This is a submission for Black Inc’s anthology, Growing up Queer in Australia. For more information or to submit your own coming out story, click here.
Author’s note: Time is compressed in this narrative for the sake of flow and brevity.
When I was about nine years old, I was in the normal, exploratory phase; you know, the one where you tip a half a bottle of moisturiser onto your open hands and lubricate yourself so you can feel your fleshy insides? Well, the first time I did that, I felt a fleshy, inverted bump with a hole at the end of it that I could not explain – until I flicked through a medical magazine and saw a full colour diagram of a flaccid penis. That inverted bump felt like the exact tip of a penis. Sometimes I wondered if I’d been changed at birth. You know, so my parents could have one of each. It would explain these feelings I’d been having. Weren’t you meant to like girls if you had a penis? It seemed I had one growing inside of me.
Six years later. Bundaberg, four six seven oh. A curious and difficult place, still heavy from the conservatism of a bygone era. The city itself was stitched together with ties that were thicker than water and went way back. For instance, the people I shared a classroom with all seemed to be linked to one another in some way – whether their great-great-grandaddies worked together on the cane fields back when the island folk were blackbirded into sugar-cane slavery, or whether they’d grown up together and adopted the title of ‘cousin’, despite having no relational ties. I always felt like I was caught up in this web of familiarity around me, one disclosure away from hanging myself in the tangle of my darkest secret. Me, I seemed to collect secrets in different shades of dark grey. One of my lesser ones was being expelled from school back in 2003 for creating illegal online content. My darkest and most closely-held secret was my sexual and romantic interests. It placed me outside the glass world of my peers, where I could stare inside but not be a part of it. It was a perfect vantage point to observe the dynamics, including the façade my newest love interest seemed to put on. I could never quite tell if she was gay or not, but the enigma kept me interested.
“Aye luv, just the usual?” The barista’s chipper voice cut through my thoughts for a moment and I remembered that was the one endearing aspect of living in a small place – they never got your order wrong.
“Yes, please. Just the iced coffee with three marshmallows and whipped cream.”
“All right.” She turned to the grinder to start preparing my fluffy sugar hit. I took a moment to inhale and enjoy the rich, chocolate coffee smell in the air.
“You still at the Christian College, luv?” she inquired.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied, trying to shut down the conversation. I hadn’t been enjoying it, though I should have been. After all, my parents uprooted our whole family life and separated from my brother just to bring me here, to curtail a burgeoning teenage rebellion back in the big city. She sensed my detachment and shot back bluntly.
“Well, here’s your coffee. $4.” She pushed a plastic coffee cup towards me and turned her back on my rewards card. I felt momentarily guilty for my short reply, but it was more socially acceptable than saying, ‘I’m so glad to be on holidays from that fascist snake pit. The only thing standing between myself and my own epithet is the promise that things may be better in a decade, but that feeling is fading fast.’ Hmmm, yeah. Probably best to keep that to myself. Suicidal ideation was not exactly polite banter in the coffee shop.
I knew then as I sat at that table, stabbing my marshmallows with a plastic straw, that I should tell somebody and find out if all this was normal. The whole gay thing was sitting just below my skin like a tell tale heart, ready to break through and give me away. Nonetheless, I felt oddly ready to break open my soul, no matter the consequences. I was tired of living lies. It was an exhausting existence, only added to by the boredom and trauma of small-place life. In a school with a hundred students, there were few places to hide unless you were wagging school.
As I traipsed into school the following Monday, it wasn’t just the bag on my shoulders that weighed me down to the floor. It was the King James Bible and the weight of this heavy secret, thumping under my skin, around my bones, and through my veins. I made a point of looking around, still feeling like I was far adrift outside of this world I didn’t belong to.
“Hey, why so serious?” The girl I’d had my eye on for the past year and a half shot into my view through my periphery, her earth eyes scanning me, trying to read my mind.
“Uh… nothing. Just thinking about the science exam we’re doing this afternoon. Flaccid, turgid? I can’t even remember which one is which…”
She chortled, as we both straightened our backpacks and walked to our first class, which was double agricultural science. We were slightly late, but nobody seemed to notice because they were all so transfixed on what was going on in front of them. The teacher didn’t break his focus for a second.
“What we’re going to do,” he said, rubbing the silver, phallic implement with a sense of sickly anticipation – “Is we’re going to move the bull into this squeeze chute so he can’t move.”
