienced what it was like to be the unworthy of society,” said Bartsch. Despite this discrimination, he recognizes that living with HIV in Canada is still vastly different than having HIV/AIDS in the Third World. “I can freely disclose my status here, and despite the fact that I will be looked at with pity, or not given many opportunities, I still have a freedom to exist in a way that many people in Africa don’t get to,” he said.

The development of Southern Time Productions and Southern Time Foundation:

In 2004, Bartsch attended a workshop for industry creatives in which he had the opportunity to meet with various people who inspired him to adapt his story to musical form.

“Everyone said if you want to put your story out there, it should be musical theatre and that inspired me to write the first script of the stage play of Southern Time. At the same time, I started to record songs for my demo album and went on tour with a band out East,” said Bartsch.

Supporting his dreams wasn’t an easy journey. As any industry creative can attest, it would be years of working odd-end jobs and endless rejection. Bartsch used the rejection as reminder of the obstacles that brought him one step closer to his dreams.

Forgiveness and healing, steps to creating the ‘Dreamer’ series:

In 2021, Bartsch released the commercial trailer for a series called ‘Dreamer’ that recounts his journey in a musical docudrama. He merges the art of telling stories through operatic-rock music with greater awareness through social messaging.

“I want to reshape how we tell stories and how we look at protagonists. It’s about representing global faces, pains and truths. I want people to watch my art and see themselves and their experiences reflected in it,” he said.

And if you ask Bartsch if he could change anything, he wouldn’t.

“I wouldn’t trade my HIV diagnosis for anything. It’s my life path. We are souls that inhabit this human body to experience life and learn from it,” he said.

For more information on Tim Bartsch’s story, or if you are a producer and/or financer who wishes to be part of bringing this art to screen, contact our publicist Nadia Zaidi at info@southerntime.ca


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