"My latent queerness leaked through the edges of everything I did. My Barbies rejected Ken, stripped off their dresses, and went to bed together. But I didn’t learn any words for female queerness until 1991." Elizabeth Sutherland reflects on what it was like to grow up queer in the '80s.
Elizabeth Sutherland

17 Feb 2017 - 1:38 PM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2017 - 1:38 PM

For queer Australians, the 1980s was a great paradox. On one hand, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Elton John, George Michael and Madonna were topping the charts and opening up sexual expression. On the other hand, the AIDS epidemic was taking its toll, not only through the horrifically high mortality rate, but through the moral panics that ensued as the general public came to blame the LGBTIQ community for what was dubbed ‘the gay disease’. Meanwhile, in a Victorian country town so small it didn’t even have a pub, I was trying to navigate life as a queer child.

The first time I became aware of the AIDS epidemic was at school. I went to a tiny primary school; there were only about 25 students in total. After lunch one day, students from the upper levels were ushered solemnly into a back room to watch the ABC Behind The News special on AIDS. The documentary included the infamous Grim Reaper advertisement in its entirety, as well as a factual explanation of how HIV was transmitted and who might be at risk. I remember it had a distinctly reassuring tone: clearly, the programmers wanted to make sure that Australian kids weren’t panicking about AIDS. Unfortunately, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Suddenly, anyone with a band-aid was banned from the sandpit (by their peers) lest they be bleeding. Anyone with non-normative gender presentation was pilloried as a possible source of contagion. Kids came to school reciting what they’d heard at home: ‘AIDS is to kill poofters’, ‘God sent AIDS to punish sinners’, ‘I’m not allowed to go swimming on the weekend because my mum says you can catch AIDS in the change rooms.’ Later that year, the Oprah episode which educated the public about AIDS and swimming pools would air in Australia; until then, jokes about contagious toilet seats were heard from adults as much as from kids.

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1980s country Victoria was a place so far removed from the multicultural urban environment I relish today that I sometimes forget my roots. At my school we learned that Australia’s Indigenous peoples were primitive hunters with boomerangs who were basically extinct—a horribly racist lesson that it took years for me to begin to unlearn. We learned that battered pork in sweet and sour sauce with pineapple chunks was the pinnacle of ‘exotic’ Chinese cuisine, and that many older people wouldn’t eat spaghetti because it was too foreign. And most of all, we learned that boys had to be tough and sporty and pursue girls (who would giggle and allow themselves to be captured during kiss-chasey). 'Poofter' was a word used liberally and spitefully against any boy who cried, was bad at football, stuck up for a girl, or was a teacher’s pet.

Growing up, my latent queerness leaked through the edges of everything I did. My Barbies rejected Ken, stripped off their dresses, and went to bed together. The characters in the fantasy stories I wrote to escape the boredom of farm life (and only two TV channels) were often powerful women who preferred the company of female servants to finding potential husbands. My female friendships were too intense, and I could never quite laugh it off when there were fights. But I didn’t learn any words for female queerness until 1991, when a classmate had said she thought another girl was a ‘lemon’ and I had, embarrassingly, replied that she was indeed very sour. When she explained that ‘lemon’ meant lesbian—and that lesbians were girls that wanted to kiss other girls—I realised that there was a whole new kind of thing I had to try very hard not to be.

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On the other hand, gay culture was hiding in plain sight all around me in the 80s. Among my favourite pop artists were Elton John, George Michael and Boy George. Whilst I knew that in my world, failing to be macho enough could be dangerous (I had witnessed my own brother be bullied relentlessly), it seemed that in other, busier places, there were men who pushed boundaries. They were daring and exciting. With the news of AIDS came the realisation that some of these men—men not at all like the stoic farmers and beer-swilling footballers around me—were in love with each other. Gayness was fascinating to me. Tantalisingly similar to my own latent feelings, but dissimilar enough to feel safe to explore. As I entered my tween years my favourite film was Top Gun, and I watched the homoerotic volleyball scene over and over, the sumptuousness of all that oiled manflesh heightened by the promise of taboo desire.

I hit my teens in the 1990s, a decade when kd lang, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Philadelphia, Chasing Amy and SBS Late Night Movies would hugely broaden my access to queer texts. But no amount of later education could make up for growing up in what felt like a cultural desert. We don’t like to think of children as sexual beings, and often there are good reasons for this. But the fact is that young kids do know whether the future that they are being primed for is one that is for them. For young queer people who see nothing around them that fits, who know no role models and whose innermost desires seem to fall outside of the realm of possibility, isolation and constant fear can be the result.

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But if queer community has taught me anything, it is that we are amazingly resilient. I may not have known why I wanted to listen to Bangles diva Susannah Hoffs’ voice every night for a year, poring over her picture in the cassette insert, but my little queer heart beat on anyway, growing in strength and conviction every day.

Now, young LGBTIQ people growing up in rural Australia have SBS broadcasts and the internet to shine rainbows into their worlds. But in the city, we need to remember that our access to services (like LGBTIQ specific healthcare) is far superior to our country cousins’. So is the pace of social change. The 1980s—a time of bad hair and worse ignorance—may be behind us, but we still need to fight to hold on to the progress that has been made.

Elizabeth Sutherland is a Melbourne writer and teacher. Follow her @MsElizabethEDU

SBS is airing The Eighties - a documentary series exploring the decade - from Wednesday, February 8th at 8:30pm. On March 15, The Eighties will cover the fight against AIDS.  Missed an episode? Catch up now, on SBS On Demand: