Content warnings: Violence, Homophobia.
As you may know, we’re a week after IDAHOBIT.
As you may also know, I grew up on the North West Coast of Tasmania.
Why are they related? In a 2005 study, NW Tasmania was named the third most homophobic region in Australia.
I don’t talk or think a lot about the years from 1997 to 2003. They were painful and my first reaction is to bury them. I experienced homophobia before I even knew the word. Before I’d even accepted the fact that I was gay. I was bullied at school, back before bullying was A Serious Thing. I believe it was homophobia that made me less than human in the eyes of enough of my fellow students – and maybe even some of the teachers – that I was an acceptable target. My friends at high school were mostly the teachers. Thank you for keeping my high school life bearable.
But homophobia thrives in silence. So today, I’m talking about some of my experiences.
There were lots of incidents of me being called all sorts of derogatory synonyms for “gay man”, and I was nicknamed “Dildo” but the verbal assault was so commonplace I can’t recall specific incidents. I was physically assaulted twice in my high-school years – 1997 to 2000.
In 1998, in the halls at school, I had a student come up behind me at the lockers and pull a length of chain hard against my neck for what felt like minutes but could only have been seconds before they released me. The school issued him an overnight suspension at 2:30pm. So they were obviously *very* concerned about seriously inconveniencing him for my assault. I don’t remember anyone from the school really checking that I was ok – I guess the teachers who might have cared never really knew.
And then, in ’99 I’d hit puberty, realised I liked boys, and continued to throw myself even harder into the fairly Evangelical/Pentecostal Baptist Church I’d been going to. As a Same-sex-attracted Pentecostal type, this meant a lot of private prayer and agony trying to pray myself straight, along with not daring to tell anyone for fear I would disappoint them.
That was also the year that when I was walking home and someone decided that it’d be hilarious to drop a lit match on my head. They laughed as I freaked out, the incident was reported to the school, but to my recollection, nothing was ever done to the student in question as it was off school grounds.
Neither of my attackers mentioned sexuality during those attacks. They didn’t have to – I knew what I was picked on for even if I didn’t know why they thought I was gay.
By mid-99 I’d joined an art enterprise, making kiln-formed glassware. This gave me somewhere to be that didn’t involve other students during breaks. I was early to every class, and basically made sure that everywhere I went where there were other students I was visible to a teacher. The price of safety was the surrender of any kind of unmonitored social interaction with my peer group.
Internalised homophobia made my life even more miserable. I spent a lifetime receiving clear messages from my parents that Gay wasn’t OK. It turns out that while I was burying myself in bible study and prayer one of my good friends had accepted himself and was surreptitiously giving me signals. Perhaps if I’d allowed myself to admit it to anyone to even contemplate it being OK at that point, I’d have had a happier existence. But I was so focussed on “getting better”…
In 2001 College happened and I found my own little group of outcasts – who I said nothing to about being gay until I eventually accepted it myself as year 12 ended in 2002.
And now for Act II: The Church
I was moving away, so I told my trusted friends in the church. Almost all of them had negative things to say to me. I remember that out of all the people I told, there was only one who said anything even remotely supportive. She was the oldest church member I had told, and simply asked me to make sure I stayed safe – the safe sex talk and all. Another of these “trusted friends” betrayed my confidence, telling a church leader who came to my house and invited me to go for a walk and a talk, and his blunders were so spectacular I actually arrived home feeling simultaneously sick and triumphant. Some of these people I’ve never spoken to since. The support network I had built up in this group felt like it basically evaporated over the space of about 4 weeks.
I moved away to Launceston, and landed myself at another church. I went to a youth bible study group there and was relatively open about my life, but a few months in, after about 6 weeks of “private debate” with a couple of the girls leading the group, eventually I and my (non-christian) boyfriend at the time were invited to coffee. As they invited me, I just knew what it was. I was told that I could either renounce my homosexuality and boyfriend then and there in front of him, or I had to stop coming to the study group. Such amazing respect for another human being, I thought – even if I had been willing to renounce, I wouldn’t have been willing to do it in a way that would hurt someone I loved like that. Another support network, this time in my new town, was gone.
A week later, the pastor from the same church called and asked to come and see me. Again, I knew what it had to be about. I did the dutiful parishioner thing and baked. The smell of cinnamon did, and still does make me feel safe and at home. I had already learned to use manners as armour. I invited him in, and gave him a slice of delicious warm cake with butter, and a cup of coffee. After we exchanged some pleasantries, he directed me to stop taking communion. I felt like I was being told that I was unworthy to be considered a Christian. I think I used the word “excommunicated” at the time, though I know that’s not a Baptist thing. I never darkened the doorway of that church ever again. Another support network was gone.
Whenever I post something, anywhere, where I call out Christians, I invariably have someone comment that not all Christians are like that. I know. I spent another 4 years in the Uniting Church with some absolutely wonderful accepting people before I came to the conclusion that Christianity wasn’t for me. I really do understand that #notAllChristians. I have to tell you though, these three incidents aren’t my only experiences of Christians’ discrimination, just the most personal. The fact of the matter is that these days, when I discover someone is Christian, I tense up, I choose my words carefully, and I watch closely for signs of homophobia – and sadly, I discover its presence all too often. Occasionally I discover that someone is a decent human being *despite* being Christian.
So why is all this here? Homophobia affected my life most severely while I was the most vulnerable, and I walk through my life now wearing rainbows as armour to keep bigots at bay. I’m wary of people’s motives. Watching, waiting for them to try to hurt me.
Homophobia kills. It’s not just the obvious maniacs who kill us outright. It’s the constant stream of insults, the constant reminders that society thinks we’re less than. It’s the support networks that evaporate when we eventually tell people. It’s the Christians who only ever pop up to remind us that not all Christians think like that when we post things that criticise Christians, and who won’t be openly supportive for fear of their own stigmatisation. It’s how tiring it is just to try and stay safe. It’s the fact that homophobia is so pervasive in our society that internalised homophobia is a thing.
Worst of all, homophobia kills in such a way that almost none of the people who contribute to our deaths are made to take any responsibility for them.
Homophobia thrives in silence. Speak up when you hear it.
PS. My parents are quite the supporters these days. They changed their views.