This year marked my third year at the University of Sydney, and my first Mardi Gras. In previous years I’ve used “dinner with friends” and “I’m way too hungover from OWeek” to get out of attending the parade. Bad gay.
My country upbringing is the real reason I’ve avoided ‘gay’ events like Mardi Gras. To be clear, my family are not conservative. Like many gay men, I’ve had the odd comment from older relatives (my grandfather once asked my mother if my relationship with my best friend was “healthy”), but my family has otherwise been fairly supportive and open to new ideas.
But my family is very practical. I come from an incredibly conservative town, one where rumours that gay men had been beaten and raped without any help from the police probably held a grain of truth. My parents initially tried to ship me off to a GPS boarding school in Sydney. When I resisted the move, the only real alternative was to be extremely cautious with my identity. My father would warn me to “be careful” in public far more than my other four siblings, and he didn’t need to say why for me to know what it meant.
Even now, after three years as a gay man in Sydney, “being careful” is a habit that’s hard to break. While I’ve come a long way, and I like to think that I am comfortable with my identity, I still constantly stress about my clothes, my voice, PDAs, other ‘gay’ things, and the impression that they may give to the public. Being out in the city on a weekend terrifies me—testosterone fuelled drunkards are exactly the kind of people I was raised to avoid. My parents meant well, but it’s stressful being raised to fear society.
So as a country kid at heart, I decided to take it slow and start my Mardi Gras evening in Newtown. I was still shocked by what I saw. Men sat in drag around the bar, rainbow flags hung from just about every business on King Street, even the burly USyd rugby players nearby were excited for the celebrations. Yes, even the testosterone fuelled rugby players I’d been raised to fearfully avoid were keen on celebrating the weekend alongside drag queens.
The remarkable thing wasn’t that people were comfortable doing this stuff in public, but that no one else seemed to give a shit. I know that if someone were to dress in drag at home, they would have stuff thrown at them from car windows and face becoming a pariah.
The actual parade was much flashier than Newtown—the pink, the glitter, and the seemingly never-ending stream of phallic objects. It was the kind of celebration I would once have considered obnoxious at best, and stereotypical at worst, but a literal (and figurative) bucket of glitter to the face flicked a switch in my head.
I realised that Mardi Gras is not a gratuitous promotion of the stereotypes I had been raised to avoid, but a necessary celebration of identity through which we reclaim stereotypes. By celebrating the things we associate with gayness, we stop saying that they are undesirable or dangerous.
It’s sad that it took a gay pride parade for me to grasp this simple truth, but when you’ve spent the whole of your post-puberty life convincing yourself that there’s something inherently wrong with you, it’s easy to overlook the obvious.
I had spent my whole life tolerating and internalising homophobia. I was raised in an environment that was ‘fine’ with people being gay—so long as they didn’t show it. But every time I let someone tell me to avoid certain people, or places, or events in order to preserve my safety, I had been allowing them to say that being gay was bad. And every time I let someone tell me how relatable I was because I didn’t have a lisp, or I let someone try and mould me into something “straighter”, I was allowing passive homophobia to take place.
This whole time I had believed it was my duty to apologise to and groom myself for straight people. But my sexuality is not some sort of problem that I need to compulsively fix in order to be a properly functioning member of society.
If anyone expects me to apologise for who I am in the future, don’t. I’ll probably be too busy listening to Madonna without feeling guilty to care.