“C’mon, stud,” he persisted, as the bull had stopped momentarily, stamping its foot on the concrete, dusty ground beneath him. He eventually complied and moved forward.
As the gate shut behind him, his hoof scraped the concrete below, exhaling with a stubborn grunt. He started to shift his weight around, his hips and thighs brushing the metal gates on either side. With careful precision, Mr H slid the implement inside, penetrating at a slight angle. The bull heaved and shuffled, but he was constrained, unable to move much.
“Whoo! Whoo!” he pushed harder and the bull continued writhing against his false, manly comfort.
As the device sent its invisible rays of artificial pleasure pulsing through the animal, he moaned with a rising intonation, the mechanical orgasm tightening his underside. The specimen dropped through the funnel held between his legs by the farmhand, his crow’s feet grimacing as he aimed the funnel and cup in just the right place. For all the effort, a few drops of potential life fell into the clear cup, quickly sealed to prevent leakage. Solitary globs of rich, thick fluid; it didn’t seem like much at all, but that very cup contained millions of opportunities for the beginning of life. It also contained the potential for profit, depending on how much meat was made from each resulting calf.
“And this is how you extract sperm,” he said, with a cavalier, unusually satisfied half smile.
How unromantic. I could not believe that this teacher, who had just entered an animal with an electrical, metal dildo so he could artificially inseminate another cow, realised his own cognitive dissonance. I’m sure it was interpreted in the conservative scripture somewhere to not artificially create life inside of an animal, probably weaved through all the same verses in Leviticus that forbade gay relationships. I wondered if anyone else was thinking what I was thinking. Probably not. When I’d looked around, I was surrounded by completely uniform blank stares, the same as when we were praying, only with eyes wide open, except for the girl with the earthly eyes. She was looking across through the gate at me, though she looked away quickly when our eyes connected.
“Now… who wants to look under the microscope?” Mr H had the sealed cup of little swimmers inside his shirt pocket.
I raised my hand, slowly, unsure if it was a loaded question or not (you just never knew in religious places – anything could be a loaded question). I didn’t want to be the only one, but curiosity got the better of me in the end.
“Could I have a look?”
Squinting through the microscope, I saw the minuscule particles of life, swimming back and forth under the glass. I wasn’t the least bit disgusted, but suddenly, a thought hit me. My biggest fear in loving women wasn’t the fact itself; it was the idea that I may never have children of my own. Of course, I had entertained options like fostering children or having brief encounters with men, but none of these seemed fair for all parties. Plus, I wanted to birth my own child. Not right then, but in the future.
As soon as I’d started wrestling with these feelings proper, I booked in to see the school ‘therapist.’ You see, when you’re stuck in a small town, they don’t hire qualified therapists in schools. They choose the most seemingly empathetic parent in the community who may have some church-based qualification to listen to the concerns of the worried well. I recall sitting outside her office, scratching my nails into my wrist to make little crescent moons, both anxious and frustrated about this appointment I had made without my parent’s prior knowledge. I had to know for sure, and every teenage psychological journey needs a Sherpa.
“Hi, Rebecca. What brings you to me today?”
I swallowed and looked out the window, wondering what this pent-up, Pentecostal community would think of me as I am. I didn’t have to wonder too hard, though. It had already been covered in our Christian Living classes.
“Um… well… I’ve been having these feelings and I don’t know if they’re OK or not.”
In that moment, all I wanted was for her to guess what I was about to disclose and affirm me; tell me that it would be okay and that coming out would not cause the sky to fall in. Instead, she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
“Right.” She tapped her pen on her clipboard, scribbled a couple of notes and returned her gaze to me.
“Do you want to tell me some more about these feelings?”
I continued to look away as I collected my thoughts. She seemed cold and unusually detached from the counselling process. Although I didn’t have much experience with such things, she didn’t seem to understand what I was getting at.
“You know that feeling you get when you touch up against someone and you feel seasick?”
Awkwardness welled up in the pause between us.
“Yeah…? That is normal at your age, Rebecca. It means you may like someone. It doesn’t mean you have to act on it.”
“Um… look. Here’s a pamphlet that might help you deal with some of those urges.”
She handed me an A4 glossy infographic that detailed 101 THINGS YOU CAN DO INSTEAD OF SEX.
“Thanks…” I slunk away awkwardly and crumpled the paper into my pocket, only to pull it out again at recess.
“Make gingerbread men? Go to the movies? Fly a kite?” The girl I had a major crush on thought it was as ridiculous as I did.
