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United we stand, divided we fall – why we should all try to stand together in the LGBTIQ+ community.

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon amongst people.

In my observation, when one group of people begins to gain more freedom and privilege, they step on the groups they perceive as just below them. I’ve seen migrants do it to refugees, the poor-turned-financially-secure do it to the strugglers, and even people in my own community do it to others elsewhere in the LGBTIQ+ alphabet.

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It’s one thing to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but quite another to cut others off at the knee.

It takes me back to the time I travelled to a continent that had much division between rich and poor, black and white, man and woman.

My wife and I – as white, middle-class citizens – were pretty high in the social food-chain in this particular context. If anyone knew we were together, we would’ve been bumped a couple of rungs, but it wasn’t obvious.

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On a plane ride from one place to another, we were sitting across from a white family. Next to us was a lady who told us she was an immigrant from an Eastern culture. Behind us were three teenagers of colour.

Not long after departure, food was served and I recall being disappointed by the offering – two dry vegetables and egg slammed between dry bread with no butter.

I accidentally dropped it beneath the seat, and was unable to recover it. Not because I lack etiquette, but because it’s near impossible in cattle class. I eventually fell asleep and forgot about it.

As the flight wore on, the discarded sandwich started to emit a smell. A stench, actually. The lady next to us assumed someone had forgotten their manners and woke abruptly. The family across the aisle shot her a rude look. She was very quick to say, “It wasn’t me, it was them!”

She pointed to the three teenagers behind us. What happened next was interesting. They started apologising profusely.

“Sorry. Sorry. I’m so sorry.”

It was clear that they didn’t actually know what they were apologising for, just that someone had been slighted and they should make it right – even if they weren’t responsible.

After the lady next to us ripped into them, the lady across the aisle chimed in and added, “And for God’s sake, wash your hair.”

“Sorry. Sorry.”

I was so confronted by this pack aggression that I didn’t claim responsibility. I quietly informed the air hostess who dug what she could of the fallen sandwich from under the seat and the flight wore on, tensions thick.

What this demonstrated to me was that when the chips are down (or even when they aren’t), people will turn on one another, quite shamelessly.

I have seen the same thing happen in the LGBTIQ+ community.

“I don’t get why we need to include the ‘I’ – those people aren’t diverse, they have a birth condition.”

Or…. “Mardi Gras was good, until the lesbians joined in.”

Or…. “Bisexuality? Pfft, that doesn’t exist.”

Or…. Perhaps most commonly….

“I don’t want to be lumped in with them.

Usually referring to transgender, intersex, or queer individuals.

I am not sure why this is necessary. We all have battles and I think that when you weigh everything up, we are all more alike than different.

Who does it help to criticise someone else’s lived experience, and then exclude them from a sense of belonging?

The LGBTIQ+ acronym and its community is meant to unite, not exclude, and when we’re all fighting amongst ourselves, it makes the lot of us look bad.

Kind of like when two parents can’t agree on parenting principles, and then form a power struggle in front of their child.

The only person who gains power in that situation is the person who shouldn’t.

Battles are only fought and won when people stand together – sometimes that means making an effort to understand someone else’s life.

And for God’s sake, keep your sandwich intact.

 

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One year anniversary – why write a book?

It’s been a little over a year since I published my book and released it into the wider world.

Writing a book before the age of 30 was a pretty major life achievement for me. It was one of my bucket-list goals.

I just never thought my first book would be a childhood sex education resource! But it was such a worthwhile undertaking.

At the start of my teaching career, I felt held back from anything other than teaching. I felt pressured into giving 100% of my energy, 100% of the time and I burnt out. I didn’t feel any sense of encouragement for taking on anything outside of school – in fact, it was actively discouraged on many occasions.

In fact, I think releasing a book on the topic of conception in lesbian families could have cost me my job or at the least, gotten me into a lot of trouble. The environments I was in early in my career were very conservative with a lot of religious freedom to discriminate. The fear and anxiety were real.

Before I left that environment, I spoke to someone who had donor-conceived children, but she hadn’t told them. There was fear about it ‘getting out’ and what her children may experience if others knew about it.

I understood the concern, but I think this approach only protects the parents. The psychological outcomes for those children when they eventually find out (and they will), have the potential to be dire and distressing.

That was when I knew I had to write my book. I wanted my son’s story to be filled with pride and openness. Even if he never shares that part of his life with others, I wanted him to know.

