Some kids are lucky. Their lives stay the same when they come out as LGBTIQA+.
But for many, everything changes.
That’s why I started LGBTI[Q&A], a podcast featuring conversations with leaders, who happen to be queer.
I wanted to show those kids – and about 50 percent of the workforce who continue to conceal their true identity – that everyone has the right to a fulfilling job, a loving relationship, a happy life.
By sharing the success stories of queer leaders, I think it's possible to normalise gender and sexual diversity amongst heterosexual listeners.
I sat down with five Australian leaders of diverse sexual and gender identities. We spoke about their upbringing, influences, setbacks, and ambitions.
Here’s what I learned:
The rainbow community is not yet a community
Beneath the rainbow flag, ingrained structures of power and thinking enforce a deep divide in the LGBTIQA+ community.
‘There’s a lack of generosity in terms of the people who have power. There’s a lack of listening and a lack of willingness to concede and acquiesce platforms,’ theatre-maker Declan Greene says.
This sense of inequality inspired Declan to write the play The Homosexuals, or Faggots. In it, he takes a pot shot at gay culture – specifically the gay, white, cis elite.
Victorian Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality Rowena Allen puts it down to intergenerational apathy. Rowena thinks young queer people should have more respect for their elders.
‘Many young queer people see gay, cis-gender men as privileged but have no understanding of what they lived through when their friends and lovers died in the ’80s,’ says Rowena. The Commissioner spends as much time educating the broader community about LGBTIQA+ issues as she does in the queer community. The level of lateral violence, Rowena says, is ‘quite extraordinary’.
What does that mean, though?
Think: dating app profiles that proclaim ‘no spice and rice’ and ‘no fems or queens’, gays who throw shade, the culture of offence (which Declan addresses in his play), and the disregard of trans and gender diverse issues by some members of the community.
We need more role models
As a kid struggling with his identity, youth worker Casey Conway had no one to look up to.
'The biggest challenge growing up ... was there wasn't anyone I could turn to for guidance or someone to look up to and know the things I was feeling were normal and okay.'
Almost all the leaders I spoke to had the same experience.
Victorian LGBTI Taskforce co-chair Brenda Appleton knew her childhood home wasn't the place to discuss gender identity issues and 'consequently [the issues] went underground, and stayed underground'. She says this is still a problem for queer people today.
'We don't have great role models for trans and gender diverse people,' Brenda says. ‘In Australia, we don’t have a high profile person. I think we also need to create some younger role models.’
The absence of queer characters and narratives in the media also makes the conversation about identity far more fraught than it needs to be. With higher visibility in the media, wordsmith Benjamin Law says, the next generation will have a far more positive experience.
'The fact that I didn't see stories about gay people, the fact that I didn't see television characters, meant that I felt deeply isolated and alone … [My friend's kids] have known me and my boyfriend since day one. They will have a whole childhood having just known gay people incidentally.'
Marriage equality is just the beginning
Marriage equality means something to many, but nothing to some.
Rowena says it's an embarrassment that our government hasn't acted already – but, even so, it's hardly a panacea to everyone who identifies as LGBTIQA+.
'It helps some members of the community, but it doesn't do much for the issues that are front and centre for people in our community who still have multiple levels of disadvantage,' Rowena says.
Language is a tool for change
Many young people are comfortable using 'queer' as a descriptor, but it was once considered a derogatory term.
I was conscious about using it in the tagline of LGBTI[Q&A] for that very reason, but decided it was a fitting term that acknowledges everyone who identifies as LGBTIQA+.
As Declan says, '"queer" is about what sits between pre-established categories of identity and binary thinking in terms of gender and sexuality'.
It's a positive example of the community reclaiming a homophobic slur.
Benjamin drops the occasional slur around friends. He's a fan of 'fag', thinks 'homo' is cute, and says 'poof' sounds magical.
'I don't mind [reclaiming slurs] – but they're terms with a history. If you don’t get the history – and that includes most straight people - then you'd probably better not use them.'
I've learned inclusivity is as much about the words you use as the ones you don't. Rowena is encouraging Government House in Melbourne to do away with gendered formalities in documents and ceremonies.
'When the aide says "Good evening ladies and gentleman, would you like to enter the ballroom" - they could just as easily say "Good evening everybody, lovely to have you at Government House". Nobody but the trans, gender diverse and intersex community are going to notice – but it's going to be so powerful for their experience.'
It really does get better
'When I started female hormones, I felt complete as a person for the very first time in my life.'
It might have taken some fifty years, but Brenda ultimately found happiness 'in a complete sort of way' - within herself and her community.
‘We’re seeing generational change. The young generation is much more accepting than their parents and grandparents,’ Brenda says. ‘I’m hopeful that with the passage of time, having special LGBTIQA+ programs won’t be as necessary as they are today.’
For Casey, the biggest challenge was overcoming his own prejudices.
'I didn't know too much about the gay world,' he says about his childhood self. 'I still had a lot of stereotypes in my mind and [being gay] wasn't something I could easily identify with.'
His eyes were opened when he started exploring Sydney's Oxford Street, which is an iconic rainbow precinct. He met people who were similar to him which heralded the 'start of an exciting journey'.
Every leader shared a similar story with me. They all admit it gets better: whether they found their tribe, moved cities, or simply developed a greater sense of inner strength over time.
'Do I fit in now? Totally,' Benjamin says. 'I've got really good mates, I've got exceptional family … and I've got the most brilliant boyfriend who I wouldn't trade for anyone else. Yeah - I feel pretty comfortable about where I fit into the world.'
You can listen to all five episodes of LGBTI[Q&A] on iTunes or your podcast app.