Smalltown boy

I didn’t even know what ‘gay’ was until I was harassed for having it. Gay boy. Dirty sanchez. Fancy pants. Faggot. Gay, I soon learnt, was undesirable.

My family lived in a town called Waaia, a hamlet near Shepparton, which in 2015 had the lowest average annual income in Victoria (just $27,627). Each weekday, I would travel by bus to and from the larger town of Numurkah to attend a public secondary college. I was different. Not only was this made clear to me in derogatory terms, but I also knew I was different – in the way I spoke, the way I held my body. These demarcated me. During those years, I didn’t understand why my eyes would move to the shower block at the gym and I was too afraid to ask. And so, before each PE class, I changed in a toilet cubicle, dodging loo paper, puddles of urine and, once, a condom.

Ten years later, homophobia is still common in Australia. I didn’t feel safe enough to come out until after I’d left rural Victoria, yet to this day I continue to encounter scorn – in the media, from our federal government, on the street – because my eyes are drawn to men. A Roy Morgan poll from 2012 indicated that one in five Australians believe homosexuality is immoral – a sin against God! Another of their studies revealed something unsurprising given my own experiences: teenage men have the highest rate of homophobic prejudice, and it’s higher still in rural areas. This is despite growing support of the LGBTI community. Around 68 per cent of Australians support same-sex marriage, and diverse sexuality increasingly appears in mainstream culture – earlier this year, for example, St Kilda Football Club marched at Midsumma, months ahead of the club’s ‘pride match’. The LGBTI rights movement has had a number of wins in Australia: homosexuality’s decriminalisation, certain adoption allowances, LGBTI people being out while in the military. But legally recognised same-sex marriage is still not permitted and men cannot donate blood for a year after having sex with other men. So why, in a liberal society, does homosexuality still pose such a threat?

‘LGBTI’ (or the fuller version LBGTIQA+) is fairly all-encompassing as a term, covering boys liking boys, girls liking girls, liking both, liking people, not having a sexual attraction, being trans, being intersex, and more. Accepting that this is normal is a worldview that sits in opposition to heteronormativity: the assumption that everyone is straight and that boys will always like girls and vice versa. In my experience, the only difference between me and a person who identifies as heterosexual is the people each of us sleeps with (then again, half of heterosexuals sleep with the same sex as I do), so I have never understood the ‘“gay lifestyle” ruining society’ argument that’s propagated by the likes of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), an organisation that spends about $93,000 a year combating modernity.

One recent example of how such groups are instrumental in spreading homophobia was the public and organised campaign against the Safe Schools Coalition program (Safe Schools), led by the Tea Party–like Cory Bernardi and the ACL, which saw the anti-bullying program defunded and restructured. Perhaps the program offended so many conservatives because so many adults still fear a contagion of homosexuality, or of children expressing any kind of sexual identity. Despite its origin as an Abbott government–funded anti-bullying program, the LNP now depicts Safe Schools as controversial and an attempt ‘to de-normalise heterosexuality’, as Australian columnist Gary Johns put it. The flames of homophobia have been further fuelled by LNP MPs such as George Christensen, who used ‘grooming’ to describe the program, a word that is most often used in conjunction with paedophilia.

And yet, same-sex attracted Australians are fourteen times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. The statistic is higher again for those residing in rural areas. LGBTI people are almost four times more likely to have a depressive episode than the general population, and twice as likely to have anxiety disorders. Given the homophobia that is rife in our politics, is it any wonder that there remains anxiety around coming out, and that rates of mental ill-health remain high?

There have been global shifts challenging the idea that a hetero lifestyle should be for all of us: same-sex marriage’s legalisation in twenty-one countries, the biggest being the United States, after its Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage a constitutional right; Sweden introducing a gender-neutral pronoun; the UN hearing on the oppression of sexually diverse individuals in the Middle East. In comparison, Australia has achieved a scattering of localised projects: decriminalisation, some states allowing same-sex couples to adopt and some states expunging criminal records of those convicted of homosexuality prior to its decriminalisation, or apologies from newspapers for publishing the names and addresses of early gay-rights activists. Yet all this has not led to meaningful social reform; that is, genuine acceptance.

Sometimes, it feels as though gay media (think the Star Observer) and vocal proponents for LGBTI rights (too many to name) have been bombarding me with ‘X or Y must happen’ (same-sex marriage, LGBTI people in the military) in order for acceptance to be achieved. Perhaps we homos seek to normalise ourselves because we don’t want to be seen as different anymore, because we want those demarcations eliminated. In the past we were told that different was bad – think of Alan Turing (whose sexuality – and treatment for it – was mostly skimped by the movie The Imitation Game), or the other men and women institutionalised and medicated and subjected to experimental or medieval treatments to ‘cure’ their queerness. Now, at times, we’re part of the mainstream conversation: there’s an invitation for ‘us’ to become more like ‘them’ – something borrowed, something blue and some children too. The bombardment of ‘X must happen’ contributes to the fantasy that homosexuality is accepted now, but discrimination and prejudice still remain.