We all giggled between bites of our sandwich.
“I know, right? And what do you do if kite-flying leads to sex?”
I crumpled the paper into a ball and pegged it into the bin, along with my sandwich crusts. It was a perfect shot.
“They must think we’re all ingenues. Or idiots.”
Even though I liked someone in our friendship group and considered myself accepted by my friends, I had never floated the idea that I liked women. I felt so inexperienced and unsure. What if I lost all my friends and became the object of ridicule for the rest of my schooling life? I couldn’t imagine. My parents had already moved our family away from the city because I was beginning to go off the rails back there. I had been expelled from school six months into year 8 because of choices I had made, so the next logical step was obviously to go 360km north to a place where we knew nobody to “start over.” So there I was, stuck in that backwards place with mostly backwards people and I just knew the whole gay thing wouldn’t fly; yet, I couldn’t go on deceiving myself. If the school therapist wouldn’t listen, then I would find someone who could.
The next day’s morning bell went and everyone shuffled off to their first class – Relationships and Self – which was where the roll was marked and notices were handed out. I still had the cow conception on my mind and I had been weighing up my own future in the mean time. While we were waiting for the second bell to send us off to our first real class of the day, I walked over to the door to deliver a blunt and provocative message.
“Miss, I think I’m gay.”
She raised one badly plucked eyebrow, completely unsure of what to say next.
“I like women. Like, more than a friend.”
Her eyebrow dropped and her face turned into a scowl. She struggled to find words, but given she was a local, she had strongly formed opinions already.
“Well, I sure hope you’ve thought of the consequences of that before making such a significant life decision…”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you may be fifteen now, but who knows, maybe one day you’ll want a family of your own. I know I didn’t want kids at your age but you just never know. Maybe you’ll want kids.”
“Dyke!” A blonde, wiry boy up the back yelled in my direction, but I ignored him as the rest of the class erupted with laughter.
“Sure, miss. I’ve done my research. You know how we were out on the farm the other day? Well, I was pretty sure humans would be smart enough to do the exact same, so I went on the internet to see what I could find. Turns out two women can do the same thing, you just don’t need an electric dildo or a metal squeeze chute.”
Her face descended into red fury, and I knew I had taken it one step too far.
“LEMON!” The boy up the back continued, and the whole class was in fits of laughter. That was when the teacher made her biggest mistake of the conversation.
“Yeah, and how exactly do you plan to do that?”
The uproarious laughter died down, and I cleared my throat.
“Welllllll, miss…. Based on my research, you get the sperm and the doctor uses equipment to fertilise the egg. They can do it inside you, or in a dish… then they put it back. Hey presto, baby!”
“That is… INAPPROPRIATE!”
“Miss, that’s homophobic.”
At that exact moment, the bell went. I straightened my shoulders and walked out, without scuffing my Converse for a moment. I had no idea what was coming, but I got the feeling that things were going to be all right.
I am aware that it is such a tired cliché to say that ‘it gets better’, but it really does. Once that weight had lifted off my shoulders, people knew they had nothing on me anymore. They could call me names and push me around but because I had owned my identity, their words were basically powerless.
Right after I came out, the school therapist, principal, and deputy called both of my parents into the school without me. They laid out their concern, which was that my “lifestyle choice” was no longer compatible with the Christian ethos of the school. My Dad rightfully pointed out that the son of the school’s P&C president had been caught having sex on school camp, yet hadn’t been punished.
“That’s none of your business and not worth discussing.”
Their response, their silence towards my faith life was all of the vindication I needed to move forwards with my life.
I spent the last two years of high school in the public system, which was in no way perfect, but it was better for me and my “lifestyle choice.” Year 12 was the year our music teacher resigned. She was quickly replaced by an openly gay teacher who played the bass guitar and a whole lot of other stringed instruments. During that time, I wrote a coming out song, which she performed on school assembly with me. It was the bravest, most uncertain moment of my life, but I’m glad I did it.
As I moved into my adult life, I was fortunate enough to meet my wife, who had experienced as much of a difficult time as I had in coming out. Together, we have built a positive home and community around us. In daylight hours, I teach children. In the evening, I study and write. I recently published a book that educates children on how two Mums can make a baby with IVF and IUI, the exact topic that made my life inappropriate in 2005. In December, we are expecting our first baby through the same means.
I still have a faith life, but that is a story for another day. Things really did turn out okay – and it does get better.