This is a talk I did as part of ACT Fair Day, in conjunction with Noted Festival. The topic from the event was ‘growing up queer’, and in doing so I spoke about the process of learning about what it’s like to be queer before coming out. Thanks to Noted Festival for organising the talks, and for the team at Canberra Spring Out for organising Fair Day.
Hi everyone and thank you for having me up on stage today.
The theme for today’s talks is simply ‘growing up queer’. When asked to talk about this my immediate thought was to go straight to my coming out experience. I came out, strangely enough, at the behest of Ian McKellan. I wish I could say he did so personally, but in reality it was much more boring than that. I watched an interview with him in which he talked about his coming out process, and somehow it pushed me to do it. I’d told my parents within a week.
Coming out is one thing that all queers having in common – it’s something we’ve all had to do, something we’ll all have to do again and again.
I was thinking about what it was like in those days as a teenager – the fear of rejection, the potential of bullying and taunting, and the feelings of vulnerability that I know many queers face. That’s again something we can all talk about.
Yet, after all the negativity of the past few months, I thought, why not do something different? Because while these things of course happen – while they still happen far too often – we are all here because managed to survive them.
We’re here because we managed to be queer kids, and queer teenagers, and queer young adults, and we were able to take those experience and not just survive, but also thrive, because of them. We did so through sheer resilience and immense creativity.
I think one of the most creative parts of being a young queer person is finding ways to learn how to be queer. Queerness is a unique experience, but it’s one, at least for the first years of our lives, that we have to figure out on our own. We don’t have the benefit of having an entire society being shaped around our sexuality, as when we’re not out, we don’t get to go and ask someone about what being queer actually means.
But there is so much to learn – we have to figure out where queer people are, how we can meet them, what queer sex is, and what our queer cultural practices are. We have to find ways to lean these things in secret.
When I look back on it, it was these moments of exploration and discovery that I hold on to the most. They are small moments that helped me become the person I am today. They are moments that were often difficult at the time, but ones that I cherish now.
When I grew up the Belconnen Mall was the cool place to hang out.
As teenagers we’d go there all the time – playing games at Insanity, seeing movies at Hoyts, or just to hanging at the food court.
But when I got a moment I would also sneak to the mall by myself, with one goal, and one goal only – to get to the newsagents. You see, newsagents had one thing I couldn’t get anywhere else – gay magazines.
This, by the way, was the time before Grindr, Tumblr, Growlr, and all the other “rrr” apps. This was before I had the internet on the photo – I couldn’t just Google whatever the hell I wanted.
Let’s be blunt here, as a teenage boy, the first part of this was about these mag was being able to see pics of hot dudes. Again, this was before I go to Google and search “Chris Hemsworth shirtless” and get everything I need. Not that I would do that now. Never…
At the exact time I was discovering an appreciation for the male body I had scant access to it – something that was beyond frustrating.
You see most straight kids can get away with that. As a teenage boy it’s probably expected that you may have some porn under your bed. Your parents will act shocked when they find it, but everyone knows it’s going to happen. As a teenage girl you get to have crushes on big movie stars, and no one will ever question that with you.
We queers don’t get that. We have to act like we have those crushes, while at the same time searching, everywhere, for some form of outlet.
I had a few outlets already.
My parents once bought me a set of new underwear that had a picture of a man in tighty-whities on the front. I cut out the headless torso, hiding in my room to look at every now and then. I’m wondering now whether this is the origin of headless Grindr profiles…I feel there may be a thesis in that.
I also loved AFL, and had heaps of AFL magazines. I still have a copy of a magazine from 1999, when I would have only been eleven, with a photo of a player from Hawthorn getting his shorts ripped off. I have no idea why they decided to put this photo in, except to arouse young gay kids. But do you know what, I wasn’t complaining!
Can I just say, football must have been designed by the gay gods. I mean, AFL is bad enough, but in rugby union there are literally grown men putting their heads between each other’s thighs on a regular basis. It’s like someone up above knew that we’d live in a homophobic society, and so made some of the most masculine things out there also the most homoerotic. Just for the laughs maybe, or maybe just to help gay kids like me get through the day. Again, I wasn’t complaining.
But anyway, while the underwear packages and football magazines were a good start, they were nothing compared to the gay mags.
I’d find time after school to go to the mall by myself, shrugging off my friends. I’d then go to the biggest newsagency in the mall, right down the end near Woolworths.
They had their “adult magazines” in an aisle backing up against the wall, looking directly at the counter. This was good. No one from behind could see me, and I had a view of the entrance just in case someone I knew happened to walk go. I’d go into the store, and cruise around the other aisles, acting very smartly like I was there for something else. I’d stop and look at the music mag, or the sport mags, flicking through, but always with an eye on the adult section.
I was keeping an eye out for the brief moment when no one else was in that aisle. When the aisle was clear I’d walk over as fast as I could, trying to be calm, but on the outside probably looking like an anxious mess.
