Growing up queer in Australia: in search of an authentic gay male sexuality

When I was a child I thought everyone had a penis.

Or dumdeedle, as our family called them, a name that indicates the awkwardness that hung around male sexuality.

Not that I ever saw anyone naked. Except for Junior, my indigenous foster brother with the unfortunate nickname. He only lived with us for a few months, but it was long enough for me to know that he had a dumdeedle. I knew, because we were bathed together, and I remember, because of the time I screamed in horror, ‘Muuuuum, Junior’s pooed in the bath!!’

I’m told that this misunderstanding is quite common for young boys. Somehow though I have always felt foolish, about looking at my newly-born niece being nappy-changed when I was seven, and wondering when her dumdeedle would emerge from those fleshy folds. Like it would somehow grow out like a bud emerges from a branch, or turn inside out with a big reveal: Ta-da!

No hope of accidentally discovering the truth about women in saucy books or magazines lying around the house. Unthinkable in a conservative Christian family living in Adelaide, the city of churches. And I must have chosen likeminded friends, as none of them thrust girly magazines under my delicate unsuspecting nose. The closest I got was a friend’s nudie calendar, the pose revealing nothing below the waist; I giggled about the dumdeedle the model was hiding.

There was a dark side to this misnomer, an unspoken fear. In our family, gentleness was lauded but virility was seen as a threat – a skewed and unhealthy picture of male sexuality and its power.

I also feel foolish for waiting for something else to appear that never would. I wouldn’t have called it ‘being straight’ back then. I would have just called it ‘being like everyone else’.

When did feeling like I belonged with the girls become feeling attracted to the boys? Who knows? Maybe it was about the time when I stopped just being fascinated with my own penis (let’s start using the right word), and became fascinated with penises in general. When I realised that there was not only something magical about them, there was something magical about those who possessed them.

Let’s just say that feeling different socially was hard enough. The pain of feeling different sexually came later.

As the youngest of four, with ten years’ gap to my closest sibling, I was wrapped and indulged in my mother’s love. Apart from the few years where my parents ran a corner store, she did not work outside the home. Ladies lunched, and did all the housework, and had dinner on when Daddy came home. She had the time and the inclination to read to me, to take me ‘to town’ as the city was called, and to make me part of her social circle. Didn’t I love the attention from her lunch friends, and didn’t I learn how to fit in with women, and older women in particular. Could have done worse! But the softness and sensitivity it fostered made the school yard a place that was sometimes awkward, sometimes hostile.

Cissy. Who uses that word now? How quaint. Queer, homo, pansy, faggot, poofter – they all stung at different times along the way. But cissy? From another era.

Neither the girls nor the boys at school knew what to do with me, for different reasons. The girls would include me in skipping rope until they tired of tolerating me. And I hated football and cricket and any kind of contact sport – no let’s be real, any sport – so that ruled out socialising with the boys. Where I found the girls fickle, I found the boys consistent – they would have liked to include me, they just found me too foreign.

If I felt like an illegal alien at primary school, then I felt like a soldier dropped behind enemy lines at secondary school. Box Hill High School in the 70s had a terrible reputation: an all-boys school that had long outlived its halcyon days and was known for its skinheads that took pleasure in flushing the heads of year sevens in the toilet. The advice about avoiding this fate, given by one teacher, was to try and fit in and not be out of the ordinary. Paradoxically I found this comforting, though fitting in was not my strong suit.

Growing up queer, in 1960s and 1970s Australia, meant that not only did society condemn my orientation; it denied me any kind of role model, or trope in popular culture. In all those years when I was trying to figure myself and the rest of the world out, I was told that I was perverted and wrong and needed to be fixed, but not only that. None of the messages about what my culture valued, in terms of love and attraction, reflected who I loved or felt attracted to. The cultural mirrors of TV and radio portrayed ‘boy meets girl’, ‘boy loses girl’, ‘boy wants girl to jump in his car’, ad nauseum. It seems like a logical set-up – two sides of the one coin – but in reality, if felt like a sharp ‘one-two’ punch.

The prevailing orthodoxy was that being gay was an illness. It said so in medical manuals, acts of parliament, sermon notes and broadsheets. It pained me greatly – that the only porn I was interested in at our local newsagent was Loving Couples: hetero but including men. That my dreams featured surprise cameos of strong and decent classmates that I didn’t realised I fancied. That it was the fathers of friends that made me weak at the knees.

