Born This Way

It was just an ordinary day, which meant that one of Australia’s mainstream newspapers was due for some good old-fashioned hysteria, scare-mongering and lies. It’s usually an attempt to demonise a minority or just have some fun at the expense of those that cannot defend themselves. A few days ago, this unashamedly unethical ragtag decided it was time to attack the LGBTI community again. However, this time, they went for the lowest of lows – they went for the youth.

An article at the top of the front page of Wednesday’s edition – an exclusive by the way – was so ineloquently titled “Activists push taxpayer-funded gay manual in schools”. Presumably being in this prominent position meant that it was the most important story of the day, but I’ll leave you to decide whether there were more pressing issues on this Wednesday (I can think of at least one more important issue that involves 267 people about to be sent back to a life of abuse and mental torment, but maybe I just have a different perspective of the world). I’ve actively decided not to link the article here (nor name this shameful excuse of journalism) for two reasons – it’s behind a pay-wall and I really don’t want you to give them any money to read it. It’s also just so farcical from top to bottom, so I don’t want to waste your time. I do however want to draw attention to how damaging this kind of “reporting” is, and will continue to be, if it is left unchecked and unquestioned. Though the “taxpayer-funded” part is quite hilarious – I’m not sure what their point is, but is this a good time to remind them that their beloved church that they so vehemently defend at all times does not pay any tax, while also receiving large sums of funding from the government?

To be clear, there is no “gay manual”. What would a “gay manual” even do, or attempt to do? This strikes at one of the most hurtful aspects of what homophobes believe – that being gay is a choice. Who would choose this? Why would you bring all of this unwanted attention and subsequent disadvantage to yourself if you didn’t have to? I’ll never forget one of the first things my Mum said to me when I finally had the nerve to come out to her (at age 28 by the way) – she was really concerned that I was going to miss out on opportunities, or be treated differently, simply because of my sexuality. And here I was worried about her getting upset at not getting any grandchildren from me. The fact that it took me so long to officially come out to my Mother is a direct statement of the way I felt scared and anxious for the real me to be out there. The prime of my life was spent hiding away for the fear of being found out. I had no boyfriends and I didn’t go out much all those years, simply because I was so scared of being found out. Why did I feel like this? Well, that’s what twelve years of Catholic education will do to you. I’m not upset that my parents felt it necessary for me to go to a religious school, but I do greatly resent the education I received of a narrative of the world in which I was a freak while growing up and discovering myself, while they go through scandal after scandal of sexual abuse of children in their care without any attempts to correct the many wrongs they have committed.

It was during my high school years that I first began to feel attracted to another guy. To say that was a terrifying and utterly confusing experience would be one of the greatest understatements I’ve ever made. I only wish there was something reassuring available to me at the time that explained some of the possibilities of what I was thinking and experiencing. This is no “gay manual”. Labelling it this way implies that you can teach someone to be gay. That would be as effective as gay conversion therapy, which is hopefully and finally about to be made illegal in Victoria. This is a teaching aide that forms part of the Safe Schools Coalition. It is an anti-bullying document designed to help children – all children – understand the differences that make us our own unique individual, and that there’s simply no reason to pick on someone, or exclude someone who might not fit into some main category. I don’t see anything wrong with that, especially as 80 per cent of homophobic bullying involving LGBTI young people occurs at school and has a profound impact on their well-being and education (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) p 39). I like to be positive though and it gives me hope that LGBTI young people at schools where protective policies are in place are more likely to feel safe compared with those in schools without similar policies (75 per cent compared with 45 per cent). They are almost 50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school, less likely to suffer other forms of homophobic abuse, less likely to self-harm and less likely to attempt suicide (T Jones and Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commission, A report about discrimination and bullying on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Western Australian education (2012), p 11). I would think that having this resource available in schools can only have a positive impact, as it appears to be doing, and it certainly isn’t doing what this article is trying to suggest.

With the lack of such a resource in those times, I sought the advice of a teacher (who was also presumably gay, but I’ll never know for sure) who I felt comfortable enough with to share the thoughts I was having. He did help me understand that while I was probably having different thoughts to most of the other boys at school, there was nothing wrong with the thoughts I was having. I am very lucky to have had someone give me this reassurance at a time of need so I didn’t go down the path that sadly too many LGBTI youth go down.

The statistics glaringly show the disparity of mental health, self-harm and suicide in the LGBTI community to that of heterosexuals:

  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems
  • The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%
  • LGBTI people have the highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia – 20% of trans Australians and 15.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report current suicidal ideation (thoughts)
  • A UK study reported 84% of trans participants having thought about ending their lives at some point
  • Up to 50% of trans people have actually attempted suicide at least once in their lives
  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14 times higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers
  • Rates are 6 times higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%)
  • The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’ Source: Rosenstreich, G. (2013) LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide. Revised 2nd Edition. National LGBTI Health Alliance. Sydney, p 5.

