(edited by Callie-Doyle Scott)
‘Fudgepackers!’ said John, referring to our American corporate overseers. The spaceship-like Polycom phone had only just made a final crackle before falling silent, so my reaction to his remark was delayed by an anxious feeling that the Americans might have heard him. It was just the two of us in the tiny glass-walled fishbowl meeting room. I gathered my papers and made to leave.
Although I found the word funny, I shot him what I hoped was a hurt glance and said, ‘That’s such an offensive word. I’d prefer you didn’t use it.’
John gave a knowing look and nodded.
‘Sorry. No offence intended.’
Does that count as coming out? I walked out of the room and we never spoke of it again.
When the phone call came a few months later, I was sitting at my computer trying to get an email to the US just right. Adding, cutting, rewording sentences. John always laughed at my emails.
‘You’re so … verbose,’ he’d say, grinning.
‘At least I can spell!’ was my usual reply. His almost incoherent one-liners usually required further conference calls to set things straight. To get us all on the same page, as the Americans liked to say.
Our boss answered the call. Brad, the B.O. king. John once snuck a small bottle of roll-on deodorant into his top drawer, but the hint went unheeded. We always knew when Brad had walked past, even if our heads were down, headphones on, bashing away at our keyboards, arms mashed down to bloody stumps like that deranged animated GIF that John loved so much, the one that so perfectly captured our approach to work—pain and perseverance in equal measure. We avoided booking meetings with Brad in the fishbowl. The conference calls were bad enough when Brad decided to attend, trying to take credit for all our work, but in the small room, the stench was unbearable.
I’d just come back from my lunchtime walk, alone. John and I used to walk together, roaming the city’s sticky humid air, trying to catch some breeze down by the turgid brown waters of the Brisbane River. We walked fast, with purpose, hissing and snarling at slow walkers or those who hogged the footpath without leaving room for us to overtake. Birds of a feather, us against the world. The highlight of my day, a sweet spot nestled between the morning conference calls (when our time zone overlapped with the Americans’) and the afternoon when we actually got shit done. The rest of the office resented us. We worked hard, enjoying and despising it in equal measures, and kept to ourselves. We knew, of course—not only John and I, but the whole office—that our jobs were at the mercy of the little Aussie dollar. The Pacific peso, as John liked to call it. One swing too high against the greenback and the Americans would cut us out altogether, shut down the whole operation. But for now, toiling away in sunny little Brisbane, we were able to provide some measure of corporate value at a cost-effective price. Relations with our colleagues sank to an ultimate low when John won the FIFA World Cup sweepstakes. He drew Brazil, an almost guaranteed win, and ended up walking away with $120. We went out for Monday night cocktails, inviting no one else. It started with Long Island Iced Teas and progressed to shots of Chartreuse. Yes, Chartreuse. Fuck me, the Chartreuse. Never again. Even the bartender chastised us once we started on the Chartreuse.
‘Guys. What’s going on?’
We looked at him blankly and demanded two tequila lime and sodas to chase down our shots.
‘It’s a Monday night. Everyone else has had a quiet beer and gone home, but you guys are on the cocktails. What’s the occasion?’
It felt like a sermon.
‘What’s your name?’ asked John.
‘Trent,’ replied the bartender.
‘Trent the bartender! We’re celebrating the world cup.’
Trent shook his head and walked away to make our drinks.
‘I think he likes you,’ said John, out to cause mischief.
‘Trent the bartender is cute, isn’t he?’
‘Yeah—and very straight.’
Trent returned and I paid for our drinks. We were the last people left in the bar, and Trent wanted to shut up shop and go home, so we nipped off to the Irish pub around the corner for what John called ‘a soothing Scotch and dry’ followed by a ‘cleansing beer’. I wanted to stop, but the very idea of a cleansing beer seemed important to him. More than anything, I think he just liked saying it.
‘We need a cleansing beer. You’ll feel much better after that. You can’t go home without a cleansing beer.’
By this stage I wanted to run, but I shrugged and let him buy it.
‘What’s that?’ he asked, pointing at a gleaming bottle of liqueur high up on a shelf behind the bar.
‘Huh, I don’t even know,’ the bartender replied. A woman this time. Was John flirting? She took the bottle down. ‘It’s called Rubis,’ she said.
‘Rubis!’ said John, a little too loud. ‘After this cleansing beer, we’ll have a Rubis or two.’ He took the bottle from the bartender for a look. ‘Strawberry liqueur. Hey, it’s like Midori, but with strawberry. I’m a fucking poet!’
I took the bottle. ‘And it’s made by Suntory.’
John struck a serious pose and held up his glass. ‘For relaxing times … ‘
‘Yeah yeah,’ said the waitress, taking the bottle back and leaving us to our giggling.
I slumped across the bar and closed my eyes. John gave my stool a gentle nudge. Eyes open or shut, the room had turned liquid, daring me to drink the whole night in. My stomach had other ideas. I groaned, ran to the bathroom and heaved uncontrollably, painting the floor technicolor before I could make it to a cubicle. I sat down on a toilet seat and tried to breathe. A few minutes and a quick gulp of water from the filthy bathroom sink had me feeling ready to return outside, but wanting get home fast.
‘OK, look. Don’t finish the beer, but we are so having a Rubis,’ said John.
‘That’s a girl’s drink,’ said the bartender.
‘I don’t care. Rubis and lemonade please. Two!’
Our drinks were served.
‘It’s medicinal. That’s what it is. Mystical. I mean, medicinal,’ said John, nodding sagely, savouring the word before losing balance and sliding gracelessly from his barstool.
