“Fucking poofter.” That was the last thing I heard before my jaw received a flurry of right and left hooks.
I was 15, sitting on a bench at my Adelaide high school eating my lunch. I didn’t have time to get up, so received my punishment sitting down.
To my regular detriment, I had a smart mouth, and offered a laconic “ouch” after my fat-fingered assailant ended his first salvo. That earned me another collection of punches.
My crime, the bully later told the Principal, was that I had said hello to him in a way which implied that he was a “poofter”.
I was already on the radar of the school’s gaggle of egregious homophobes, not because I was actually gay, but because I was a member of the school choir – a prima facie crime against Australian masculinity.
My face swelled up after the bully’s punching flurry, as I’d had surgery on my jaw just a few weeks previously. Thankfully, his flailing technique was rather inefficient, otherwise my jaw might have been broken.
In the long run, there was little physical damage. However, as anyone who has been assaulted knows, there is a lingering feeling of anger and humiliation.
Few school children came out as gay back then, in the 1980s. Certainly none of my friends, several of whom were gay, I later discovered, made it known during their high school years.
The accepted culture was that to be a “poofter” was the worst thing a boy could be. It was abhorrent, dangerous, repulsive, and, for reasons I could not fathom, an affront to the honour and identity of every male.
Over the ensuing decades we’ve come some way down the road to tolerance, with the old school “poofter” being replaced by a more benign twist in the nomenclature. Sadly, “gay”, adopted by the homosexual community, has now been re-claimed by the homophobes to mean “stupid” or “lame” (even being used in such colloquial fashion in a recent newspaper headline).
The old hatred and fear is still common, particularly in schools where kids at different levels of maturity and insecurity struggle to find their place in the social structure.
It’s a sad truth that in many schools it’s still not safe – emotionally, physically or both – to come out as gay or lesbian, let alone as transgendered.
Gay kids, or those presumed gay, are still being bashed. Gay, lesbian and transgender kids are still hiding their identities to avoid violence and social ostracisation.
And yet, you would think from recent public debate that it’s the heterosexual kids who are under threat from hordes of gay “activists” (they’re always “activists”) bullying them into … I don’t know what… Tolerance against their will?
Of course, it’s a fallacy – logically, historically and culturally. This dynamic is the equivalent of the familiar “reverse racism” argument so commonly used by Australian racists.
The new conservative position on sexuality suggests that it is the rights of heterosexuals that are somehow being impinged by efforts to increase understanding and provide legal equality.
Just as many people who pontificate about the state of Aboriginal Australia have never met an indigenous Australian, nor visited an Aboriginal community, I wonder how many of those anti-gay politicians, pundits and lobbyists have ever looked into the eyes of an isolated and bullied gay child, dried their eyes, or attempted in vain to explain why the world can be so brutal and ugly.
I can assure you that it’s a depth of pain that makes my own blows to the jaw seem positively trivial.
There’s a reason why gay, lesbian and transgendered young people harm themselves at a much higher rate than the wider community – and that’s because they are still the subject of hatred, bullying and other forms of cruelty.
To make things worse, they live in a society in which their very identity and aspirations for a happy life are increasingly presented as troublesome, political, even sinister.
A national program funded by the Federal Government – Safe Schools – is trying to address this problem, encouraging children to consider the perspectives and feelings of kids who have different gender or sexual identities.
It’s an overdue concept. Schools choose to opt in, and teachers maintain control over how the free resources are used. Judging by the take-up, many educators find it a useful resource.
The fact that it’s being presented as a PC threat to the wellbeing of “normal” kids shows how immature many people remain about issues of sexuality. The nature of the “debate” about the program also shows a spectacular failure of empathy, that most important and civilizing of human characteristics.
There’s a group of conservative organisations and politicians that has mobilized against the program, which they characterise as being part of the “gay agenda” – the alleged campaign by a global Spectre-like network to fundamentally change our society.
I have to disclose here that the rumours are true: the network exists. I know this, because I am part of it.
We have a special name, our office-bearers meet around a long table (just like a Bond film), and we even have a creed.
We call ourselves “proud parents”.
It’s true that we’re pretty well organised (except for cleaning out the fridge) and we have one ultimate goal in mind – supporting and loving our LGBTI children.
Not only that, but we have recruited to our network a large and growing collection of operatives – we call them grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles and friends – all of whom are sick of the people we love being bullied, isolated and ostracized simply because of who they are.
We’re fed up with politicians and media culture warriors lampooning and mischaracterizing efforts to end cruelty and bullying. We’re dismayed that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has caved to the demands of his party’s conservative rump to “review” Safe Schools.
Do the critics have enough imagination to comprehend how a young transgendered or gay child, for example, would be experiencing this public debate (which, I suspect, is only a taste of the brutality to come in the lead-up to the proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage)?
If not, my suggestion to them would be to visit schools and talk to some of the kids who are benefiting from the program, or meet with those who suffered through their school years with little support or understanding.
Open your ears and minds, look into those eyes, and then tell me who is really being oppressed.
David Washington is editor of InDaily.
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