Like most people, different people would describe me in different ways. Earnest. Passionate. Opinionated. I’m sure some there’d be some less flattering terms too. One adjective that I don’t think would be used very often is melodramatic. Yet that is exactly the right word to describe my coming out experience.
Twenty years ago tonight I told my parents I was gay. The anniversary of that personally momentous occasion (as well as another upcoming ‘round number’, my 40th birthday) has prompted me to reflect both on what happened then, and how much has changed since. So here is my somewhat over-the-top, but very true, coming out story…
In 1998, I was a second year student at the Australian National University in Canberra. I lived in one of the larger student residences (Fenner Hall), and was a bit of a ‘joiner’ – signing up to countless clubs and societies, and participating in various sporting and cultural activities.
One such endeavour was the annual college theatre production. That year it was a not-especially memorable play called ‘The Prodigal Son’, about the return of a gay man to his estranged family following the death of his father.
I was cast as the prodigal son’s boyfriend (a role made slightly more complicated by the fact one of the first men I had ever slept with played the title character, although he is now one of my best friends).
As the ‘outsider’ in the play, my character’s main function was to observe the family’s interactions and offer insights like ‘Why can’t parents accept their children for who they are?’ and ‘Despite their differences I know they actually love each other.’
My personal response to this situation was to decide that this was the perfect opportunity to come out to my parents. So I convinced them to come down to see me perform, without explaining why.
Now, that sounds like a terrible decision. Probably because, well, it was. But, while the thought processes involved only ever really made sense in the conflicted mind of a closeted 19 year old, I do recall at least some of the reasons why.
First, it gave me the firm push I required. I had actually tried to tell my parents the summer beforehand, but always found an excuse to back out. The play served as a necessary self-imposed deadline – it’s hard to completely avoid the topic of sexuality after you’re parents have already seen you as a gay man (even if it was only on stage).
Second, it was on my ‘home turf’. The play was an excuse to get my parents to Canberra, which was important because, if they disowned me, I would still have accommodation, and money (I was fortunate enough to be on a scholarship), in place. In short, I wouldn’t be homeless.
Again, that might seem a bit melodramatic to some readers, especially in this post-same sex marriage haze. I can assure you it was a legitimate fear, not just because of the time period (this was early John Howard-era Australia after all) but especially because of my family background.
I grew up on a cattle property outside Blackwater, a small town about two hours west of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. As well as being a farmer, my dad was heavily involved in agri-politics, and had stood for pre-selection for the National Party in the federal electorate of Maranoa (he would later be an unsuccessful candidate in the state seat of Fitzroy, parts of which are now included in Mirani, the only Queensland seat currently held by One Nation).
My mum, a nurse at one of the local coal mines, was also very conservative. In fact, my entire extended family were right-wing; my sister was the next most progressive after me, and that was because she voted Liberal!
Oh, and given where we lived, my parents had sent all three children to a Lutheran boarding school in Brisbane for five years, where we were indoctrinated with German efficiency (although the full horrors of my time there are for another post, at another time).
Based on this up-bringing, the idea that my parents would react badly to their son’s homosexuality was definitely not implausible.
The third reason why I chose to tell them in this way was because it meant I had a support system in place. I had only come out to a few close friends late in the previous year. Through the play I found another close-knit group of accepting people. Together they gave me the confidence, and courage, to finally follow through.
Before we get to the ‘big night’ itself, there’s one other consequential choice I made: to disclose my sexuality to my sister beforehand. By that stage, she was in her 7th year of university. I figured that, if anyone in my family was ever going to be okay with me being gay, it was her.
And she was. Within 15 minutes of me telling her over the phone, she was joking around (in a light-hearted manner), putting me at ease.
What I didn’t learn until afterwards though, was that she then decided to let my parents know before they headed down to Canberra, including telling my mum as she recovered in hospital from elective surgery.
Like most life-changing events, I don’t actually remember much detail about what happened the night of the play (the final performance of its short and, as far as I’m aware, only run), just certain moments and particular emotions.
The adrenaline kicking in back-stage. The words of encouragement from my cast-mates before the curtains went up. The odd mixture of sheer terror and profound relief as I looked out under the lights and saw that my parents were indeed in the audience. The surreal-ness of my character asking parents to accept their children no matter who they are – as I did exactly that.
Afterwards, I took them out for a predictably awkward dinner, and we had ‘the chat’. Again, most of what followed was a blur, although they made sure to let me know that they loved me – even if they did so in their own reserved, country kind of way.
By the time I re-joined the rest of the cast for the after-party, [cliché alert] it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders, and I could exhale – properly – for the first time in a long time, maybe ever.
As other members of our community know all too well, ‘coming out’ is never a one-off event, but a life-long process, especially as you continually meet new people, or enter novel situations.
Even with people to whom you have already disclosed, there are degrees of being out, and a spectrum of acceptance. So it was with my parents.
They had said ‘all the rights things’ that frosty May night in Canberra because they had been forewarned by my sister. But that wasn’t necessarily a true reflection of how they really felt – as I discovered during the June/July holidays when I headed back to the farm.
The reception there was much, much colder, including from my brother who was then working on the farm (although he is much more accepting now, primarily thanks to the influence of a good woman).
Things deteriorated rapidly, and to such an extent that one day, in the car with my mum driving home from town, she said something especially egregious – which I won’t repeat here – and I had to tearfully, but forcefully, threaten to turn the car around and head all the way back to uni (two full days’ drive away) if she didn’t want me, all of me, in her life anymore.
It was the emotional confrontation that hadn’t happened the night of the play, but that was essential for things to improve. She backed down, and our relationship slowly but surely improved over the years that followed, a process that was greatly accelerated by the arrival of my fiancé Steve on the scene, ten years later.
Now, two decades on, and my mum and dad are proud, yes-voting folks, very much looking forward to attending Steve and my wedding (I think they are especially pleased at the idea of him being their son-in-law – but then, who wouldn’t be?)
Indeed, so much has changed in those twenty years that even writing this post has been challenging. Because it’s difficult to remember a time when, far from being comfortable in my skin, I buried myself in so many layers just to make sure nobody could see who I really was.
Twenty years ago the idea that I would meet someone to share my life with, all of my life, and that he would be accepted as an integral part of my family, and me in his, seemed preposterous. Today it is as normal, as fundamental, as breathing.
Twenty years ago I could not conceive of a time, a place, any context, in which I would be so happy. That life could be, would be, so beautiful. I wish he could have known that back then…
As a long-term activist and advocate on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBTI) community, I am not nearly naïve enough to underestimate the challenges that are still faced by many young people today.
Some parents do still disown their children. Or send them to gay or trans conversion (so-called) therapy. Some young people, especially those who are trans and gender diverse, from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Indigenous, or live in rural and regional Australia, can and do still face significant barriers just to become who they are. Too many tragically never make it.
So, I cannot say that #itgetsbetter for everyone. But I can speak from my own experience: it got better for me. Much, much better. Although, perhaps a little disappointingly, much less melodramatic too.