A Monday night in Brisbane can only go so late, so we were soon out in the fresh air, dizzy and lost. We ran down Elizabeth Street like loons, shrieking ‘Rubis!’ at the occasional passer-by. Near the Queen Street mall we parted in a brief, rough, embarrassed, masculine hug, as close as we ever got.
After he got the call, Brad came over and looked me in the eye. ‘We need to talk.’ Despite my best efforts to veer into the boardroom, he gestured the other way and we ended up face-to-face in the fishbowl, breathing each other’s breath, smelling each other’s smell.
When we went walking, John and I changed our shoes in the lockers downstairs in the building’s basement. I’d requested a locker from the building management and he shared it, leaving his comfortable runners there for our walks. We started doing this after the soles of our black leather work shoes began to crack from all that walking. One day, treading the steaming wet footpaths after a quick summer storm had passed over, I realised my socks were getting wet. Water had crept up into the cracked shoe sole and absorbed into my socks, my toes stained black from the wet dye.
Sometimes we headed down into a food court and got what I called a post-lunch lunch at the dodgy carvery. We’d order John’s favourite: ‘globules of fat’, his name for deep-fried dim sims. Hideous food, but seemingly essential on those days when we needed a little something to get through the afternoon.
After the call, sitting with Brad in that tiny meeting room, staring blankly past his head and into the bland office outside, I said the first thing that came to mind.
‘I have his shoes.’
‘Downstairs, in my locker. His shoes.’
Brad was visibly upset, but it wasn’t in me to sit there and accept that he had feelings too. I went downstairs, collected the shoes and went home early.
I resigned soon after, unable to continue. Not that it mattered. John’s funeral was well-attended. Family, friends, a sea of strangers; people I had no words to offer to. A nice enough farewell, but one of those funerals where you get the impression that, despite a great sense of loss, nobody really knew the deceased very well at all. Generic speeches. Yes, tears, of course, and sadness, but without any underlying truth; nothing more than each attendee coming face-to-face with their own mortality. I never found out why he did it, and I still wonder—perhaps morbidly—how he did it. Nobody ever talks about those details, do they? Everything left unsaid, reminding me of the way I came out to him with feigned offence at the word ‘fudgepackers’; how I keep coming out to people in various subtle ways, again and again, until it all just becomes too tiring. Sometimes I wake up from a dream, forgetting everything except the faint warmth he left behind that one time. That brief, rough, embarrassed, masculine embrace, holding me through the night. The bottle of Rubis gleaming at me from my own small liquor cabinet in the other room.
Daniel Young is a reader, writer, editor, and software developer. He has had short stories and flash fiction published by Hello Mr. Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, Bukker Tillibul, Seizure, Cuttings Journal, Verity La, Bide Magazine, The Suburban Review, and antiTHESIS journal. He is the founder and editor of Tincture Journal. You can find him on Twitter @jazir1979.
It was just a glimpse I caught of you
Not quite enough to fill the gap
Between the knowing and déjà vu
My mirror image to unwrap
Reflected there behind the mask
That begs the question I must
One perfect day I’ll be that me
You know I was always meant to be
That day will come . . . this nightmare end
The truth revealed of my manhood
No longer so misunderstood
This broken thing only I can mend
That perfect day will come I’m sure
I’ll be that me forevermore
Orientation Week was heaven on a stick. I joined every second club and society that had a smiling face and a hint of fun to be had. A new town, with a squeaky new future in the wings, was the perfect mixer to go with the truckload of free beer O-week had on offer. I couldn’t wait to try the anythings and everythings I imagined uni to be. The Platonic idealism I’d nursed through high-school and my short-lived career as a labourer would finally get an airing in the hallowed halls of learning. Set against the backdrop of that optimistic good cheer, the misogynistic rant I came across in the bar was a grating reminder that all was not well in that world. ‘Did women build the Roman Empire? Was it a woman who took that ‘giant step for mankind’? How many women does it take to… blah, blah.’ The guy with the mouth had an ego Superman couldn’t jump over and as tempting as a heckling confrontation was, I couldn’t be bothered buying into some wanker’s macho ego-fest when there were far more enticing activities to be had around the campus corner. I didn’t give Pete a second thought until he plonked himself down at my table in the ref a few days later. He’d seen me at the mountaineering club and wanted to know if he could join the Federation Peak walk over the Easter break. He had no clue our paths had already crossed and I had no reason to revisit my first impression.
Over the next few months we shared our interests in politics, bushwalking and every barrel from physics to philosophy led to an unlikely friendship taking shape. Pete’s conversation habitually took aim at the female of the species and the resulting exchanges were often as not half a word away from a blood sport. I never backed away from my criticism of Pete’s Anglo-centric sensibilities and testosterone charged abuse of feminism, and he would likewise tear strips off my romantic anarchism and defense of every girl from Alice to Aphrodite. As spirited as those encounters often were, we never came to blows. The one thing we never disagreed on was climbing. We rarely spoke during a climb and as clichéd as it sounds I can’t help but think those silences were the real reason our friendship endured.
Work and family and travel and women took our lives in very different directions. Christmas cards and the occasional scribbled note from wherever in the world Pete happened to be were intertwined with yaffly coffees and meals whenever he was in town. Chilli mussels and too many red wines set the tone for most of those get togethers. We’d catch up every week or two when he was around and then go our separate ways when the distractions of life took over. Pete had been living in Indonesia with his latest lady-love and when that relationship, like all those before it, came to its inevitable end, he called me on his arrival back in Melbourne:
‘Bakers still doing their seafood night?’