That all makes for very sobering reading. It also highlights just how critical it is for young people to be supported throughout their journey into adulthood, not to have some elitist set blast false headlines and news stories across their front pages suggesting otherwise. It’s because of continued homophobic examples like this that almost half of all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in public for fear of violence or discrimination (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, note 7, p 46). It’s also why a large number of LGBTI people hide their sexuality or gender identity when accessing services (34 per cent), at social and community events (42 per cent) and at work (39 per cent). Young people aged 16 to 24 years are most likely to hide their sexuality or gender identity (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) pp 45-46). I wonder why that is.

I am a part of those statistics. Countless times, I have hidden my sexuality from friends, work colleagues, family, Barry next door – you name it. I have encountered discrimination based on my sexuality. A previous boss of mine commented to someone else at this workplace (after I had left that workplace) that he would not have hired me had he known I was gay. I am scared to hold the hand of another man in public for fear of being abused – something I have seen happen in Melbourne before. The number of conversations I have had where I actively used words to avoid questions of why I did not have a girlfriend all those years, or where I faked an interest in “blokey” conversations to keep the charade going. This was all due to the world around me – a world that still tells me I’m not equal. That my love for another man is not the same as the love between a man and a woman. Yes, it’s 2016 and we’re supposedly advancing, but the simple fact is that I am still discriminated against, simply for the love I have for someone of the same sex. So, if there is a teaching aide in our schools reaffirming that we are all the same even though we have our unique identifiers, and that those differences are to be embraced rather than shamed, I am all for that. I am hopeful that the youth of today have more confidence to be themselves and not hide their true identity for as many years as I felt I had to. But as long as mainstream media continues to peddle this hysterical and utterly damaging sensationalism, we still have a long way to go. LGBTI young people report experiencing verbal homophobic abuse (61 per cent), physical homophobic abuse (18 per cent) and other types of homophobia (9 per cent), including cyberbullying, graffiti, social exclusion and humiliation (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University, Private Lives 2: The second national survey of the health and wellbeing of GLBT Australians (2012) pp 45-46). These headlines just perpetuate these experiences and the people that write them ought to be held accountable for these actions.

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Your Personal Legend

“To realise one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve just started reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, even though I actually purchased this book about four years ago. It sat on my bookshelf all those years, but something recently made me go find it and read it. Not knowing exactly what this book was about, I just felt like it was something that was worth reading. Within the first twenty pages, you find the above line. It’s closely followed by this passage:

“What’s the world’s greatest lie?”

“It’s this: that a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie”.

“Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is. At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives. But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realise their Personal Legend”.

You might be wondering what is meant by “Personal Legend” – it is what you have always wanted to accomplish. This book is a work of fiction, but its message is surely not. It is a story told through this message, and the importance of this message cannot be underestimated.

Before I started reading The Alchemist a few days ago, I had already written the words that follow. Things really do work in wonderful ways sometimes.

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I am having a “me” day today and I am not afraid to admit that. I think somehow the notion of taking time out for yourself, just doing the things that you want to do, on your own, has been given a bad name. You might think it’s selfish to be doing this, but I see it as the opposite. I see it as time spent reminding yourself about how important you are, and that this time is critical to your own personal fulfilment.

Most of us spend far too much time in each day doing things for other people, or worse, doing things we think that other people want us to do, but why have we forgotten to do the things that make us happy too? I’m not suggesting that you should do this all day every day, after all, life is about balance. There will inevitably be some things that you will need to do that you do not necessarily want to do, but when this becomes a daily habit, you’ll probably find yourself becoming unhappy and unfulfilled. It doesn’t even need to be a full day of “me” time either, so don’t think that you don’t have time for this – even spending a few hours a day for yourself is better than no hours at all.

I’ve read numerous quotes that ask a simple question – how can you love others if you don’t first love yourself? It might sound fluffy, but it is true. You need to know yourself and need to know what makes you happy. Then you can work on sharing that with others, whether it be with friends or a partner. Having regular “me” time will help you remember about the things that make you happy and might even lead you to some new ideas or hobbies that you can take up. It’s not selfish at all to take time for yourself – it’s just as important as other aspects of your health, both mental and physical. Personal time can be used to think about where you are, where you are going, or simply just to switch off and relax (something we all need to do more of too!). Listen to music, read a book, go for a walk or a run if you’re that way inclined. Go sit in a cafe and people watch. If you have children, it might be more difficult to find some personal time, but you owe it to yourself and your family to at least try. Even if it’s just one hour, I truly believe this will help you be a better person overall, someone that is more positive and caring. If you’re unhappy with yourself, you’ll find it difficult to be happy with others.

