The highlight of a recent trip to Sydney would have to have been watching the Mardi Gras parade with my mother. It was a wild, boisterous night roaming the street with thousands of people trying to get a peek at the floats and fanfare—the political, the provocative, the fabulous. I hadn’t seen the parade in years and I appreciated it more than ever—for the colourful, daring spectacle that it is. Mum and I found a bird’s eye view among a crowd of revellers, clapping, cheering and singing to the anthems. The atmosphere was electric. I was impressed with the diversity of the audience—a variety of ages and genders, gay and straight, friends and families. It was a real buzz to see the community come together and leave prejudice behind—and it was even more thrilling to watch it with Mum.
Sexuality was a contentious issue where I grew up and the main reason I was estranged from my family for many years. Being gay is something I’ve only come to terms with in my thirties and it’s been a long road to get here. I’m still not fully comfortable with it. Perhaps there will always be some degree of internal homophobia undermining my attempts to create a healthy intimate relationship. When I was a child, homophobic remarks were common in our family, and I was bombarded with derogatory images about homosexuality on the television and in the print media. I internalised a great deal of fear and shame in those formative years and it was reinforced whenever I engaged with the community.
Growing up gay in Queensland in the eighties felt like being an ‘abomination in the eyes of God’. I bore the brunt of society’s hatred in my school years. I was beaten, abused from passing cars and punched and kicked by other students. No one in authority intervened. The teachers never reprimanded the perpetrators or came to my defence. They thought I deserved to have this ‘demon’ pummelled out of me. I never once considered that my sexuality was okay. I never considered admitting to it or confiding in anyone. Perhaps it made matters worse but I was a teenager and terrified of the consequences. It certainly had the most crippling effect on my self-esteem. I couldn’t imagine a future as ‘that person’. I binged on alcohol and marijuana and let my education slide. I gave up on everything because of this ‘dirty little secret’.
I was told that I didn’t have to be gay even though I had these feelings. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t make it through life denying it to the world, and I certainly didn’t want to drag anyone into my conflicted existence. I didn’t want to deceive anyone and live a lie. I was 18 when I was first intimate with a guy. It felt natural; it felt right. It didn’t feel like I was going ‘against my nature’. I was born this way. The world condemned me for it even when I was too young to understand it. My friend and I were scared and vulnerable after that night. It brought up a great deal of fear and resentment between us. Our mates were sickened and dared not speak of it, let alone look deeper or offer support. It was incredible the way people buried their heads in the sand. I was taken to hospital after a suicide attempt and pretty much banished from the gang. It was a lonely and difficult time but ultimately a blessing. I was forced to deal with something that was undermining my physical and mental health. In solitude, I had plenty of time and space to have a good look at the issue and seek other points of view.
I moved to Sydney after that. I needed a more diverse environment where I could be myself. Sydney’s inner city was perfect, free and flamboyant beyond my wildest dreams. It was progressive and tolerant, diversity was celebrated in all forms. It was the complete opposite of what I’d known. Although I was ‘out of the closet’ in my twenties I never really accepted it. I didn’t have gay friends and most of the men I met had poor self-esteem and drug and alcohol problems. Most of my peers were straight and I don’t think they fully appreciated the violence and intimidation many of us contend with. I still don’t think the heterosexual world understands how much more freedom they have. Although I was sexually active, it played out in chaotic ways. I was always intoxicated—it wasn’t a healthy sexual expression. It was anonymous, risky. The shame was still very deep, the notion of any lasting intimacy hard to imagine.
I thought I’d come to terms with my sexuality when I left Queensland but the negative emotions were still buried within. It was as though everyone I’d known was looking over my shoulder. I was living in a different world but I couldn’t move on. I was also acting out my sexuality in a way that left me vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. On some level I believed this fate was inevitable, deserved. Perhaps things would’ve been different if I was raised with an empowered vision of my sexuality. Perhaps I would’ve approached these encounters in a more open, conscious way. I had to numb my emotions with drugs and alcohol before I could seek intimacy.
Embracing my sexuality is an important lesson I’ve learned from the diagnosis. I truly believe it’s a message to heal my relationships, particularly with men. I now engage with friends, family and partners on a new level. Drugs and alcohol are no longer part of the equation. We share genuine intimacy. There is trust, loyalty and mutual respect. For a long time I thought HIV/AIDS was a punishment—I’d never experience a healthy, fulfilling sexuality. I’m pleased to find the contrary. While it’s hard to ‘come out’ all over again, there are people who are brave enough to go beyond fear—in the name of love.
HIV/AIDS has also been a major source of healing between my mother and I. It’s forced us to let go of the past and wipe the slate clean. She has gone out of her way to help, especially during times of ill-health. She has become a trusted friend—a source of encouragement and support. My mother now lives in Sydney and is a staunch advocate of gay rights and people living with HIV/AIDS. She attends the Mardi Gras each year and has even marched under the banner of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians & Gays). This Mardi Gras was a special one for both of us. After years of silence and hostility, we were standing side-by-side on Oxford Street, cheering on the performers like two best mates.
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