How does a young person work out who they want to be without role models? Or without hearing and seeing themselves in the music and movies they consume? Today we have lesbian talk-show hosts, gay cinema, and Queer Eye. Then it was all homogenous and heteronormative. Mind you, popular culture was more monolithic then and your diet was very restricted – everyone watched the same music shows and listened to the same radio stations. But even Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, the camp host of the universally watched Countdown, was still in the closet, and a young gay boy in suburban bible-belt Blackburn was all at sea.

To be fair, there were weak signals, emerging in culture, that I could have picked up if I was willing. One book in our school library had a picture of two men in the bath (Young Gay and Proud?) and I remember being repulsed by it. Self-loathing and internalised homophobia are very powerful. And there were more liberal publications I liked to peruse at the library, like Films and Filming, which might occasionally have a feature on soft core homoerotica like Sebastiane. I was never brave enough to see that film, but my late friend Stephen was.

Stephen and I had an unusual friendship, then and later. He died at 50 without ever coming out – once even explicitly denying being gay in a rare moment of candour – but all who knew him were convinced he was. As teenagers we both had an interest in art and design, and would spend weekends visiting architect-designed display homes together. There was nothing romantic – at least I never picked it up – nor sexual. He introduced me to GQ, not BEAR. But we had an unspoken parallel fascination with men.  Like the time we happened upon a gay bookshop in Chinatown and we both stood transfixed outside, looking mutely at a copy of Lusty Lads in the display case, lumps in our throats and pants.

My high school peers were not so mute. They knew what was going on with me. I got names and slurs and cut-outs of money shots shoved in my locker.

At least I was not driven from the school like one unfortunate teacher.

I say unfortunate because he appeared to have been tried in the kangaroo court of uneducated schoolboy gossip. The whispers in the quadrangle were that he was ‘… under suspicion… you know… of being a homosexual’. How dreadful. The whispers that came soon after were that he was ‘into little boys’. Sadly, in his case, I think both were probably true. In those days, many people equated homosexuality with paedophilia; I fear there are still some now who do. We now know that paedophiles are most strongly attracted to minors, and only secondarily to a particular gender – not always their own. Undoubtedly this man should never have been a teacher – I don’t at all want to minimise the inappropriateness of his presence at the school. However, something striking stays with me, something inconceivable in the era of the hugely significant Royal Commission into child abuse, and the national vote on same-sex marriage. In the 70s the implied shame around him being a poof was even worse than that of being a paedophile.

My sense of feeling different to my peers grew at high school. Not only was I feeling the urges, desires and preoccupations that accompany puberty, completely disrupting the emotional status quo of childhood. I was having them in a way that was totally unacceptable. I was on the same testosterone-fuelled roller coaster as my schoolmates, but they were enjoying themselves and I was screaming for it to stop. I simultaneously loathed them, and desired them for their machismo, but above all I envied them because their experience was ‘normal’.

There was some relief in years eleven and twelve, at least socially, when I felt like my peers grew up and my sense of otherness diminished. I found the pubescent sexual energy around me tantalising, yet I was really not attracted to brashness or roughness. I was drawn to the tenderness that I saw in romance, and fatherhood. I was ashamed of it at the time, but now I don’t care that I crave the strength and tenderness of men. In my youth I was fascinated with men being loving and attentive with their wives and children, and I was embarrassed about how I couldn’t stop staring at that young dad at church.

What I could stop, and in fact never started, was acting on my feelings. That began in puberty and lasted for decades. In my dour Scottish and Cornish heritage, permission-giving and self-compassion were in short supply. I have always been the master of keeping a tight lid on it. Gay men are typecast as horny and profligate. I have realised that while I enjoy a normal libido, I am curiously chaste.

Permission-giving is the reason why popular culture is so important. The absence of visible healthy same-sex relationships condemned my orientation, as loudly as any sermon. Being such an upstanding and moral household, we never watched Number 96, the breakthrough soap opera that brought the sexual revolution into Australian lounge rooms. I was unaware of the early depictions of gay men on Australian television. The assumption about being a homosexual man was that it was a dark and lonely life, without the sunshine of children or stable domesticity.

Which partly explains a poignant sub plot to my narrative. When I was 18, the older brother that I had idolised growing up came out as gay. He was 30, had never had a serious girlfriend, and read books like The Church and the Healthy Homosexual. But I had never cottoned on that he might be same-sex attracted. There are none so blind. Society, my family, and I were not ready in 1980 to embrace his way of being. Rather than seeing it as the role model I longed for, I perversely doubled down on my internalised homophobia, turning in on myself, like a pot-bound plant.

