Today is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), marking the 27th anniversary of the World Health Organisation removing the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Society has come a long way since 1990, with the day of awareness now being celebrated in more than 130 countries - the largest participating number to date.
However, on a strictly personal note, this particular IDAHOBIT also marks thirteen years since the worst year of my life. When IDAHOBIT was quietly established back in May of 2004 (then simply known as IDAHO), I was 13 years old, struggling through my first term at an all-boys high-school in Sydney’s Western suburbs, and being introduced to the full brunt of homophobic abuse that came with the territory.
In the preceding three months, it had been brought to my attention that there was something fundamentally wrong with me: my homosexuality. Of course, this was despite the fact that I wouldn’t start puberty for another 18 months and the idea of sex (with any gender) was merely a speck of static in my peripheral vision (albeit an intriguing one). So when a 17-year-old school leader pinned me against a brick wall by my neck, spat on me and called me a faggot, my first thought, apart from a very slight arousal at experiencing my first boy-to-boy contact, was 'What the hell have I done wrong?'
I certainly hadn’t kissed another boy before. Yes, I was effeminate and strangely attracted to Atreyu in The Neverending Story, but who wasn’t? Surely a limp-ish wrist and strong appreciation for cuddly, fictitious Greenskin warriors weren’t grounds for hostility or physical violence. In hindsight, I realise that my mannerisms and appearance were being conflated with a sexuality I was yet to experience, far less come to terms with. But I didn’t understand this at the time, which made the ongoing abuse at the hands of my peers all the more unbearable and confusing.
The complete and total inaction from my teachers, and indeed the school principal, was a cruel blow to my sense of self-worth and safety. I’ll never forget reporting one instance of homophobic name-calling to the principal.
“He won’t stop calling me a faggot,” I said.
“Well, are you gay?” He responded.
“Then what’s the problem here?”
If my parents hadn’t had the awareness, foresight and financial means to move me to a more progressive school, I’m honestly not sure I would’ve survived. Not everyone is so lucky.
In the eight years since I stumbled warily across high school’s finish line, I’ve become reacquainted with many of those who made my life hell for so long; those who laughed and taunted me on the playground; those who threw my school bag onto the train tracks; those who instilled in me an unhealthy defensiveness I continue to struggle with today. They gradually re-emerged into my life in the form of Facebook friend requests, Twitter follows and emails; slightly matured faces smiling curiously up at me from their profile pictures, almost as though they were friendly strangers.
As anyone who’s experienced bullying will likely understand, crossing paths with a bully can stir up a seabed of difficult emotions; muddying the waters you fought so long to distil. Similarly, anyone who’s ever had a a bully reach out and sincerely apologise for their behaviour will understand the difficult decision one suddenly faces: to block or engage.
One man messaged me and told me of his own struggles with sexuality; feelings which had turned into fears at such a young age. Another man told me that he’d long felt guilty about the way he treated me, mulling over it for years as he worked up the courage to reach out and apologise. Another man I bumped into dancing at Stonewall Hotel, offering me a cigarette as he opened up about his intensely religious family.
For me, forgiving these men, some of whom have since come out as gay or bisexual, was an opportunity to shed the victim mentality I’d subconsciously inhabited, and perhaps hidden behind, for so long. It begs acknowledging that I’m immensely privileged to be in a position to forgive those who bullied me; too many members of our LGBTIQ+ community aren’t so fortunate, particularly those of trans experience or queer people of colour who continue to face abuse on a daily basis.
According to a recent NSW study, over 85% of the local LGBTIQ+ community have experienced some level of homophobic abuse, harassment or violence during their lifetime. When compared to the 27% of all NSW students who report being bullied, it becomes apparent that instances amongst the LGBTIQ+ community continue to be disproportionately high - which is precisely why global initiatives like IDAHOBIT are so necessary.
However, it was only by engaging person-to-person with my bullies years after the fact, by mutually acknowledging the way I was treated and why it was so damaging, that I was able to release some of the anger, anxiety and panic that still occasionally rises like stomach acid from my gut to my chest. And I hope that by doing so I've helped, in whatever small way, to open up a respectful dialogue with those who will one day have the power to raise open-minded children—ones who will let my children love who they love - and take all the time they need to figure it out.