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William Edwards turned to the internet for his sex education.

sex-ed

If a straight schoolkid can stop giggling at reproductive diagrams long enough to hear their PDHPE teacher out, they might learn something useful. After all, sex education in NSW is literally made for them.

Their gay counterpart isn’t so lucky. Rather confused by talk of urges they’ve never felt, that student’s first relevant sex education will probably be pornography. If you’ve both watched porn and had sex, you’re aware of how loosely I just used the word education. But don’t worry, some of us found another way to learn.

For two and a half years, I frequented an internet forum for gay teenagers. Peer-conducted sex ed—gay boys with some experience patiently answering questions from those with none—easily beat not-for-us presentations by awkward PDHPE teachers who’d rather be playing touch footy. And that was the least the forum did for me.

Young and closeted, I didn’t know anyone like me when I joined. Of course I was aware they existed, but knowing conceptually that people exist and actually knowing someone are poles apart. To finally meet people who shared my struggles, struggles I’d never spoken about, struggles I tried not to even think about, felt indescribably comforting.

Younger still, I believed in God and the eternal Hellfire he prepared for the “intrinsically disordered”. What fun thoughts for a child to have! By the time I joined the forum, God and Hellfire had left my belief system, but the sense of brokenness they helped inspire hadn’t.

It would be nice to say I learned self-acceptance through rational contemplation in a marketplace of ideas, but it would also be a lie. It was by meeting people like me but who’d succeeded, and who offered a bounty of advice, that I realised I could succeed too. And it was by having my sexuality loudly and often accepted by others, when it had never even been acknowledged before, that I grew comfortable enough to accept it myself. Gays, despite some claims to the contrary, are people too, and people as a rule crave validation by others. And what the fuck does “intrinsically disordered” even mean?

Yet I could only ask so many questions about gay sex and relationships before changing topics, and I could only be told to have pride so many times before I got the point and wanted to be told something new. So it isn’t surprising that I started using the forum for more.

While it was always a self-help tool—when you’re constantly surrounded by people unlike yourself, immersion among your own kind is wonderfully therapeutic—I also made a number of intense friendships over my years there. Attending a small high school I had little choice of offline friends, so I handpicked my online ones.

I chose well. The best of them became wells of obscure common interests and indispensable sources of entirely unqualified counselling. To this day my most devoted supporter and confidante is a friend I met there. It’s almost scary to think that one day, years ago, if I hadn’t Googled what I did and clicked the right link, I wouldn’t have met them. Who else haven’t I met? Who haven’t you met?

As it happens, someone else I met was my first date, also my first kiss. And he would have been my first boyfriend, had he not moved to Melbourne where, I suspect on reasonable grounds, he probably started eating quinoa. Fuck trams.

I left the forum—a confraternity helping each other because no one else would—when I’d already gained all I could from it. My questions were answered, I learned to accept myself, and I met some of the most wonderful friends I’ve yet had. It was an unparalleled support network to my younger and more vulnerable self, and a resounding success precisely because I no longer need it.

And I hope for a future when no one needs it. When gay youth receive proper education, are accepted by their offline communities, and needn’t search across oceans to find anyone they can relate to.

Until then, I’m just grateful some of us can find solace in online communities.