I’ve been certain of my sexuality since before I knew it was possible to have a sexuality. I think I was six years old when I found one of my father’s Playboys in the magazine rack in the lounge room. (To be fair, I think he actually did read the articles. Playboy in the 70s published some remarkable material. I still have a hardbound collection called “The Playboy Reader” which I leave on my shelves to confound visitors. It contains works from Alberto Moravia, Pablo Neruda and a large number of similarly lauded authors. I rather enjoy watching people double-take when they see the table of contents.)
That skin-mag (tame as it was by today’s standards) made an impression. I have an unusual memory, so perhaps my recollection of the magazine isn’t as odd as it might be — but I can clearly remember a range of pictures of unclothed women, and the inexplicable fascination those pictures held for me at the time. Despite that, at the age of six I was utterly ignorant of sex and cognizant of gender only in the sense that there were men and women, boys and girls, and they were shaped differently. It was not until the magazine was taken away from me in a gentle but determined fashion by my mother that I had even the slightest inkling that somewhere in those differences there lay something powerful and unfathomable.
As time went on, I came to Australia — to Cairns, in Far North Queensland — and there in primary school a few things happened. I stopped playing with girls, and started hanging out mostly with boys, playing rough-and-tumble games of Red Rover or War with sticks for guns. Having said that… there were a few girls that had my interest. I didn’t know why, or what it meant. I only knew that being around those girls made me feel strange. I liked them. I wanted to be near them, but I didn’t know what we might say or do. They didn’t like the games I played, and the games they played with their friends were opaque to me. I could only sit near them sometimes, and try not to look like I was looking at them.
Another thing happened about this time. I first heard the word ‘poofter’ in grade 3 or 4. I had no idea what it meant. Neither did the boy using it. But it was clear that a ‘poofter’ was something bad. Something you didn’t want to be. You called boys you didn’t like ‘poofters’, and that was what the word was for.
My complete lack of sexual knowledge did not last. I had unfettered access to my parents’ collection of books, and in the 1970s fiction was frequently more explicit and direct about sex than it is now. I know that by the age of ten I was familiar with the basic mechanics of heterosexual intercourse, courtesy of a range of paperback novels — thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction… remember that unusual memory I mentioned? I don’t suppose my parents ever suspected just how much I retained, or for how long.
One thing does stand out now, in hindsight. I do not recall a single incidence of fictional writing depicting anything other than heterosexual behaviour. I didn’t see anything written about homosexuality until I was sixteen, I think — and even then, it was depicted as deviant behaviour: scary and disturbing to the male character exposed to male homosexuality, disturbing and arousing to the male character exposed to the female version. (No. I don’t recall a single book in which a female protagonist was exposed to alternative sexualities. And I would, if I’d read one.)
At the time, I didn’t consider the lack of depiction of homosexuality to be odd. I didn’t consider it at all, to be honest. By the age of fifteen or so, I knew what a ‘poofter’ was. I had also acquired the word ‘lesbian’. At school, the jury was out on lesbianism — but to be a ‘poofter’ was still completely unacceptable. We used the word a great deal in conversation, teasing and accusing one another. But it was clear that nobody wanted to be a ‘poofter’, and certainly there were no poofters in my high school. Dear me, no. So a lack of alternative sexualities in the books I read was — well, it was completely invisible to me.
Once again: in hindsight, this is pretty telling. There were plenty of authors of differing sexualities, particularly in science fiction. And later, I read some of Samuel Delany’s works which incorporated alternative sexualities, as well as Phillip Dick’s stuff. But I simply didn’t encounter those until later.
At university in Brisbane, things more or less picked up where they’d left off in high school. Except there I had to make new friends — and they were a little different. There were more people who had interests that I could share. Fewer who wanted to spend their time getting pissed, doing donuts in their ute, or playing endless hours of footy. The word ‘poofter’ was still out there, but by now we’d all seen Monty Python. It was hard to take the word seriously after seeing the Australian Bruces sketch…. Still, it was the height of AIDS fear. The association between the disease and male homosexuals was identified and widely disseminated. We might not have used the word ‘poofter’ in the same way, but there was still fear — fear of something different, and badly understood.
This fear, too, gradually came to be worn away. First I learned about gay authors. Then there were the musicians whose sexuality was… fluid, at the very least. Less important to me were the cinema actors, but they had a part as well. In my expanding cultural awareness, it was increasingly impossible to ignore the fact that non-straight creators included many people whose works and ideas I admired tremendously. These were people whose lives had often been blighted by the treatment they received for their sexuality, or by the need to hide that sexuality, and gradually I became aware that I was… angry?
Yes. It was anger. I’d been bullied as a kid. And I was different enough myself that I understood something of what it meant to be a perennial outsider, never certain of acceptance or even safety. Thus, when I learned that Tchaikovsky (to cite just one example), whose music I adore, had to spend a lifetime trying to hide his sexuality — I was genuinely angry. At this time in my life, I was only just beginning to understand the value and importance of a sexual relationship. The idea that some of the world’s most remarkable people had been vilified for their choices (and remember: at this time homosexuality was still seen by most as a ‘choice’) was horrible.