Pete-speak for dissecting the minutia of where it had gone wrong, of where she’d gone wrong. He knew he’d get little if any sympathy from me, not that that had ever stopped him over-analysing his life choices in the past. To be honest, the closet soapy-watcher in me was looking forward to the next installment of an existence that had nothing in common with the suburban family life I led. In his enthusiasm to have an ear to bend my casual mention that I had something to tell him would have gone straight through to the keeper. No surprises there: Pete’s world loomed large from where he sat, and from his perspective mine was simply what it was. When you had known someone for as long as Pete and I had, the scripts we lived by rolled out in anticipation of the familiarities we expected of one another.
I arrived early for dinner. The first beer didn’t touch the sides, prompting the waitress to ask if I’d like ‘another while you’re waiting for your friend?’ She didn’t have to ask twice. Seven o’clock swung ‘round. My heart-rate increased and by quarter past what had seemed like a good idea at the time was rapidly morphing into ‘what the fuck am I doing’, which was followed by Pete walking in. He gave the café crowd his usual once over. He looked across at me. He turned and walked out. Right, that didn’t go as well as I had imagined it might. Yes, it was presumptuous of me to think Pete would be OK with this stuff. We’d covered a lot of ground over the years but I’d never once hinted at what I now so pointedly wanted to share with him. Even the best of friendships have their limits and it looked ominously like I’d found ours in that glance. I had no Plan B and the only thought to cross my mind was, So, that’s what the pit of my stomach feels like. Pete was still outside the café having a smoke and I was about to try his mobile to ask what his story was when I saw him check his watch . Sweet. I waved the waitress over and asked her to tell the guy on the footpath that there was a beer waiting for him inside. A measured breath in … out … and Pete was standing at my table.
I smiled and said, ‘I thought we’d agreed to meet for dinner.’
Pete’s mouth opened and closed and opened and closed again. The longer he stood looking the more I relaxed into the ‘me’ he was seeing for the very first time. His stare never left my face as he fumbled for a chair, an absent-minded ‘fuck me’ slipping out when he finally settled at our table. Pete’s eyes were doing all the talking and seeing him lost for words was a first. It was one of those classic silences that only last a second or two but take forever to break. The anxiety I’d felt only a few moments earlier dissolved into the quiet confidence that came with being in the skin I was in. When I reminded Pete that I had mentioned having something to tell him, the ‘you bastard’ he responded with put a grin on both our faces. Pete still had a lot to take in seeing his oldest mountaineering mate primped and powdered to perfection.
From my side of the looking glass, being frocked-up was as seamless as breathing in and out. I could sit playing with a lock of Phryne Fisher black-bob wig without a blink of self-consciousness. But introducing that same femme self to family and friends was rarely an easy thing to do. ‘Show don’t tell’ was my weapon of choice when it came to sharing the reality of my being Amanda. Pete had to sink or swim in a sea of Allure perfume and a to-die-for 1950s inspired black and white floral print dress – the exquisitely cut cowl neckline flowed into a backless pleated A-line skirt, frothing at the hem with layers of black tulle petticoat, perched on suicide high platform stilettos and finished off with lashings of mascara and the reddest red lipstick on the planet. Everyone blinks.
The attention to detail that defines Amanda’s public persona was lost on Pete. He made an awkward attempt to complement me on my hair and makeup, then had second thoughts and reverted to type with a disparaging remark about my cleavage. We both laughed. Dinner went better than either of us could have predicted, helped along by a tender-as Gippsland T-bone and a decidedly Amandaesque sparkling Shiraz.
Pete had way more questions than I had answers that night. He still has. He wanted to know every where, why, what and when of my Amandaring. His curiosity was initially focused on concern that I not get ‘the shit kicked out of me’ when I was out and about, which was sort of sweet. I assured him it was pretty unlikely I’d be bashed at the ballet or threatened at the theatre and tried to reassure him that the most dangerous place I could go – the Myer mega-sale – wasn’t my scene.
‘So what if the cops stop you?’
I had been pulled over for a random traffic inspection, which was a non-event until the officer asked to see my license. She looked at the photo ID I handed her and then quizzically at me. All I could do was smile and say ‘yeah, there’s a typo on the date of birth’. She waved me off with a cheery goodbye and was still laughing as I drove away. All good and well according to Pete but what he was really angling to know was, What are you going to do when some douche-bag tries it on?
Life to Pete was sex. Full stop. Everyone, everywhere, every day of the week was either doing it or wanted to be doing it. I didn’t live in that world. From day one I’d always assumed anyone seeing Amanda knew precisely what it was they were looking at. It still surprises me that that assumption is only half right. Girls pretty much know at first blush what I am. Boys on the other hand have a tendency to see what they want to see. ‘That’s right Pete, just like you did when you first walked into the café.’ My gentle slap to remind the boy in the man that he’d been sprung only served to spur him on to ask the question he most wanted the answer to: ‘ So, has anyone tried to get into your pants?’
‘Panties Pete, get with the program, mate.’
He could be a real charmer.
There was this guy. The Black Cat was a favourite café-cum-music venue for me to Amanda a night away. I usually sat alone, reading, writing , enjoying. It’s a bit witchy but I could feel the looks I was getting. What’s the deal with that? No, your stare isn’t a tractor beam. No, I don’t feel all gooey knowing you’re giving me the eye. Didn’t he know the rules? ‘If you don’t want to be a dick, DON’T BE A DICK.’ My admirer eventually made his way to where I was sitting and with one of those icky Days of our Lives voices said, ‘Hi, I’m John. But you can call me Jack.’ As if that was ever going to happen. The questioning eyebrow I raised was all the encouragement John needed to trot out his next B-grade movie line. ‘I’d like to take you home and tuck you into beddy byes.’ OK, I have to admit I had a smidge of admiration for his directness, but he totally lost me at ‘beddy byes’! What planet was this guy from? Not knowing what else to do I thanked him with the strongest boy handshake I could muster, leant across the table, and said, ‘You can’t afford me, John.’ A ripple of chuckling from the staff and patrons next to me followed John to the door. Not the nicest thing I’ve ever done but, hey, John was a dick.
Pete was warming to where I was coming from and to the ‘me’ I wanted him to know. Before we’d finished our wine the conversation had settled into the same relaxed ebb and flow we’d always enjoyed. I asked him about Indonesia and the focus of our catch-up shifted 180 degrees.
Pete still has a myriad of questions and rock-climbing is still the scariest fun thing I do. We’ve had lots of meals and coffee catch-ups since that dinner and our discussions can still be feisty affairs at times but, that said, he does tend to tread a little gentler whenever the conversation crosses the gender divide.
Love may make the world go around, but it’s been friendships like Pete’s that have let me breathe in that world.
I met you in my dreams
The wish I made . . . come true
The lie I’ve lived not what it seems
You came to my rescue
Across the years we were apart
You came to me with all your heart
No thought that hidden then from view
Those dreams would one day be you
Testimony to your birthright
The truth revealed for all to see
The you that’s always been in me
My secret sister of the night
Your mirror image now recast
That perfect day has come at last
The stars saved my life, it’s true. I had the whole thing planned out. There is a table by the lake. Sort of. It’s either an uncomfortable piece of picnic furniture or an art sculpture, it’s hard to tell. But it’s a dark, deserted spot and that’s what matters.
At times like these, I lament the safe streets of Canberra, the absence of gun crime. The closest thing you’d encounter is probably a good glassing. But broken bottles make such inefficient and messy weapons. And the last thing you want to happen in a suicide is for it to fail.
As they say, when life gives you lemons, you search for other alternatives to guns.
Gay men aren’t allowed to donate blood if they’re sexually active. Thankfully, I have no life to speak of, sexual or otherwise. And as I squeezed the rubber ball like the nurse instructed, I wondered if there was a limit to the number of bags that could be filled this way. And what if there was no bag. Just the needle.
Surely needles are easier to obtain than guns.
I come from a country of anti-LGBT parades, where queers are accorded the imaginary superpower of being a threat to national security. You’ll excuse me while I fly off to save the world from the breeders.
Did you know that about 2500 left-handed people die every year from using products designed for right-handed people? The interface was designed to be user friendly – if you are right-handed.
Likewise, the world is designed around straight, cis individuals. Is it surprising at all that non-straight, non-cis people suffer in it? The medical system grudgingly accommodates trans individuals, the legal system is designed for equality only within specific demographic groups.
As for social norms. Well.
Never feeling at home with the gender norms and hetero-centrism of Malaysian culture, I was always the outsider when dealing with that community. Regardless of whether said community was in Malaysia or Australia. Faced with the choice of learning to play by Aussie rules with the (predominantly) white crowd, or subsisting once again at the fringes of the Malaysian community, I admit to being a cowardly creature of habit and chose the latter.
Picking out the Christians to avoid, the gender normatives to shun, avoiding homophobia and transphobia should be simple enough. But what do I do with the gender-normative person who’s really nice to me? Or the devout Christian who I get along with really well? It worked out in the end.
After sensing my annoyance at a hetero-centric comment, the gender normative one cleverly deduced that I was gay. Fount of wisdom that she is, very matter of factly told me that I should be out to everyone so that my life would be easier. I told her that that wasn’t her choice to make and she went away.
She didn’t display any knowledge or sensitivity towards the queer experience and I wasn’t about to start a course on How to Treat Gay People like Human Beings 101. I was, however, going to rant about her straight privilege, her straight worldview and absolute ignorance of queer issues on my personal blog…… which she read. Oops.
She was hurt that I raged about her ‘behind her back’ without trying to talk to her, and she thought I was a two-faced, scheming, untrustworthy street slime. And the world didn’t move for me. The people around me were still ignorant and apathetic about the queer experience and call me lazy but between pondering suicide and considering acceptable options for my future, I just couldn’t be bothered trying to change people’s worldview.
The religious one, on the other hand, thought I was getting too close to her boyfriend. A bunch of us guys train karate together but I’m the only one catching shit for it because everyone sees me as the only girl in the group. And I’ll have you know that just because the medical system doesn’t allow me to get on hormones easily, and everyone in the world makes assumptions about my gender doesn’t make me any less of a man. It just creates a lot of social awkwardness.
And soon, an alliance was forged between the two straight allies, rumors were perpetuated and shunted down the grapevine, there was a social fallout and a nuclear winter. Which was fine. Who needs breeder friends who think it’s their birthright that I explain my gender and sexuality to them anyway? And the closet ceased to be an issue because I didn’t have any friends who I needed to be closeted around.
Pondering my quarter-life crisis like any good university student with first-world problems, it became apparent that transgender medical care would be illegal and risky at best if I returned to Malaysia. But I had no way of staying in the country unless I continued inflicting university upon myself.
A further $50,000 in tuition fees and two years of my life to gain nursing qualifications and subsequent migration? Or eternal exile to a society designed for cis, straight people? I chose door number three.
I like to think of Lake Burley Griffin as my front yard and Black Mountain as my back yard. It was even true if you squint. My preferred path up the mountain brings you away from the orange glow of the streetlights onto the pitch dark asphalt. The occasional car trundling past. The new world starts in pitch darkness and the only way you’d see a lamp post is if you walked into it. And as your eyes adjust, you start to wonder at how much you can see just by starlight and moonlight.
It was much the same along the lake. You’d run into the occasional jogger with a miner’s torch on their foreheads but mostly it’s fuzzy, grey, and dark. People from my intersex and trans support group tell me that the lake is too shallow to efficiently drown in, but really, you only need a strong resolve and few feet of water, right? They say after the first breath, everything becomes really easy.
Unsure of whether my parents were willing to spend more money on my education; not confident in meeting the criteria to apply for a temporary visa. A permanent solution was elusive. There was no way out.
If only I had me some needles.
It was winter, I reckon, when I took one of my many walks around the lake to romanticise death. It was winter to match my mood. Stumbling through the fog-filled maze, wondering which path to take, I made the mistake of looking up. And damn if the tiny stars in the night sky weren’t the prettiest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. The fog lifted.
The stars saved my life. It’s true.
After a harrowing first semester in nursing (the human body is a fascinating yet freaky, freaky thing), and a prolonged tussle with the healthcare system (even the healthcare professionals who want to help inadvertently make things harder for me), I finally will be on hormones within the month (maybe, fingers crossed). And if I don’t fail any of my courses I might even be on my way to getting me some human rights.
The Queer Department at my current university pays a lot of attention to the T in LGBT, or, a catchier acronym I recently learned, QUILTBAG, or, if you like it with a cynical spin, lGbt. Everyone I’ve met in the queer space are all so supportive, accepting and… full of life. It reminded me of the queer bubble I (had unintentionally) created around myself, only for them it wasn’t just a bubble, it was the entire world. It was as if I had dropped into a parallel universe where discrimination never existed.
Like everyone else who is alive I still have my problems. Once I start hormones and have to come out to my housemates eviction might be in my future. Despite my best efforts to stay under the radar (they can’t hurt you if they don’t know you’re there), I unfortunately made a few friends with the people in my course, and hence, social exclusion, whether real or imagined, is another possibility once people notice physical changes. Or, if internet anecdotes and my own personal experience is to be believed, people will dismiss all facts that contradict their initial impression of my gender. For example, when I wear my binder, it’s because I’ve Lost A Lot of Weight. And eventually when my voice drops, it’s because I have a Really Bad Cold That Never Goes Away.
In the end, it’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: if you’re homeless, cold and starving, you’re not going to worry about finding a fulfilling job and discovering the meaning in life. Likewise, until I somehow secure the right to safe and reliable medical care, and the right to change my name and gender on legal documents, I’m really not that excited about feeling safe enough to be out and proud to the world.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings
Mid-December 1994. Recently I’d turned 17; my parents had separated. My uncle extended an invitation to my mother and me to housesit his and his wife’s Cremorne mansion while they revelled in a Northern American adventure. We were desperate to be anywhere but Hobart: that backwater had become hazardous: every other weekend my mother would encounter—in Myer, at Salamanca Market—the former classmate with whom my father had had an affair and intended to marry; at the private school I was forced to attend I’d invite—by listening to The Cure, by studying anything other than Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in the Common Room—the raging rich kids’ gauntlets.
So we promptly booked flights and packed; and the very next morning taxied from the small voltaic unit we occupied like lioness and zebra to the capital’s pastoral International Airport.
Mother in tow, I speared from the QANTAS Boeing, through the refreshingly mixed gridlock, the smeary sliding doors, then was belted across the jaw by the fist of a sweltering Sydney.
Instantly I loved it; she loathed it.
In a parking bay, in his Range Rover Classic, awaited that Irish giant, itching to zip us home. Crossing the Harbour Bridge, I was ecstatic, my mother ‘so seasick’. Hungover, I knew. (Every night she consumed a bottle of Teacher’s Scotch Whisky.)
Steel and water glittered.
Our bedrooms had been ‘appointed before dawn’ by my aunt, an angular firecracker. My mother’s was on the second floor, overlooked ‘a park where men’—rage spewed from the rear-view mirror—‘prowl at night’, mine the fourth, ‘in case he tries to sneak out: the stairs creak’. Sniggering, he jabbed my snoozing mother in the ribcage.
Carbon dioxide leaked from me as it leaks from a child’s balloon.
The following afternoon my mother and I farewelled her brother and sister-in-law.
‘Thank God they’re gone. I love them, but …’ A bottle of Coca-Cola hissed, a tray of ice cubes crackled on a hideous marble bench. ‘What’re you doing till dinner?’
‘Taking out the 4WD: need black hair dye.’
‘Jesus fucking Christ! So it’s not enough that I’m tortured twenty-four seven by the wailing of Robert Smith and his …’—his pack of fags? I willed her to spit it again. ‘For the next month,’ she moaned, ‘I’m going to be shadowed by a clone.’
‘Would you rather I drove off The Gap?’
This vicious allusion to my latest suicide attempt momentarily rattled my mother; and then her top lip arched like a canine’s. ‘Don’t buy foundation … or lipstick … or mascara!’