As I think now about the fact that my dear brother was gay and out, and yet I could not follow in his footsteps, it feels ludicrous at first reading. But remember in 1984, at Wham!’s zenith, George Michael could not come out for fear of sabotaging his pop career. It was the bravest of the brave who went there, and I recognise that today I stand on the shoulders of giants like my brother. We now get on well, but for a long time he kept family at arm’s length. I did not get a sense that he saw himself as a role model, and I’ve never asked him whether he suspected I was gay. I guess he took my assertions of straightness at face value.  When I told him much later of being same-sex attracted, his somewhat disappointed rejoinder was that he thought he was the only gay in the village! Thank you, Little Britain.

As a young person there was not a snowflake’s chance that I could have formed a romantic or sexual relationship with a boy. I had a couple of crushes on girls in my high school years but I’m sure they both thought I was just plain weird. Again, maybe they knew. I joined a conservative Christian group at uni that pedalled a puritanical and patriarchal view of relationships. I met a woman with whom I later fell in love, and who agreed that I could pray away my gay. A few years later I married at 22 and was on my way to having a family.

I had grown up (or thought I had), and despite my best efforts, grown up queer. But that is only half the story. I still had to do a lot of growing into my queerness.

First, I had to stop fighting it. I fought it for all of my 20s. At 24 I joined another conservative Christian organisation that actively promoted the idea that I could be ‘healed’ from the sin of homosexuality. This practice is known now as reparative therapy, but there is nothing repairing or therapeutic about it. It is harmful and abusive.

I endured lectures, prayer ministry and exorcisms. I tried to control my thought life, embrace the ‘father heart of God’, and resist the demons of same-sex attraction. I was told to believe in the transforming power of Christ, seek healing for childhood trauma, and stand up straight and stick my chest out – subtext: like a real man.

Where are those conservatives now, who told me to choose between my orientation and my faith? I hear that some of them still peddle this lie. Integrating sexuality and faith is now as seamless to me as integrating eye colour and faith – it is just a non-issue. In my experience, orientation and faith both evolve and develop over time, coming to deeper truth. How I have identified sexually has evolved from ‘gay and happy in a straight relationship’, to ‘bisexual’, to ‘gay’. How I have identified in faith has evolved from Christian to maybe ‘post-Christian’. I have journeyed beyond the faith of my forebears into a deeper experience of my own spirituality, and incorporated truths I have discovered from other faiths. I’ve sought to replace the verbiage, noisiness and activity of my Christian tradition with the consciousness, awareness and silence of others.  I think it’s incredibly lucky that I have kept a faith considering what I put myself through, and what others put me through.

I did all this willingly. Being healed was what I wanted. I felt guilty that my eyes always lighted on men when I walked down the street, and not women like they were supposed to. I devoured books and tapes that proposed psychological explanations and psychological cures: how to make up for supposedly unmet needs in childhood and allow God to effectively ‘re-parent’ me.

Eventually I tired of that endeavour and begrudgingly came to the conclusion that this thing was here to stay. I was able to maintain a healthy sexual relationship in my marriage, and my orientation was not the main thing I felt I needed to focus on. Whenever I semi-consciously asked myself how I was able to have a fulfilling sex life, I shied away from digging too deep. Sex was a positive thing in my relationship; I worried that if I tried to consciously reconcile that with being gay, I would undermine its potency and comfort. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Into my 30s, I gradually came to embrace my same-sex attraction as part of who I was. In my 40s I gradually came to enjoy it. Not that I acted on it, save for the occasional trip to a gay sex shop just to be in the zone. And even then I did not allow myself any kind of fantasy life. I equated that with acting out my desires; I was fearful that either might let the genie out of the bottle.

I felt both in and out of the closet. I had had a long succession of comings-out, starting young. I had come out to my wife-to-be, before we were even engaged, when I told her that I thought I was gay. I had come out to my spiritual ‘leaders’ (!) when I asked them to pray for my healing from homosexuality. And throughout my adult years, as I formed new friendships and felt I could trust people, I came out to them too. My straight male friends – all my friends really – were an important part of my coping and living well with my situation: gay, and married with a growing family.

Many people suspected of course and some saw through it all, but with compassion. Like when I attended the 25-year high school reunion. It was an illuminating experience to be with the boys-to-men with whom I had spent six years. We had nothing to prove to each other. We had seen the best and the worst of each other and there was a remarkable ease, even though we had not seen each other for decades. Their take on my sexuality? ‘You have six kids now? Wow, at school we all thought you were gay!’ Said without rancour or bile.