I stopped using the word ‘poofter’ except where it was clearly Pythonesque. Somehow, most of my friends also seemed to stop at about that time. Nobody resorted to words like ‘fag’ or ‘queer’, the latter of which had not yet been taken up and legitimised by the nascent movement which would adopt the term. It wasn’t that we stopped talking about alternative sexualities; they’d never really featured in our conversations anyway. Very simply, we stopped using the derisive terms that had peppered our language when we were younger.
The final piece of the puzzle — if it’s a puzzle at all — came from people around me. I think the first openly gay man I knew was a fellow called Dave. (There were a lot of Daves back then.) I watched him carefully at first. I’d never known anyone who acknowledged an alternative sexuality before. Dave was smart. He was creative. He had a good sense of humour. He was kind, and friendly. His conversation did not revolve entirely around his relationships with other men — in fact, I cannot recall any discussions of that sort, but as our social circles interacted only peripherally, perhaps that’s the reason. I don’t know. In any case, he wasn’t obsessive and predatory or anything like what I’d been taught to expect.
Altogether, Dave gave me no reason to fear him or his sexuality. He seemed to me pretty much like most of the people around whom I enjoyed spending time. What he did with other consenting adults he kept to himself. In fact, it was a good deal more comfortable being around him than it was (from time to time) to be around some of my straight friends who were entering sexualised relationships for the first time. (Get a room, you two!)
It wasn’t much after this that the slippery slope caught up with me. One of my lovers outed herself as bisexual, drifting around the edges of the Brisbane lesbian community of the time. She remains a dear friend of mine, and it was my love for her at the time which made it possible for me to see how the norms of the society in which I lived — the social behaviours that I and everyone else took for granted — were often hurtful and damaging to people who didn’t fit those norms.
And so, quite naturally, I wanted to help change those behaviours to make them welcoming and inclusive. Because social rules that hurt my friends and loved ones were then, as they are now, anathema to me. We are human. We live together. Respect is paramount.
I am a parent now. My kids saw the Monty Python Bruces sketch early. I answered their questions honestly, whenever I could. When the word ‘gay’ crept into their vocabulary as a term of denigration through school, we had long talks about what it meant, and who was gay, and what it meant to be on the wrong end of words like that. I like to believe they’ve started out a lot farther along this road than I did, and as near as I can tell they’re pretty much right next to me these days. I’m happy about that.
That, right there: that’s the end of my journey on this topic so far. I started as a child of the repressed, straight-assed USA and moved to the comically homophobic rural North Queensland of the Monty Python era. But time — and most importantly, broadened cultural exposure, education, and exposure to openly LGBTIQ people — taught me that the nameless fears of my childhood were ludicrous. More: I learned that the people who truly had something to fear were those I’d been taught to fear and revile.
I have never been ashamed of my past on this. Children learn from what they see around them. It is, I think, the mark of a genuine human being to be able to observe, to learn, and to change one’s behaviours and opinions in line with what one learns. I observed. I learned. I changed.
I am still learning.
I do not think this journey of mine has been remarkable. I write about it now only because I want people to see how unremarkable it was, how natural the transitions in my thinking were, how each stage of growing awareness led to better understanding, less fear, more openness and inclusion. My own nature has not changed. I remain thoroughly ‘straight’, and no amount of self-examination has ever revealed to me any sexual attractions or desires other than to women. All that changed was my understanding and my willingness to accept alternatives in other human beings, and I am very much the richer for such changes.
I write this at a difficult, divisive time in Australia. An abhorrent government has forced an appalling process on us, demanding that we stand in judgement over our friends and loved ones in the hopes of extending to them the same legal rights and protections that those of us who fall into the “acceptable” categories already possess. We are forced to act as though it is right and proper for us to decide on the validity of our friends and loved ones’ relationships and rights, because if we do not step up and take on the role of judge, those relationships and rights will continue to be curtailed and denied.
I choose to vote in support of my friends and loved ones on this matter, repugnant though I find this government’s manipulation of the population, of opinion, and of basic human kindness. It is the lesser of two evils, and with luck, if I and everyone like minded works together, we can undo a severe injustice and make our society at least a little more fair, a little more tolerant.
I tell this small story now because this ugly government’s actions have now forced so many of my friends and loved ones to tell their own stories, to bare their pasts in the hopes that they can win the acceptance that should be their natural right. If my LGBTIQ community is forced to step up and justify who they are, then it’s only right and fair that I should do likewise.
Here I am. This is how I got here. I hope that when you’ve read this, if you had any doubts about what is right in this terrible farce the government has forced on us, you will lay those doubts to rest and vote in support of simple human equality before the law.
Take your paper. Vote ‘yes’. Send it in.