I seized the Bluebeardesque ring of keys from the bronze hook in the foyer. ‘I won’t,’ I laughed. ‘I can use yours.’
As I started the engine the front door shook in its jamb.
The month with my mother was like a game of cricket: agonizingly slow. In mid-January 1995, my uncle and his wife returned—sans thanks—from the U.S. (then retreated, for six weeks, to their ‘châteaux, for some R&R’); my mother to Hobart.
Finally I was alone.
Every day I woke late and gorged on bacon and eggs; tripped, after a long bath, into clean jocks and socks, the same Einstürzende Neubauten T-shirt—white-eyed, well-hung red stallion, pissing—and frazzled black shorts; laced, carefully, my gleaming black 14-Hole Docs; smeared, in my aunt’s en suite, kohl on my upper lids; backcombed my mud-brown hair (‘If you’d peroxided it before you’d coloured it, it would’ve taken on the L’Oréal,’ sighed a friend in Tasmania).
In regalia, war paint and headdress, I rifled the city’s gifts: Oxford Street’s Pop Shop, Centennial Park’s copses, the Museum of Contemporary Art…
One sultry evening I talked my way into a Darlinghurst deco pub. There I collided with Mark, my ideal composite (although he—‘I’m only a bus boy’—disagreed) of the scholars, heroes and gods with whom I’d coexisted since Year 9 Classics.
It was, to quote Joseph Heller, love at first sight.
On a break, he whisked me to the fire escape, where we kissed, then propped me on a stool that towered over sparkling wet asphalt and headlights that wavered like Mediterranean jellyfish. Every so often he’d swing by to nuzzle my nape, to collect an empty glass, to deliver a fresh pint, to introduce a friend. ‘We adore him—’ ‘Not once has he judged us,’ the man’s brother—graced also with sarcomas—finished. Crowed a leatherman, a former Professor from Arkansas: ‘I’m just waiting for God … O!’ ‘I had to stop taking my pills,’ a twenty-year-old confessed. ‘They made me sicker than the illness.’ He placed a hand—bony, pale—over mine. ‘I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid.’
But I was.
Not of him.
But for him.
For them all.
For there—“God’s Waiting Room” (‘Charming, isn’t it,’ fumed Mark one night, ‘the epithet those fortunate HIV negative men have branded upon the place I work’)—preyed an impatient, ruthless dog.
Despite spiralling to Hobart in mid-February, I continued my relationship with Mark. We spoke when we could, wrote to each other weekly. One of his letters—in which Sonnet 29 had been elegantly transcribed—precipitated my coming out.
‘Who’s Mark?’ screeched my mother.
She found them, she found them.
I was more relieved than alarmed.
‘Stuart? Who the fuck’s Mark?’
I marched into the lounge-room. She was perched on a florid pink and grey recliner that had been swivelled toward the doorway. Her face was starched like a hospital sheet. The letter was squatting in her lap, a fat toad. The others, which had been plucked from their envelopes, were crumpled on the carpet.
‘Are you gay?’
For years I’d anticipated the question from her. As a child I’d decided that when I was asked I’d answer honestly, believing she—of all people—would be receptive.
‘Yes, Mum. I’m gay.’
I’ve never forgotten her response:
‘What about my grandchildren? You’ll fucking die from AIDS!’
After this, I remember very little: gathering the letters, the envelopes; stuffing clothes and notebooks into my school backpack; searching for loose change to call my friend Andrew, who knew I was gay, from the nearby Telstra payphone; praying (not to God: I electrocuted Him at thirteen while a priest’s doughy appendage caressed my knee) that payphone not be out of order.
‘What the fuck,’ my mother bellowed, ‘do you think you’re doing?’
‘Getting the hell out of here… Going to meet someone.’
‘You don’t know him.’
‘Is he also—’
‘Gay? Yes, Mum. He’s gay.’ The more I uttered the word, the more hopeful, the more relaxed, the more unencumbered I felt.
‘If you go out my door I’ll telephone your father and tell him you’re—’
‘Gay? Gay! Gay!’ My nose’s tip almost brushed hers. ‘If you tell Dad I’m gay you’ll never see me again.
Keening, she lumbered to her bedroom.
I wrote on the kitchen bench’s floral pad:
Mum, I’m gay.
I always have been.
If you can’t accept this…
I’ll be in touch.
I glided from the unit to the payphone. One ring, two rings, three rings. Shit! And then Andrew answered his black analogue brick.
For the next week I stayed with his good friend Peter, who I previously hadn’t met. He encouraged me to buzz my mother, to let her know I was safe. By the time I did—around midnight—my stomach had completely emptied itself. My mother’s voice was rich with bitterness, with whisky. ‘Where the fuck are you? With who? Sounds like a bleeding peedaphile! If you don’t fucking tell me where he lives’—sniffles; quickly she composed herself—‘I’ll hire a private eye, have him tail you after school!’
Anxiety mutated into fear; I dropped the handset. Peter chatted briefly, gently, yet firmly, with my mother, then held me as I howled.
If it weren’t for him (and Andrew, who visited each night), I wouldn’t be alive. Mornings, he washed, dried and ironed my uniform; filled my lunchbox with sandwiches and fruit; drove me to school. Afternoons, he picked me up, returned me to his plush, comforting home, where he insisted I ‘drill until dinner’ (he lectured at a nearby college, proposed I apply to interstate universities). Dishwasher stacked, we’d retire to the sitting room, he with a snifter of brandy, me water; there I was introduced to the films of Fellini, the concertos of Mozart, the novels of Patrick White.