In my 40s I had a mid-life crisis, lost weight, got a tattoo and started working out. I knew even then – consciously – that my attention to my physical appearance was about being attractive to other men. I had no one in particular I was trying to impress. I’m not quite sure what I thought the end-game might be. Maybe it was an important step of integrating all the parts of my life – having my external self align with my internal self. But my drive to be fit and buff was almost unstoppable. In 2011 I had a major shoulder injury, but I was not dissuaded. I endured months of rehab in order to get back to full fitness. In 2014 I even did a photobook of artsy muscle shots with a professional photographer friend. The energy of the sublimated drive of my sexuality was immense.

Into my 50s the sense of pain became overwhelming: the life I had chosen, and loved, was preventing me from fulfilling my deepest desires. I thought that my heart would break if I could not be with a man. At 51 I became mentally unwell due to it, depressed then manic. I somehow managed to pull through it and keep on living as I was, but something had shifted without me realising. I began to allow myself a fantasy life. I started to identify as bisexual, and came out as such to my colleagues and adult children. And I joined GAMMA – Gay and Married Men’s Association – a peer support group for bisexual men.

GAMMA was both helpful and tough. It was helpful to be able to share my story, have it validated, and hear about how other men navigated being same-sex attracted while in a straight relationship. It was tough because it laid my plight bare: I had a wife whom I cared about deeply and who trusted me; and all around me were stories of the urge and drive to have sex with men. It seemed universally potent and, contrary to how I was living at the time, virtually undeniable long term. It was like one tectonic plate pushing into another, the pressure building and building.

The quake came when I changed therapists on my wife’s insistence regarding other issues in our marriage. Through learning compassion for self and a fresh perspective on my marriage, the balance tipped: the forces pulling me out of the relationship became greater than the forces holding me in. After 31 years it was all over.

I take responsibility for entering a marriage where the very foundation was flawed. Yes, there was great love there, but there was a massive lump under the carpet.

And I have compassion for myself. In my Australia there was no room to grow up queer in society, culture or church.

Coming out at the dissolution of my marriage was a massive relief. My outsides finally matched my insides and I could live an integrated life. I told anyone who cared to listen. I spoke publicly about my story to a couple of hundred people at my workplace for IDAHOBIT. As a result, I was invited to speak at a motivational event. And in doing publicity for that event I was able to speak on radio, including the ABC, the Australian public broadcaster. People still tell me randomly that they heard me that day.

I continued to grow into my queerness. Once GAMMA closed up due to lack of government funding, I started seeing a man I had met there, who became my partner. Yes, I found love. With him, and on my own, I have explored and discovered the gay Melbourne scene. At least some aspects of it, because the scene is huge. In doing so I have explored and discovered that I am quite chaste, as I said before. But to not only visit Sircuit, DTs, The Greyhound, The Laird, Mannhaus, The Peel, Club 80 and other venues – to see them as ‘my hood’ and ‘my tribe’ – is a joy and a privilege.

And while these things have been thrilling, nothing compares with being with my partner. Being with him, and finally being able to act on my feelings, has been like coming home. Whether the days have been bucolic – dancing and bar-crawling our way through the inner-urban enclaves of Balaclava and St Kilda – or lean – rebuilding relationships with my children, or living in separate states while he and I sorted our respective lives out – they have been dear to my heart. And when I am in his arms, fifty years’ worth of dreams have finally come true.

When did those dreams start? In my own heart, yes, but also through reappropriating the popular culture and advertising of my youth. I clearly remember a TV ad for jeans in the racy 70s. Yes, it was actually pretty liberal then – the sexual revolution, the cutting edge of nudity in film, like the Alvin Purple movies, and the heady days of socially progressive prime minister Gough Whitlam. The TV jeans ad in question ends with this hairy chested hunk sitting up in bed expectantly, with his pants draped artfully in the foreground. While curvaceous young women occupied the rest of the 30 seconds, I knew that I wanted to accept his unspoken invitation at the end.

So, in my formative years, did I find anyone in music or film to model myself on? A few: the rare breed of caring men that later became known as Sensitive New Age Guys – who were interested in treating women well, and not as objects. Who talked about their feelings, and were keen to please their female partners. I could never understand how men could treat women as targets of raw lust and desire, without reference to who they were as whole people.

That is until, as a 53 year old who had grown up queer and finally grown into his queerness, I saw the Boylesque floorshow at the Greyhound Hotel, the now defunct venue flaunting all things youthful, gay and sexy. Acres of young male flesh, sweating, strutting and gyrating. Didn’t I hoot and holler? Didn’t I abandon all decorum? And I finally understood what my straight male counterparts had been doing all those years, and why.

I finally saw in myself the unabashed, unashamed and uncensored desire I had seen in my school mates, and men ever since. I had come to love and enjoy my male sexuality, and my homosexuality. I had embraced both gentleness and virility.

I had traded in the dumdeedle.

I had found the penis.