Of course I’d heard the St Kevin’s chant before, and other ones like it.
Everyone’s asking what kind of culture produces boys, and men, like this? There’s another question, though, which is: what does the culture look like from the other side?
My answer to the question started to form in late 2017. This essay, via a detour through Hannah Gadbsy and #metoo, is about my experiences with a private school culture, and private school homo- and transphobia, very much like those at St Kevin’s.
I had just walked out of Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette, and I was trying to suppress how traumatising it was for me. I was with some of my friends, but all I wanted was to be alone and cry until I couldn’t breathe. Everyone I went with cried during the show, nobody really knew what to say. So I did exactly what Gadsby explained she has done in her life: packaged up my own discomfort to make other people feel better.
‘That was great’.
‘I wasn’t expecting it to be so …’
The feeling I had then is not exactly new. It was just that in late 2017, it got worse, and harder to hide. Walking home, I realise that the trauma I was experiencing has been coming closer to the surface for a few months. I was walking through the same park in Sydney where the plebiscite result was celebrated by some thousands of LGBTIQA people back in November, including me. People popped champagne, but I cried, and I felt deflated. I was relieved, sure, but part of me knew that six out of ten people not hating you is not freedom. I wondered: which of the four out of ten are in my family? Which are my colleagues? Which are the people in this park, this restaurant, this train, this meeting, this classroom where I am teacher?
I remember a lover telling me many times I was ‘well-adjusted’, considering the homophobia I had experienced in my life. And certainly, engagement in activism has given me a grounding over the years, a way of understanding what’s so wrong with the world, what it does to people like me, and working with others who want to do something about it.
But the postal vote – and to some extent, since #metoo, since I turned thirty – I am starting to think that part of me was adjusted so well for everyone else’s benefit. The central message of Nanette is that Gadsby’s way of dealing with being on the margins of society – a gender ‘not normal’ lesbian, in her words – has been to make herself easier to digest. She has allowed herself to be laughed at, she has told her stories in a certain way to make others feel good.
When Gadsby said part of her reason for not coming out to her grandmother was because she knows some part of her still disgusts herself, I was shocked. I felt it in my sternum. I had to remind myself to breathe. And I felt guilt, and shame. At my family Christmas in 2017, my mother and father both failed to ask about my then partner. Not once. I mentioned their name several times and created several opportunities for discussion. Nothing. No questions.
It has been around eight years since I told my parents they had to acknowledge my partners and treat me equally, or I was gone – no more contact, no more relationship. They responded by doing that, but never with enthusiasm. Now, even that acknowledgement is scarce. During the postal survey, they said nothing. I don’t know how they voted. And yet, like Gadsby, I’m still wary of writing this and raising this. How much longer will I preserve others’ comfort, at the expense of my own self-esteem? Don’t upset Christmas. Don’t make a scene. Don’t make yourself noticed.
When Gadsby explained how her mother had said she was happy she hadn’t raised her kids in the church, I remembered how once my Dad, an atheist, had said the opposite: perhaps I should have been raised religiously, then I wouldn’t be doing this injury to him. I was seventeen and I had come out to my parents by a kind of accident. I was crying over a fight I was having with my then partner, and my Mum, in a bad mood, demanded to know what was wrong. I remember crumbling on the kitchen floor, telling her she’d hate me. At some point the words spilled out. A brief silence, a firm look. Well, she said. I can’t pretend to be pleased.
I was made to sit on the couch until my father returned from work. My mother forced me to say it again. All I remember was my father yelling, and the look on his face. I left later that night in a cab. A couple of months later, by which time I turned eighteen, I had organised a share house with friends.
Of all the things they said, then and after, there is one that has stuck with me most. My brother told me, a few years after I came out, that my father asked him if I was gay because I was too fat to attract any men.
Nanette is about why Gadsby decided to leave comedy (which in the end, she didn’t do). The decision, originally, was motivated by her determination to value herself and not to box up her pain for the sake of creating funny sound bites that assuage others. In this show she used her immense ability to control the audience in a completely different way compared to anything she has done previously. She talked about some of the most horrible things that have been done to her, that she has experienced, and for once, for the first time, not for jokes. She wanted us to sit in her discomfort with her, and to understand the way that comedy usually comes at the expense of the vulnerable.
I felt, at times, like I was listening to myself talk, except with more courage. A few times in life, I’ve been mistaken for Hannah Gadsby. We look alike only very superficially: we are both butch, fat, with short brown hair and glasses. We both wear dark jeans. That is where the similarity ends.
I am not shy about giving speeches. I have been a political activist for a decade, now I am a (sessionally employed) university lecturer. But to tell my own stories makes me feel paralysed with fear.
In high school, I found I was determined to try and be like everyone else. I made up for my sense that I was ugly and overweight by being loud, and funny, projecting confidence. I made a public art of not trying and not caring about school. I made up boyfriends. I made up stories about sex I’d never had, and pregnancy scares. And for about a year, I tried to make myself heterosexual – and try to affirm my desirability, despite my fatness – by trying hard to be with boys and men. Though I didn’t enjoy it, I was desperate to seek their approval.
In 2016, I met up with a friend, Charlie (not their real name), who had been my best friend in my final year of high school. They did something unexpected in the first twenty minutes of our meet up, the first in years, as we sat in white plastic chairs at North Sydney Pool. It was a beautiful Sydney day. They apologised for not really doing anything when I was raped, for not supporting me.