Those were some of the happiest evenings of my life. I was blessed to have known Peter, to have been one of the dozens of young—and not so young—gay men he sheltered, comforted and supported.
At the end of that week in Oz, my mother materialised at my school like the Wicked Witch of the West and begged me to head back to Kansas. A fortnight later—‘You’re a fucking liar!’ ‘You’ve changed!’—she kicked me out. I moved into a three-bedroom flat with two female university students whose friend—a gay guy with whom Andrew was acquainted—had recently relocated to Melbourne. It was almost overwhelming, knowing they weren’t repelled by my sexual orientation.
The first night in my new home, two school friends helped me unpack. From my atlas slipped a sepia photo—taken at Central Station in a romantic rickety booth—of Mark and me kissing. They snatched at it the way sea gulls snatch at chips. ‘What’s this?’ ‘You a Fudgepacker?’ ‘No! It was a dare!’ But the quaver in my voice betrayed me. Some excuse—‘Gotta get our bitches’—then they left.
The next morning, in halls, in classes, ‘Doughnut Puncher’ and ‘Arse Bandit’ were supplanted by ‘Grim Reaper’ and ‘You’re. Fucking. Dead’. Terrified, I confessed everything to my headmaster. He immediately convened students and staff, then told them in no uncertain terms that ‘homophobic hostilities or toleration of will effect expulsion or termination’. The tirade’s crescendo: ‘For Christ’s sake, grow up! From all of you I expect compassion for this young man who’s been outed!’ (So as not to roar nor cry, I bit my tongue until I tasted rust.) After that, not a single raging rich kid could look me in the eye.
At lunch I came out to my closest friends. Sam, in full view of hundreds of teenagers wrestling on the oval like Ancient Greeks, hugged me, then kissed each cheek. ‘Okay,’ said James, ‘wanna kick the footy?’ Adrian was typically facetious: ‘Always wondered why you hated threading worms onto fishhooks.’
Several months later, ‘Dad, I’m gay’ flew from my mouth, a beautiful bird. ‘I know,’ he smiled. I was speechless. ‘Deanna—then his fiancé, now his wife—‘thought so, a while ago. She’s a finely tuned … Gaydar?’ When my silence lingered, he offered: ‘You’re my child, and I love you. I always have, and I always will—no matter what.’
Mark and I amicably broke up. Although we’re no longer in touch, I occasionally re-read his letters. They remind me of summer, of young love, of losing my virginity, of Sydney’s men, of Andrew, Peter and my headmaster, of Sam, James and Adrian.
And they remind me of my mother. In thirty-four years I’ve thought often of blood; and I’ve realised—with sorrow, with hope—that it isn’t thicker than water.
So my mother and me?
We do not even know each other. We look alike but we have nothing to say. But I won’t hang around in my hospital shift, repeating The Black Mass and all of it.
I say Live, Live because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift.
(Final three lines from Anne Sexton’s Live or Die, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1966.)
I wish I could say that I had a plan.
But when I eventually decided to say something… it was as if the awkwardness in my gut dissolved and carried me along with it. A moment before, I had been prepared to shut down Skype, close my laptop, and go to bed as though I didn’t have a thousand threads of disappointment squirming like tapeworms in my belly.
Looking back, maybe it was because I could see Mum’s face, not just hear her voice.
‘Actually, Mum… there’s something else I have to tell you.’
Immediately I could see she knew that it was serious, whatever ‘it’ was. Which only made me even more nervous.
‘Don’t worry… I’m not on drugs, I’m not gay, and I haven’t got anyone pregnant.’
What else could she possibly think it could be now? That you’ve murdered someone?
She won’t like it she’ll look at you like you’re a monster and that’ll be it over done finished a disappointment
THAT’S ENOUGH. Just say it. Say it. She’s your mother. Think of your stepfather, your stepbrother- no, she’s my stepsister now… quickly, before you run away again, say it, say it, say it, say it!
‘Mum… I… I have a condition called Gender Dysphoria… I’m a girl.’
Beat. Mum nods slowly.
Another silence. In hindsight, a second.
‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’
That was when the mouse escaped into Mum’s kitchen.
‘What if… hypothetically speaking… I was your daughter instead of your son?’
‘Darling, I’ll always love you. No matter who you choose to be, you’ll still be you.’
I wish I could remember that conversation as it happened. All I know for sure is that we were driving away from the theatre one afternoon. It was cold, but the sun was shining so brightly.
I take a quick look in my wardrobe after hanging up from Skype two hours later. A fluffy black scarf, complete with matching hat. Kitty ears. My favourite skirt. Two pairs of jeans, carefully shaped. Elegant leather boots with perfect heels that I’ve never had the courage to wear in public.
I always told myself that I was good at hiding who I really was. Even now, I’m still surprised when someone, usually someone who I’ve never met, manages to actually see me. That friend of Mum’s whose first thought on meeting me was ‘what a lovely woman he’d make.’ Katie’s first boyfriend, who, just after I’d figured out who I was, took her aside after a long day of Dungeons and Dragons to ask her if I was transgendered. Another friend of a friend, after seeing me from a distance, asked Katie who her ‘gorgeous’ companion was.
Every time it happened, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t beautiful, or even pretty. I was about as feminine as a gorilla, with the hair to match. … or so I thought.
Did you know that every human being is female in the womb? It’s a difference of a few degrees in temperature that determines our eventual sex, but every single tiny embryo starts off as a girl.
