Becoming human: lived experience, suicide and the complexities of being

My mother discovered me having sex with my best friend who was the same sex as me when I was seventeen. I remember how she looked at me with horror and righteousness, knowing and believing I would go to hell. She said to me in a serious tone that I should think about ending my life. Suicide was the answer for such shame.

In my multiracial family of Māori and Pākehā roots and affected by intergenerational, postcolonial trauma, this was no joke. My mother and sister had attempted to end their lives. There was abuse and a lot of self-harm in my family. After several dramatic rehearsals, my father ended his life on just as I was about to turn nineteen, in 1977. My brother ended his life on New Year’s eve in 2007. Annual reminders are hard to avoid.

My mother and I were very close. She was my teacher. Her Christian beliefs were powerful, literal, black and white, and god was an old white man who sat on a throne and had a long white beard. We were suburban Christians. I went to the local Baptist Church and received my first bible in bible class.

Faced with the knowledge that I had sinned and that I would go to hell, she took me to our family GP and asked him to cure what she called a ‘psychiatric’ condition afflicting her son. The GP gave me a choice: attend conversion therapy or take an anti-depressant. I chose the second option, and completed my final year of high school on tryptanol, but not without a serious attempt to end my own life during that period.

The first time I spoke publicly about these things was as an invited speaker at the Suicide Prevention Australia conference in 2015. I shook as I spoke. In a visceral sense, there was blood in my mouth, as Toni Morrison might say. You are talking about your very existence as a human being and the vulnerability and mutuality that goes with being human.

Thus, the present debate and commentary about Israel Folau’s right to freely say in a public way that I will go to hell cuts to the very core of my humanity – of my very existence on the planet, in the universe.

Like my mother, he is saying to the world (though he is using a loud-hailer in a public square), that my sexuality is an abomination, to be riven from my capacity to be human. His action dehumanises me. It dehumanises all people who may be sexually or gender-diverse human beings.

Like my mother, he can say whatever he wishes to say, proclaim whatever belief he may have and try to persuade, terrorise and convince me that his belief is the only truth.

But – also as in the case of my mother, who was motivated by her love for me and her fear of my sin – the impact of his words can be devastating and profoundly harmful.

There are deep stories of being human that go way beyond ideology and belief, as my mother came to understand.

As a human rights scholar, I think about what makes us human all the time. As someone who has survived a family template of suicide, I have come to learn that being human is about understanding the preciousness, fragility and beauty of life. Suicide has touched me as deeply as anything, and I have been moved to dedicate myself to human rights as a response. In my work, I have learned how people are vilified, discriminated against, excluded, tortured, executed, denied their very being, because of something that is fundamental to their humanity.

Like sexuality, other markers of who we are – disability, ethnicity, gender, race – are fundamental human characteristics. In various contexts, these fundamental dimensions of being human have been and are regarded to be on the wrong side of belief and ideology: illnesses, aberrations, acts of the devil and so on.  But, as in the case of blue eyes, or being left-handed, or red-haired, the human family is defined by its inherent diversity. The human story is about those things that make us connected but also distinctive and unique.

We know what happens when ideologies and belief systems depend on the exclusion of certain kinds of human being. Last week, for example, was the commemoration in Germany of the estimated fifteen thousand gay people who were imprisoned and executed in Nazi concentration camps according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I have learned that these deep stories go way beyond the shallows of Folau and the empty and nasty cries for religious freedom. Belief at its worst can become like a cul de sac, a retreat from diversity.

In a meeting I had with South African anti-apartheid advocate Archbishop Desmond Tutu a number of years ago, he told me why he was, in his words, a ‘gay activist’. He regarded what he called ‘the apartheid of homosexuality’ in the same way as he witnessed and experienced racial apartheid in his country. Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell extended this connection in their book Disability in Australia:  Exposing a Social Apartheid.

Tutu explained that any form of discrimination or exclusion or denial of fundamental dimensions of being human was an act of apartheid. He also saw how theology was often used to justify these things.  Apartheid as we know has been a way of dealing with human diversity in the most horrific ways. Its shadow is cast over us now in the ascent of hate speech and extremism.

I would like to invite Israel Folau into my world – along with other public figures who hold similar views about homosexuals such as Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Australian Christian Lobby’s (ACL) Martyn Iles. Each day, each week I am shocked and reminded through the human rights work that I do with LGBTIQ+ people in Australia and around the world, of the comprehensive, systemic and relentless stories of hate, persecution, exclusion, discrimination, high suicide rates, as well as executions, of LGBTIQ+ human beings, simply on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity or sex characteristics. Often because of a belief system, out-dated laws, unscientific understandings, or political ideologies.

Like many LGBTIQ+ people, I witness every day in the media a myriad stories about how we should not exist. We are frequently pathologised, fixed into stereotypes or have our integrity erased. Many of us live in hell or have escaped from it. Broadcasting a belief that we will go to hell after we die is not much different from what my mother told me when I was seventeen. What is the end-logic of that action and belief? What if I had followed my mother’s advice?

I’m very happy to report that my mother changed her views over time. She did so because we love each other, unconditionally.

I think truth-telling is at the core of being human. And truth-telling doesn’t need to be funded.  This is in stark contrast to Folau and ACL’s fallacious crowdfunding campaign aimed to pay for his legal battle with Rugby Australia, but also now being used  as a test case for so-called religious freedom.

Truth-telling should be about taking responsibility and having respect, because, in the end, as the human rights philosopher Bryan Turner has put it, we all belong to a human community of suffering.

The deep story beyond the shallows is the wonder of each other, and how life is created and expressed through the lens of billions and billions of unique lives. The work of becoming human is to understand the complexities of being human, at the heart of which is the intense sunshine of radical, undeniable, diversity. We know that looking into the sun for more than a moment makes our eyes hurt. That is our challenge.


Image: Flickr

Baden Offord

Baden Offord is Director of the Centre for Human Rights Education at Curtin University.

More by Baden Offord ›

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  1. Thank you very much for so eloquently and elegantly writing what I and many, many, many other people feel, think and live by. One beautiful day it won’t be many, many, many ……. it will be all.

    Here is wishing……
    Yours Micky Maria Foss

  2. Thank you, Baden, for your thoughtful and insightful piece on the fundamentalist football Fool-au. If someone’s child were to take Folau’s ignorant blatherings so seriously as to commit self-harm, I should hope the child’s parents would sue Fool-au for all he’s worth.

    Being a “public” person in the form of a sports “hero”, and hence a role model, is a privilege, and all privileges come with attendant responsibilities. Fool-au seems to not accept that; perhaps he’s too bone-headed to realise it.

    The trouble with fundamentalism is that it’s mostly fundament.

  3. Thank you Baden.

    Telling your truth, living your truth, opens spaces for others to tell and live their lives and loves.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing with me. Such a great piece of writing. I am so happy your mothers views changed and of course love for each other will do it every time.
      Marion K

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this story that brings into relief the impact of C19th Christianity on the wellbeing of the people of the Pacific. This was the beginning of fascism whereby people were relegated to the hard-boundaried gender categories of male and female. Previously to this the Indigenous people recognised many categories and ways of being. And this criminal act is only part of the story of the colonisation of the Pacific. I wish you love and peace.

  5. A wonderfully expressed personal insight into the misery one human can cause another because they insist that others believe as they do.

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