We were on a group holiday at Stradbroke Island, north of Brisbane and our school. I was sixteen. It was 2003. We were drinking. I remember we’d been on the beach, in a big group, and as we walked away up past the surf club, I’d seen a man drinking by himself wearing an Australian rugby jersey. He was drinking a beer and he looked right at me. At the time, I knew he was older. Now I think he may have been in his mid-thirties. He was tall, broad-shouldered, with blond hair, a short cut grown out. I remember walking down the middle of the road with a few friends and meeting another man. Shorter, darker hair, probably in his late twenties. Actually, for years I even had a picture of him, taken on a disposable camera – but at some point I decided I couldn’t keep it anymore. I remember him kissing me. I remember feeling so pleased that he wanted me to, even though by this point at least part of me knew I wasn’t going to enjoy any of it.
I remember the short, dark-haired man leading me away into the bushes. I remember feeling so frozen with fear, not able to say no. I remember saying it hurts, I remember telling him to pull out so I wouldn’t get pregnant. I remember thinking: did I sign up for this by kissing him? By following him? Where were my friends? Then the man in the Australian rugby jersey was there. He must have been waiting there. He raped me too, while his friend took pictures. It was at the moment they were taking the pictures that I realised just how pre-meditated it was.
Somewhere in the world, there are photographs of a sixteen-year-old girl being raped in the bushes by two strangers on Stradbroke Island: her first experience with sex.
I gave no consent, I was in no state to. But for years, I struggled to really recognise what happened as rape. Part of me felt the way my rapists must have felt – what else does a fat dyke slut deserve?
I couldn’t say a lot about it at the time, but Charlie’s apology was so meaningful to me. I felt validated in their recognition. I felt better about relating what had happened to me to my intellectual understanding of rape, sexual assault, and sexism.
I sometimes teach eighteen-year-olds who can give you a breakdown of gender identity in 280 characters or less. It leaves me dumbfounded and proud. When I was eighteen, a friend (she hasn’t been since) asked me if I was gay because I’d been raped.
When I went to the doctor’s the morning after on Stradbroke Island, the male doctor didn’t think to ask me why I wanted the pill if I had been assaulted. Instead he lectured me about unsafe sex while looking down his nose, and prescribed me twenty-eight contraceptive pills because there was no morning-after pill in their pharmacy. I didn’t have the words at the time, but I knew the way he acted that morning was shockingly unfair, and yet I also already understood it as a reality of the world I was growing up into.
That same morning, it was alluded to in our friendship group that the same thing had happened to another friend. Everyone was sorry, the holiday turned morose, but little was said. I never asked her about it. This was the reality of life and sex in prestigious Brisbane private girls’ school in the early 2000s. Every weekend we’d go out in cabs to some rich kid’s party where girls were assaulted by boys. There were so many times, I can’t remember them all.
The richer the boys and men, the more obvious their impunity. For all the ridiculous rules designed to instil some kind of British schoolhouse discipline and academic achievement, nobody took seriously the rape culture at the heart of private school life. The signs of misogyny should have been obvious to any adult working at these schools, even if they could claim ignorance about the weekends. Our school was up a hill. Our brother school declared us ‘the frigid on the ridge’. At Brisbane Boys Grammar, a favourite pastime was to produce a whale mating call directed at fat girls.
For the boys, the worst thing was to be a ‘faggot’: and it was my parents’ frequently expressed concern that my brother not be one of those that I now understand led him to bring the sexist bullying practices home. To signal oneself as a (straight) man was to hate girls and women with visible ferocity.
It was the murkier allegations, like those against Aziz Ansari, that turned many establishment opinion-makers into sceptics of #metoo. Why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she say no? they ask.
To everyone with experiences like mine, the answer is obvious: because these are not isolated incidences of extreme violence, but the quotidian experiences of women, girls and trans people in a culture that normalises this. We don’t do anything because nobody cares, and all we do by raising it is to make people uncomfortable.
The tired, blame-the-victim refrains are everywhere in the wake of the Pell case: official, respectable elite opinion has turned one the world’s most famous sex offenders into a martyr of injustice, a victim of the Left’s desire to punish.
The uniqueness of the response to St Kevin’s is that people appear to have noticed a tradition that has gone on as an open secret for generations. For me, these gender norms were also experienced as a culture of overwhelming homophobia, transphobia and fatphobia.
I have only ever had one sexual interaction with a cisgendered man that I could describe as fully consensual. After Stradbroke Island, I did not come out for over a year. As with my experience of rape, part of me always felt like my desperateness to want men’s affections – to try to want them, to try to be wanted, to try to be normal – is why I was in these situations, and so they were therefore my fault.
Only recently have I been able to turn it around and question the men involved, and the boys who did things like this to my friends. What part of them said, this is okay? And to ask myself: what was it that made me think I deserved this treatment? How did the homo- and transphobia, the sexism, the intense hatred of fatness built into this culture, become something that internal to me, that prevented me from seeing that I was deserving of worth, respect, and justice?
A ‘culture shift’ is a nebulous thing, but it is hard to name otherwise the shifting and evolving discussions on sex, consent, assault and sexism that have, paradoxically (or not), grown up in the era of Trump, Morrison and Johnson.
The true horror of St Kevin’s is its mundanity. The most important thing we can understand about it is that’s not toxic masculinity, not bad boys and men, but that this is how gender, sex and sexuality are regulated. From ‘what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep’ to Scott Morrison’s friendship with Brian Houston down to the hallways of boarding schools, it is through this everyday violence that these norms have their power.
There is almost no-one I grew up with who doesn’t have a story like mine. I tell it here because of how many years it has taken me to get here – half of my lived existence. This is what rape culture – our culture – produces: generations of girls, women and trans folks who have to fight just to understand themselves as worthy.
Gadsby says in Nanette that while she is angry, her anger is unproductive. I respectfully disagree. Our stories can be our start. But our anger can be our sustenance.