‘I wonder if you’re transgendered because you were born premature, Callie?’ Mum muses one evening. We’re both curled up in our respective thrones in that sleepy half-hour between eight-thirty to nine o’clock at night (she in her red-and-white striped armchair, me buried in my nest of pillows on the couch,) so it takes a little while for her question to filter through my daydreams of maiden knights kissing sentient stories and even longer for me to think of a response. It’s honestly never something that I’ve thought much about before, but the thought that I might have been born in that magical period of time just before my sex was imprinted on my brain by those few extra degrees makes a lot of sense.
I try to convey this as best I can without sounding as though I’m about to fall asleep. The last thing I see before I close my eyes is Mum smiling to herself.
Whenever I think about telling my Father, I seize up.
It’s not that I don’t know he loves me. Or that I don’t think he’ll support me. But in the moment that I do tell him, I know that I’ll be taking away his son. And the disappointment in his eyes when I do… I don’t know if I can take that. I really don’t.
‘I’m sorry darling… right in the middle of the most important conversation we’ve ever had- ACK! Kimba, no!’
‘Drop a towel over it, Mum! Drop a towel over it!’
Finally, after a frantic minute of shrieking from both of us, flying towels from Mum, and hysterical laughter from me, the furry invader is trapped underneath a fluffy white bathtowel. Our cat, a sleek ginger specimen, looks up at Mum with an expression of shock on his gormless face. It’s not surprising: to him, we’ve just taken his squeaking, scurrying dinner and erased it from reality.
After that talking about my situation is easy. I tell Mum everything: the visits to the endocrinologist that I’ve been keeping secret, the hormones I’ve been taking, the wonderful way my body is slowly changing. I tell her about how scared I’ve been to say anything, how every time I’ve tried, my fear of disappointing her has paralysed me. She shakes her head.
‘I’m only sorry that you had to go through all of it alone.’
After I tell him, my father sits silently, staring at me. My stomach slowly begins to fold in on itself.
‘I think you’re wrong,’ he says finally. ‘I’d rather you lived a little more of your life before you made a decision like this.’ He sighs. ‘Go on. Get it over with.’
I blink. ‘Wh-what..?’
‘The name. What name have you picked out for yourself?’
‘Callie,’ I mumble.
‘Thank God for small mercies. When was Gender Dysphoria first recognised as a condition?’
‘I-I don’t know.’
‘I say this to all my patients: become an expert on your condition.’ He takes a sip of wine. ‘If you expect me to take this seriously, you’re going to have to put in the work for me. Can you do that?’
Something inside me snarls. What do a few dates have to do with how I feel, with what I’m trying to explain to him?
‘You haven’t disappointed me. I’ll always love you, and I’ll never judge you. I’ll do whatever I can to support you.’
‘But I am going to challenge you every step of the way.’
I don’t reply. Around us, the bustle of the restaurant continues unabated.
It’s my twenty-second birthday.
Growing breasts hurt. They remind me of the growing pains I used to get in my elbows when I was younger: dull, prickling aches that can last anywhere from a few seconds to an hour or two. Sometimes they grip me so tightly that I have to grit my teeth. Once, I forgot that they were there and whacked them against a doorframe: I used expletives that I never thought I knew and have never thought of again. So many different pains, large and small, chasing each other across the growing wonder of my chest.
I love them all.
When I first talked to my supervisor about possibly putting the story of my coming out into writing, he was enthusiastic, if a little wary.
‘I think it’s an amazing idea… I just hope you can do it. Whenever I try to write about my own coming out, it comes out sounding like rubbish!’
I think I know what he means now. This story is so close to my self, the core of who and what I am, that actually trying to put it on paper is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Impressions become mixed, events and dates blur, feelings whirl together in a maelstrom of extremes eight years in the making. How could I possibly set out a story like that in a way that makes sense?
Perhaps I don’t have to. Perhaps I can be content with this. After all, my journey has only just begun.
‘Look at me. Listen to me. This is who I am.’
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
A special project of Verity La, and a collaboration with Calli Doyle-Scott from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Out of Limbo is a web-based series that aims to collect the ‘coming out’ stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual individuals, as well as the ‘secret stories’ of those people who haven’t yet come out but want to do so.
What we’re looking for:
- short stories of up to 2000 words, based on or telling the story of your own ‘coming out’. We’re also looking for ‘secret stories,’ the stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex or Bisexual people who haven’t yet come out, but who want to do so, that tell us why they have decided to remain silent. These could be anything from the first conversation you had with your family about your sexuality, to the moment you first realised the truth about your own sexuality. Be creative, be brave, and above all be true to your own thoughts and feelings.
- We want well-written stories; the better the quality of your writing, the higher the chance that your story will be selected.
- If you wish, you can submit your story anonymously or under an alias.
- Send all submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Submissions close on the 22nd of July 2012.
From Out of Limbo project editor Calli Doyle-Scott:
‘For Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual (GLTIB) individuals, the realisation of their sexuality, and the moment they reveal that realisation to someone else, are two of the most important moments of their lives. For many of us, this act of ‘coming out’ can define who we are, how our family and friends see us, how we live our lives from that moment on, but in my experience this transition isn’t widely recognised for just how important it actually is. Instead, despite the many advances that have been made towards a tolerant society, people like us are still subject to levels of hatred that are bewildering in their intensity. However, being Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, Intersex or Bisexual isn’t a lifestyle choice, a sickness, dishonourable, or immoral. It’s who we are. The moment we reveal that self to the rest of the world can be the most exhilarating and frightening experience of our lives.
These stories deserve to be told.’