After all – donor conception is nothing to be ashamed of. Nor is infertility, IVF conception, or having two mums. Some people choose not to talk about their fertility journey to others because they feel it is highly personal – and that is okay. An individual’s choice to keep it private still doesn’t mean they are ashamed or that they should be. 

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I wanted to write a book about my future child’s life and conception, even if it made people uncomfortable. I knew my child would deserve to know his story, whether people liked it or not.

I changed jobs at the end of Term 2, 2017 – but I had the two week holiday period to fill, so I realised that was my time to create.

The first draft was terrible. God-awful. Too many words, not enough story. Too much awkwardness.

So I went back to the drawing board and thought about what it was I was trying to do, and why? What would I want from a book like this, if I were purchasing it myself?

I wanted:

  • A narrative – to connect with a child at their level
  • A scientifically accurate explanation – no pet names or silliness around body parts and sex
  • Inclusivity – to see various reproductive situations represented, including insemination, and IVF
  • Cute illustrations…. of course

The thing is, I am not an illustrator – I just like writing. So I contacted Anil Tortop at Tadaa Book who illustrates in a range of styles, and once I had a draft I was happy with, we got started on bringing it to life.

I will spare you the experience of looking at any of my drafts, but understand that by the time the book went to publication, it was on version 18. Thank goodness for patient publishers.

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When I looked back and stared at my creation for the very first time, I realised that I had achieved what I needed to.

It represents my child’s experience. Children benefit when they see themselves or people like them in books and other forms of media. Knowing their life is important enough to be represented bridges that divide between child and world – through that, they know they are not alone. The research in this area is preliminary, but ask any teacher to give you an anecdotal experience and I almost guarantee you they will have more than one. Children can’t be what they can’t see.

It normalises the idea of IVF, donor conception, and living in a same-sex family. If you try to teach a child about sex education but their conception has to be explained as an add-end, it sends a message that their differences can’t be talked about, or that it makes people uncomfortable. If it is seen as ‘just another method’ or ‘just another way to bring children into loving families’, this creates a sense of normal. Which is great, because I feel our lives are pretty standard, even with all the differences.

It casts my wife as a main character in the story of our child’s life. I want my wife to experience equality in all ways as a parent and if she is not a main character in the story of our child’s conception, then she becomes less important – she is as capable of raising our son as I am and gets the same sense of joy and challenge from him as I do.

It works towards making us ‘just another Australian family.’ I know we’ve got a long way to go with this one, but casting our life stories on the periphery (which they have been for a long time), makes us seem vastly different to other families. The more we are seen on the bookshelf, the more conversations we can start and the more we will become ‘just another character in the story of Australian public life in 2019.’

I do feel that Australia is mostly inclusive, with some exceptions. I am fortunate enough to live in a very progressive postcode and for the last year and a half, have worked in secular, progressive environments that have included me for all I am.

However, when I introduce the fact that I am in a same-sex relationship in conversations with new people, that part of my identity can sometimes take over. So I am no longer the friend, the colleague, the parent, the new acquaintance. Once I’ve dropped ‘wife’ into the conversation, I then get to field silly questions like, ‘Who is the man? How did you make a child? When did you tell your parents you were gay? How’s that weather…. etc.’

My vision is that when I introduce this part of my life, it doesn’t become my persona.

Yeah, we have a long way to go, but when I look at how far we’ve come, I have great hope. In order to get there, we need to start more conversations, write more stories, and spray those into the world like cans of Fanta that have been shaken too hard.

Even if people don’t like it.

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How did you do THAT? My experience of IVF!

This is published in QNews Issue 469 – which you can get from many book stores, bars, cafes, and clothing stores around Queensland.
www.qnews.com.au 

The first time I told an acquaintance, ‘My wife and I are expecting our first baby in December,’ the response was, ‘How?’ Luckily, I love talking about how babies are made, especially ours. The path we walked (due to my endometriosis) was initiated by in-vitro fertilisation – or IVF. Although many people think of this as a modern innovation, it was first developed 40 years ago!

Although our baby will be born in 2018, IVF’s first baby was born in 1978. In the same era that brought flared jeans and ABBA to the fore, IVF was just as experimental, attracting mixed views from the general public.

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Back then, IVF involved removing a single egg from the mother’s natural ovulation and placing it in the same environment as live sperm. After the egg was fertilised and had matured into a multiple-celled embryo, it was placed inside the mother, where it attached to the uterine wall and grew into a baby.

