The week of the Orlando shooting I read out a story that made me feel nervous. It was at the Emerging Writers Festival. Mid winter in Footscray. A small crowd in an upstairs bar. I could feel my heart pounding as I stood up to read. Nobody wants to hear this, I thought, you’re just going to embarrass them, make them feel uncomfortable.
I needed to find the courage to read a story about loving a man in front of an audience of strangers. Let’s just pause here for a moment. This is a sentence a heterosexual person will never have to contemplate saying or writing: the courage to tell a story about loving a man. In the mouth of a straight person the sentence is nonsensical or even banal. How can love be strange? How can love be wrong? Why should we need courage to talk about it? It’s love after all. Good old-fashioned romantic love, the thing we are all supposed to strive for, the thing we are told a hundred million times will complete us and make us better people.
Despite the enormous gains that I’ve seen in my lifetime we are still the “other” as the massacre in Orlando showed. There are still people in the world who feel justified in doing us harm just because we love each other. The idea that my love for another human being could have any effect on a stranger is a completely absurd and laughable idea. Yet, it is still part of the world we live in, just as the “gay panic” argument used to be used in court cases as a defence for killing gay people. (In fact South Australia and Queensland still have this defence, but are moving towards change.) And it is still used by opponents of same sex marriage to suggest that if we all have the same rights it will lead to the downfall of civilisation.
One night as I was walking at the Docklands a car slowed and a man called out “Let’s be friends” to a couple of women walking along minding their own business who may or may not have been a couple. Whether they were or not is beside the point – the point is that for someone like him the very insinuation that someone is anything other than heterosexual is an insult.
I’ve learnt to understand people like him. This is what you do when you are the “other”. You learn to understand your bullies to protect yourself. You learn to think like they think so that you can predict what they might do and keep yourself safe. Just as so many of us absorb those messages about whether our bodies are worthy or not, and spend hours and money trying to look like an impossible ideal, so those of us who are not straight learn to absorb society’s messages about how we should behave. We help to perpetuate a system by staying quiet and keeping out of the way, being invisible so we don’t provoke homophobic reactions.
A few years ago I was at a birthday dinner for a friend. Most of the people at our table were gay men and there were also a few women. The restaurant was very noisy because of one table. There was a group of obviously straight men talking loudly and dominating the space as they talked about footy and picking up girls. They felt like they owned the place because in many ways they do. When the waitress came over I noticed how polite all of us were, the gay men and the women, how quietly we spoke, how we didn’t want to offend or cause any trouble. We had learnt from an early age that our needs weren’t as important, our desires were suspect, we shouldn’t make a fuss. If a group of straight men is loud they are being boisterous, because “boys will be boys”. If a group of gay men are loud they are carrying on, being shrill, shoving their sexuality in everybody’s face. If a group of straight men take over a park or a road or a footpath because they want to throw a ball nobody bats an eye. But LGBTI people don’t take over public space unless they have asked for and got permission to do so.
You get very good at self-censoring. I notice it every time I ring my partner and wonder if someone in the seat next to me overhears his male voice. I wait until I get off the train before I say “I love you” or anything too intimate. I avoid using “he” in sentences about him to people I don’t know very well.
The night of the reading I put a post on Facebook about being proud to read a story about love between men. I have as much suspicion of Facebook as everybody else, but I felt I had to take a stand. The killing of 50 people and the maiming of many others for the simple reason of their sexuality, the fact that someone could think their problem with us was a legitimate reason to kill us, can’t be ignored. I was inspired by the examples of my friends who posted pictures of men kissing. Love is stronger than hate, I wrote, and I felt my eyes filling with tears.
Before I read the story I said a few words about why I had chosen it and referred to the incident in Orlando. The mood in the room changed and the audience went quiet.
Afterwards I spoke to a younger man who said quite early in the conversation that he was gay. I wondered if my talking about my own experience made it easier for him to mention it. I will never know. I would have liked to have said to him that as you get older and the more you travel, you realise that what is considered normal or right is whatever suits those with the most power, and the more arbitrary and tenuous that power the more violently it is defended. As I drove home that night I hoped that by being myself I had made a difference. Perhaps those of us older members of the LGBTI community have a responsibility to the younger generation. To say this is who we are and it’s completely normal.
You can read James’ story Green Jumpers in Right Now’s fiction section.