In February, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Melbourne-based Drummond Street Services had seen double the usual demand for support from young people following the debates around Safe Schools. CEO Karen Field said that young people take the discussions personally, because the program has been created to support them. ‘Young people are presenting in increasing numbers with anxiety, self-harming behaviours and thoughts of suicide,’ she said. Compare this to an article published by the Australian Catholic University’s Kevin Donnelly, who wrote on ABC’s Drum that it’s ‘reasonable and fair that if parents are able to withdraw their children from religious instruction classes, on the grounds that they disagree with their children learning about religion, that parents are also able to opt out of the Safe Schools’. The implication being that, like religion, sexuality is a choice that one can or cannot partake in, a choice that disapproving observers can belittle, order royal commissions into, and subject to close public scrutiny.

‘If you want to treat sexuality like religion, let’s do it – let’s have every sexual-health centre tax deductible and entitled to the same privilege as a church,’ my friend Adam Smith suggests to me. Formerly from the Foundation for Young Australians and the Australian Council for Educational Research, he’s an advocate of Safe Schools. ‘In many ways [Safe Schools is] offensive – it’s holding up a mirror to how unjust and unfair society is, when you actually need to lobby to have safe schools. On the other side, every young person has the right to feel safe in every setting – you can’t have a quality education if you can’t feel safe, can’t connect with your passion and can’t connect with the world.’

I suspect that if I’d heard these debates when I was younger (or read the comments under any article published about Safe Schools – and saw how vitriolic and ill-informed the vocal opponents to the program are), I would’ve been even more anxious and distressed. My experiences at school, what I’ve since come to think of as homophobic bullying, found expression through self-harm; in Year Seven, for instance, I jabbed a mathematical compass into my forearm until it was covered in dark-red dots. Later on, I’d scratch patches of my skin until they bled and then put lemon juice on the wounds to make them sting. I was identified as a threat, and I guess I was trying to change myself, to cleanse myself. Maybe I was even trying to mark myself so the difference was more definable. Adam tells me that when he was growing up there were no role models (even today in Australia I’d argue there still are few public role models LGBTI people can recognise). ‘That was the thing for me, I needed to know [being gay] was okay,’ Adam says, ‘but no one in my community was going to tell me it was okay and there was nobody in my family to tell me it was okay.’ Consider the movies Adam and the rest of us watched, films that stereotyped the gay walk and gay talk. For me, it’s Disney characters that come to mind – Scar from The Lion King, Jafar from Aladdin. These villains planted the idea that a peculiar way of walking and talking is sinister and must be vanquished (a topic also discussed in the documentary Do I Sound Gay?).

A 2015 beyondblue report found that 40 per cent of teenage boys in Australia felt anxious or uncomfortable around gay people, 38 per cent would be unhappy to have a gay person in their social group and 23 per cent felt ‘gay’ was acceptable as an insult. The 2014 report Face the Facts, produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission, revealed that – unsurprisingly – ‘80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their wellbeing and education’. Granted, high school makes young people vulnerable – all those hormones raging, and the need to carve out an identity. There are other factors, too, of course – families, social media, the news. But these stats should make obvious the necessity of programs like Safe Schools, which empower young people with knowledge about the world and the people they will find in it.

I suggested to Adam that young men’s homophobic views could come from seeing, and being a part of, traditions within Australia that are steeped in conservative, often religious ideology: family, clearly defined gender roles, procreation. He agreed. ‘But a lot of people worry about what people will think of them,’ he says. ‘Many straight young people honestly believe nobody deserves to be discriminated against, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to defend you if they hear someone call you a faggot – they’re still worried about being seen to be gay themselves.’

I remember chatting with a friend of mine about something mundane after class. A boy ran up to us with his A4 writing book rolled into a cylinder and asked me, ‘D’you think you could shaft all this?’ My friend said nothing. Nor did another friend, when we were sitting on a veranda one lunchtime and a younger boy jumped up in front of me and rubbed his groin in my face. I can still recall the obscene humiliation of his testicles rubbing against my nose.

The attack on Safe Schools is perhaps the most successful discriminatory campaign since the two major parties opposed same-sex marriage in 2004. Such attitudes re-stigmatise and re-oppress homosexuality, as if there is something offensive about it, something shameful that should be kept in the closet. But if we can’t educate future generations about the realities and possibilities of sexuality and gender diversity, how can we ever expect to overcome prejudice and discrimination? And we must, for we’re talking about fundamental human rights here. A young person should be able to attend school feeling just as intellectually and morally worthy as everyone else, no matter what their hormones are doing inside their bodies. Besides, as Judith Butler wrote nearly three decades ago in Gender Trouble, ‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender […] identity is performatively constituted.’