When we started, 38 years after its debut, IVF had evolved. Artificial hormones could allow for the creation and removal of multiple eggs, which could be fertilised with free-swimmers – but sperm could also injected into the eggs under a microscope, which addresses some male fertility concerns resulting from lower motility.

An embryo can now be implanted fresh, or frozen for later use – a technology that became available in the 1980s. A woman can now have multiple attempts to get pregnant from the same egg pick-up surgery by freezing leftover embryos. Eggs, sperm, and embryos can be frozen, used later, or even donated to other people. Just like we watched vinyl records morph into Spotify in the same amount of time, the complexity of fertility issues that could be solved increased.

“What do you think of this one? He is a healthy soccer player, and had braces growing up, just like me!”

Choosing the sperm was like a game of Guess Who. We looked through an album of potential young men who could help us create a baby, without wanting parental status. Although our child can access his details at the age of 18, we are legally their parents. Not everyone chooses this, and fertility clinics also allow people to choose people they know, subject to medical testing.

After our little game of Guess Who, I went in for a game of Operation. The most nerve-wracking part of this process was calling the clinic every day and seeing how many of our potential babies were still growing. Six were removed at surgery, but by day five, only two had made it to the freezer. Although it felt disappointing, I knew that my ice-ice-babies were going to give us a good chance of pregnancy.

Nearly two years later, the doctor furrowed his brow at the consultation and told me, ‘Be prepared, this first attempt is very unlikely to work.’

At least he was honest.

Some say the body is a temple, but I think it is more like a garden. When you are preparing for IVF, they scan your uterine lining a number of times to check that it is nutrient-rich for your microscopic ‘seed.’ I was given a nip of brandy and Valium – which would be my last drink for a very long time! This relaxed my muscles and the doctor inserted the embryo into my body, using a very thin surgical implement. It was mildly uncomfortable and took a few minutes.

I was so sure that my doctor must be right about the first time not working (with his 30+ years of experience) that I went to Cairns the very next day. I didn’t drink or carry on recklessly, but I swam in waterfalls, walked to places in the heat, and ate ridiculous wontons in a high-end restaurant. I also had the joy of hanging out with three of my nearest and dearest – my wife, and our close friends, Carmen and Mick. I had no qualms lying spread-legged in the back of their 4WD post-waterfall and waiting for my soluble hormone tampon (pessary) to melt. I was in great company. It was awesome.

Two weeks, 10 pee sticks and a blood test confirmed that it had worked! The process of making a baby may not always require IVF for same-sex couples, but this is my experience of its miraculous science. What a time to be alive!

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You can’t be what you can’t see – why teachers shouldn’t live in the closet

When we first start to learn important life skills, our success hinges on watching someone else model the task before we try. Leading our own lives isn’t any different from mastering basic life skills; we all have the desire to form human connections that influence us and form our ways of being in the world. We know that young people look up to the world around them and so we try to steer them towards good role models to fight against the negative messages they will undoubtedly consume from the wider world.

Although there are positive role models everywhere, it is more meaningful when a child sees a person just like them in a position of success, in a place where they can connect with them. Young people adopt habits and attitudes by looking at people who share their gender, cultural background, or other life circumstances. When a child belongs to a group that is in the minority and over-represented in suicide and mental health statistics, knowing individuals who have succeeded in spite of stereotypes offers hope that their future can be bright. The most common place for a child to connect with a role model is at school.

This is why I find it so perplexing that being a gay teacher in Australia is still such a silent idea. To be fair, nobody is going to stop a gay person from attaining a Bachelor of Education, but implicit forces that propagate institutionalised heterosexual norms can crush an early career teacher into silence. It happens frequently in the independent sector where parental satisfaction = business and lifestyle clauses (aka religious “freedom”) can make it very easy to sack those who do not comply. Even if you don’t consider these factors, the impact of silence on teacher wellbeing and mental health can make some of these positions untenable. In many schooling contexts, there is an underlying message that having an out teacher encourages children to believe that it is okay to be gay. For some parents, this represents a fear of the unknown.

One of the most significant “no” arguments that got a lot of airplay during the lead up to the plebiscite was that gay marriage would pave the way for talking about homosexuality in schools. My question is, why aren’t we talking about it? In any classroom, there will be students who have homosexuality in their lives – whether it is through having a gay relative, gay parents, or even being gay themselves. At some point throughout their life, they will likely meet a gay person or work with one. For some students, they may not yet realise that they are gay, but are grappling internally with feelings that they can’t explain. They might be looking for confirmation that they are completely normal and loved regardless.