Personal time is even more important if you find yourself in an employment situation that doesn’t fulfil you and there’s no obvious way out of it (and I think most of us have been here at some point). I understand that it’s too simplistic to suggest that everyone can just throw in their job that they hate without any kind of backup plan, but personal time may help you deal with your less than fulfilling work a little better, or at the very least, remind you why put up with your job, so that you can do those other things in life that you want to do. It will help give you clarity on your other options too – don’t ever think that you don’t have another option. You might need to make changes to your lifestyle for this other option to be feasible, but if you truly want it, those changes will be a blessing.

The point is, just find a way to spend some time with yourself and make it a habit. Start small and build on it. Whatever start you make is a move in a different direction and you don’t know where that might take you. If you don’t make this time, you’ll still be in that same place in another year, and I’m pretty sure how that will make you feel.

Don’t allow that mysterious force to convince you that you can’t realise your Personal Legend. It might not be visible right now, or it might be quite a way down the track, but keep looking for it and keep putting in place whatever it is you need to do to make it happen. You are still in control of what is happening in your life, and you always will be. You owe it to yourself to keep going.

 

Identity

Growing up with a foreign family name was an issue as a child, and even as a teen. Having to spell my name, help people pronounce it, answer questions on its origin, and of course, the occasional racial slur, helped stoke the shame I felt towards the name that was a part of me. The number of times I wished my surname was Smith. Steve Smith – such a simple name, no questions asked and no comments made.

As I progress through life, I am developing a sense of pride in my name and especially in the story of its origin. I wish I knew of this story at a younger age – a story of sacrifice and risk, where my Nonno made the two-month journey here by boat, on his own, leaving behind a young family in 1950s southern Italy, to see if a better life was possible on the other side of the world. I often think to myself what I would do if I was faced by the same choice. My circumstances could not be more different to those of my Nonno. I don’t have family commitments and I am very fortunate to be in comfortable surroundings – none of which I would have without his sacrifice. To get on a boat and go to a foreign country so far away, not knowing what awaits you, and also not knowing when you’ll next see your wife and two young children, just so they can have a chance at a better life, has to be one of the most selfless and courageous acts one person can do, and I’m not sure I have that in me.

I learned of this story soon after my Nonno had passed away. He was a humble man, and he wanted no praise or fanfare. He had been very active in local politics, to the point where a local park was to be posthumously named in his honour. He helped those that followed after him when they arrived in this distant foreign land to find their feet – whether it was assistance with language barriers (he managed to learn basic English from the family that sponsored his trip here), help with accessing the limited local services that were available, or just being there when new arrivals needed someone familiar to talk to. He built his family home by himself, using money saved from the jobs he was able to pick up along the way. He must have been so patient, so driven to achieve what he came here to do, but it’s likely you would be when you’re desperate enough to get on a boat and try to make a new life on the other side of the world.

To only learn of this after his passing was sad. I didn’t have a chance to thank him for everything I now have. He probably had enough satisfaction from seeing his six children grow up to start new families and provide him with plenty of grandchildren, but it’s not fair that he didn’t see how much this meant to me before he passed on. To compound my sadness, he became a shadow of himself in his final years. Diabetes led to a stroke, before dementia took the final toll. I don’t think he remembered me the last time I visited him and that was profoundly sad for me. Even sadder was seeing him strapped down to the bed in the nursing home, as the dementia was making him violent, posing a risk to the staff and to himself. He didn’t know that though, and it’s possibly why he continued to be violent those last few years. I stopped going after that. I didn’t want that to be my final memory of him – a once great man, reduced to rubble.

The sense of shame as a young boy is now replaced by pride. By a sense of belonging to a culture that values family and sacrifice above most other trivial material things. While it’s fair to say that this didn’t shape my formative years, it now plays a significant role. I want to know more about why they had to leave Italy – I don’t want to assume it was due to the aftermath of WWII. I know he came to Melbourne as he had a sponsor in a small Victorian country town, but he could have gone elsewhere. The entire story could be different in many ways. So much of life is chance; it might not make sense at the time, but when we grow to learn of the how and why, things begin to fit. My place in all of this begins to feel right. I am developing a sense of identity. I am no longer an Australian with a distant Italian heritage. I am an Italian Australian. I am feeling drawn to travel Italy and see where all this history and culture comes from, and I aim to understand why so many Italians felt the need to leave all those years ago. I want to rekindle the traditions we had when I was young – the boisterous weekly family dinners, the making of sauce, wine, pasta and pizza, or the sitting on the couch watching cartoons while my Nonno swore at the TV because the cartoons didn’t make sense (that last one isn’t necessarily a tradition, but it’s a very fond memory). We prioritise other things now, and these traditions are sadly less prevalent. We’re too busy doing all those little things that might not matter, but at the time, we think they are really important. The important thing to me is ensuring these traditions are maintained – my Nonno gave up far too much for me to do anything less than this.

It’s now impossible for me to feel anything other than immense pride in my name, and the story behind it. Sadly, it took a death to truly understand the significance of this story.