I have my biases too. I think many homophobic perceptions stem from age-old religious conservativism laced with paternalism: the ideal of a nuclear family held together and led by a monogamous, strait-laced and righteous pair. But political bigotry differs from high-school bigotry. Last year, the ACL expended fifty-three of its annual media releases on anti-LGBTI propaganda and was a key activist in the campaign against Safe Schools. New Matilda reported that a few emails, which appear to have been sent by an ACL generator, link homosexuality to ‘murder [and] warn God sees gays and lesbians as an abomination’. The emails urge readers to ‘rail against “heterophobia” and claim lesser evils than [Safe Schools] have caused civilisations to end’.

In whatever way ‘gayness’ is understood, ‘gayness’ is not going away. Not by medicine, not by therapy and not by throwing it from the tops of buildings. With Achilles and Patroclus, Stein and Toklas, and our own Carlotta, as Gregory Woods notes in A History of Gay Literature, queerness has been here from the beginning, and shall be here in the end, alongside heterosexuality. But homosexuality only recently started to assert itself, with campaigns in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s demanding the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private. After the Stonewall riots in 1969, the early gay-liberation movement began to demand more comprehensive change – the problem was not because of homosexuality, but because of society’s conception of itself. One of the most influential ways of creating change was for queer people to come out, to publicly state their sexuality, Graham Willett, president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, tells me. It was intended as a means of asserting queer presence and identities.

Since then, sportspeople and celebrities announcing their sexuality or gender identity publicly (Caitlin Jenner, Jason Ball) have had positive effects, Graham says. ‘Public coming out is important – but not as important as or more important than the ordinary people moving through ordinary life.’ But I want to know why we queers undergo this idiosyncratic and emotionally exhausting ceremony. Maybe we want to put our peers at ease because they’re uncomfortable and uncertain of boundaries? Or maybe we still feel we need to assert our presence and identity? Graham thinks it’s something else. ‘In the process of coming out, you’re changing the minds of people and the way people think and talk about sexuality or gender identity.’ Ordinary people coming out, therefore, affect common perceptions of homosexuality. So while the ceremony may be difficult, it might also be essential – not unlike same-sex marriage – in normalising diverse sexualities and gender identities.

Reasons for coming out vary; I don’t recall exactly why I did it. In hindsight, it was something I had to do before something fatal happened. I came out after I moved to Melbourne, where I found clubs with boys kissing boys and middle-aged men buying me drinks. Before I came out, when living in rural Victoria, I altered my speech and my body language. I changed the names of my dates when I spoke to friends, kept track of lies I told. After I came out, this stopped. The world kept spinning. Yet sadly, I watched as some of my family and a few of my friends withdrew, as if whom I might have sex with affected the way they felt about me.

Anxiety aroused by coming out may be due to not knowing how your peers will react, Graham suggests, or perhaps from some other cause deep within, such as knowing the personal wrestle to accept that aspect of you. Or the difficulty of putting it in words. Some people say that coming out doesn’t really matter: in the end, those who love you don’t really care and nowadays gays are more accepted. But this just perpetuates the myth of acceptance. In my experience, and according to statistics, anxiety on both sides remains.

‘Growing up in the 60s and 70s,’ Graham says, ‘homophobia wasn’t a word, that’s just the way it was – of course nobody likes poofters.’ Okay, there’s been progress. In 2015, 40 per cent of teenage boys may have felt uncomfortable around LGBTI people, but 60 per cent of young men indicated it wasn’t a problem.

For me, coming out wasn’t good or bad – but it was odd. Almost unnecessary too – I don’t mean to discredit all the good done by coming out over the years, I just mean, well, heterosexual people don’t have to do it. Coming out helped me escape the internalisation of everything – the self-hatred, guilt, shame. Getting it out there also made it real and confirmed what people already suspected. In a sense that was paralysing; on the other hand, I had for years felt I didn’t control my body – that is, when people called me names or rubbed me up, my body gradually became less of my own. I felt they, those boys, owned it. (Perhaps similar to how certain pro-life advocates who picket abortion clinics make women feel – that they are claiming possession of all women’s bodies.)

Coming out, I guess, is reclaiming yourself and your identity. ‘This is my body,’ the person coming out says, ‘and this is who I am.’ In any case, it’s a pretty fucked-up thing to have to do.

Back in 2013, I watched my mother making a roast dinner for herself, my then stepfather and me. I told her to come to my bedroom for a moment. I had something to say. ‘Just tell me here,’ she said. I think I growled. I went to my room and waited. When I didn’t answer her call for dinner, she came and stood in the doorway. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, muted. I handed her a sticky-note that read: I’m gay I’m sorry. Three years after coming out, I’m writing this as an attempt to describe how I feel: the only person I ‘really’ came out to was my mother. Afterward, she asked if I wanted her to tell the rest of my family. I said yes, I didn’t care. But in truth, I was intimidated by the idea of coming out again. Even today, when a certain type of person (those boys) asks me if I’m gay, I get a hot prickle on my brow. I respond to the question by either shyly nodding my head or, if I’ve had a bit to drink, saying, ‘Yeah, are you?’


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Jay Carmichael

Jay Carmichael is a copywriter. He’s studying a Master of Writing and Publishing at RMIT.

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