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Thinking about this takes me back to 2004. My family had relocated to a regional city in Queensland, and the intent was to lead a quieter life while my father developed his business. I had always known I had those feelings and had never said anything because I wasn’t certain that I actually was gay, because I lacked life experience. In my family and friendship groups, nobody spoke about it. Popular culture at the time didn’t contain many visible role models, or at least none that I had been exposed to. YouTube and social media were in their infancy and so I was somewhat in the dark. Furthermore, the Christian education program at my school had explicitly stated that being gay was not an option if you were to lead an acceptable, moral life.

Towards the end of that year, I developed a close friendship with a girl that turned into a somewhat-relationship behind closed doors. We never spoke to anyone about it because we attended a very conservative Christian school, and we knew there would be consequences. I finally plucked up the courage to pull one of my favourite teachers aside to tell her about what had been going on. I was not seeking spiritual guidance nor did I need advice about how to change my feelings; what I was seeking was reassurance. Instead, I was forced to see a counsellor and forbidden from telling my parents. When the ‘counselling’ did not produce the desired result, my parents were called into the school. I was asked to leave and walked out in a cloud of absolute humiliation.

After enrolling in a public school, I felt lost and scarred by shame. I never spoke about my past relationship and threw myself headfirst into dating boys, drinking, and other destructive behaviour. I went from being a straight-A student to barely handing in assessments. Towards the end of Year 11, I honestly thought that I had completely screwed up my future prospects. Instead of looking forward to graduation, I feared the future because I had been told that gay adults didn’t have functional relationships and I knew that my career prospects would be very dim considering how little work I had submitted towards my senior certificate. The most traumatic aspect was that I thought I would never recover my academic prowess because of the dark night that had descended upon my mind, sucking all the life out from the inside.

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During that year, my senior music teacher resigned and was replaced by a bright and talented teacher who played numerous instruments and rocked a shaved head like nobody’s business. She unabashedly wore jackets with gay patches stitched onto them, and considering where the world (particularly Bundaberg) was at in 2007, this was a bold move. Not only did she impart her amazing musical taste on all of us, but she spoke about the life she had built, complete with a career, mortgage, world travels, a dog, and a (nearly) wife. Suddenly, here was this person who profoundly disrupted everything I had been told at my previous school, who was living proof that I could have the aspirational life I dreamed of with a wife by my side. This realisation was the wind that changed the direction of my sails.

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Not long after I met this teacher, I came out to my parents. I wrote a song about a woman I loved and sang it on school assembly. I stopped caring what other people thought about my life and lived as my true, authentic self. A decade on, I have a successful career, an impressive passport, a published book, a dream home, plans to have children, and a beautiful wife, whom I will marry now that the laws are in place. I did not fall into some mythical drug scene. I did not catch a disease. I did not become an outcast of society because of who I am. However, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure this all out, had I not had a visible role model available to me at a very formative and vulnerable time in my life. Without a strong, like-minded influence to model the possibility of a good life, I could have become another statistic.

This is why the idea of silencing gay teachers is anathema to me. If we are to fulfill the mission of the Educational Goals for Young Australians as set out in the Melbourne Declaration, then we need to help young people find their voice. It is challenging to do that if we must cower behind our desks and hide our wedding photos from plain sight. Having a gay teacher will not make a child gay, and furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying as a gay person. What visible role models will provide are two very important messages to our young people;

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Those of you who identify as gay have equal worth and you have just as much chance of fulfilling your dreams as anyone else. Here are people who have walked similar paths to you and succeeded. It is possible for you. 

In the past, gay students have had to navigate these paths without any guidance and I don’t believe it needs to be like that now or in the future. By keeping our teachers in the closet, we are limiting our young people and contributing to a world that divides and separates people on the basis of unchangeable differences. Learning more about these differences will challenge the discomfort and biases that people have and in time, most people will realise that there is nothing to worry about in allowing people to be more open. A child can’t be what they can’t see and pushing their role models into the closet is sending the message that who they are isn’t part of the conversation.

I think every child’s diversity should be represented visibly in the schooling system, through teachers, coaches, parents, students and curriculum materials that acknowledge a variety of life narratives. Only then will we see change and open up a brighter future, not just for some students, but for every student. I think that’s worth standing up for, don’t you?