Then I’d pick up a magazine – ‘DNA’ or ‘Blue’, flick through it as quickly as possible, and then put it down and walk away before anyone would notice. All this planning and stress for a few glimpses – a pic here and there, or maybe a headline or two. This I would then do on repeat – in the same store, or in the second newsagent on the other side of the mall. Sometimes I’d go to the other newsagent, and then walk back to the first one in the same session, just for those brief moments.
Another avenue I had to explore my queerness was TV, and this avenue was much better. I had two favourites: The Secret Life of Us and Queer as Folk.
The Secret Life of Us was great because it was a show the entire family could watch. If you don’t remember it was an Australian show about a group of young Melburnians figuring out their lives.
The show dealt really well with gay characters. At first you’re introduced to Simon – there’s a connection right there. For those of you haven’t being paying attention, my name is Simon as well. I know, it’s hard to keep up. Simon was a side character, managing the local bar. Then one night Simon, and one of the main characters, Richie, have sex. Richie, at the time thinking he was straight, goes through a process of coming out as gay, discovering his sexuality at the same time.
This was great. It was like Richie was discovering what it was like to be gay at the exact time I was. What was frustrating was that he got to do it as adult, which brings a lot of perks! He learns about lots of different things. At one point he goes to a beat by a Melbourne beach, hooking up with a hot dude in a toilet stall. That was my introduction to beats. At another point he goes to a club, coming home and describing to one of his straight friends what glory holes are – again that was my first ever introduction to such a concept.
And the great thing about The Secret Life of Us was that I got to watch it while the rest of my family was around. It was a “straight show” so we used to watch it as a family. Here I was being introduced to some pretty gay concepts, all under the nose of a family who had no idea what I was taking from it.
Queer as Folk was completely different. It, the American version that is, was shown on Monday nights, 9:30, on SBS. Of course it was on SBS. I realise now that the show started in 2000, which was when I was only twelve.
And actually just one point on that. Don’t you get really annoyed when conservatives complain about gay things because “we’re exposing kids to questions about sex far too early, and we’ll turn them gay!” First of all, if those kids want to be gay, great for them. The more the merrier I say. But also, what were these people doing as teenagers? Like seriously when it comes to finding out about sex, teenagers, and in particular queer teenagers, are really good at it! Like, if you think you think you can hide kids from sex then you must have the most more childhood ever.
Luckily by the time Queer as Folk had started I was old enough that I no longer had a bed time, and even more luckily it was on late enough that most of the time my family would have gone to bed by then. I still remember watching the first ever episode. For weeks ahead they’d been ads for it and I had clocked the time, waiting, super patiently with the hope that my family would go to bed before it was on. I was lucky, and was suddenly watching the first proper gay show I’d ever seen. I sat in the lounge room, by myself, seeing something I’ve never experienced before.
At other times I wasn’t quite as lucky. Sometimes my brother or sister would be stubborn and stay up late. Those moments I’d have to give up on the episode for the week, waiting impatiently for the next week. Other times I’d retreat to the kitchen and the tiny TV we still had in there. I’d have to watch it standing up, my hand on my…..remote – come on, get your head out of the gutter — ready to pounce in any moment to change the channel if someone walked in. I would be nervous for the entire hour, but it was totally worth it.
Again, from Queer as Folk I learnt a lot. While of course I got turned on by the sex, even though now I don’t find any of the characters that attractive, it also dealt with serious issues. Actually just one moment on that, because doesn’t that say something about sexuality. My tastes in men are so different now to what they were fifteen years ago – so different. Desires change dramatically, so don’t tell me where all born this way.
Anyway, Michael, the main character, ends up dating someone with HIV, with the show dealing with all the issues that came with that. Another bit character at one point goes home with someone from the club and get murdered. Suddenly the violence queers face quite regularly seemed very real. And in later seasons another character Justin joins a group that bashes homophobes who taunt them in the streets. Most of all I loved their sense of family and community – the idea that you choose your own family ran throughout the show. These were real issues that I managed to glimpse in those moments watching TV on a Monday night.
When I finally did come out to my parents at aged 15, exploring these issues became much easier. My parents helped me find a Canberra-based website, Qnet, where I was able to connect with other queer kids in the region. I would comment on posts, ask questions, get to know other people. I remember one post from a 16 year old, who gave everyone the top tips on how to give a blow job. At the time I was jealous that he’d obviously had so much experience, now I’m just impressed by his early adoption of Google.
I then joined Bit Bent, Canberra’s queer youth group. My Monday nights watching Queer as Folk were replaced with Monday nights at Bit Bent, creating a proper circle of queer people.
Yet, these moments, ones which were often only glimpses of time, remain integral to me. Looking back on these things I remember them as being hard. Feeling the need to hide things all the time was difficult. Yet at the same time they built me, and I look back on these events fondly. They’re only small moment — the glimpse of a magazine, the joy of a Monday night when I got to watch an entire episode of Queer as Folk. But these small moments meant something. They helped define who I was, and who I am now.