Growing up a closeted gay in rural Australia is like playing football for the opposition. As much as I tried to wear their guernsey and play like one of them, my heart didn’t belong.
Mount Gambier is a large country town five hours from Adelaide, where girls play netball and guys play football. There’s not a lot of a room to be different, not if you don’t want it thrown back in your face.
A game at lunch and recess was to imitate this young guy we all thought was gay in the crudest possible way. If he saw us, the joke became even funnier. I think in that time I developed a real hatred for gay guys that couldn’t hide their flamboyancy, who couldn’t even pretend to be straight for the sake of their own dignity.
After all, I managed to do it.
Cementing my place as a football player, and a listener of heavy metal, meant confirming to the people around me that I was normal just like them.
I conformed because I couldn’t trust myself.
I conformed because I couldn’t trust myself. I used to pray in secret a lot, which is odd because I’ve never been religious. I don’t believe in God but in those moments I truly hoped he was there, so that he could give me the strength to not end up like that older boy at school, who was gross and picked on and alone
Playing football had become a way of keeping up appearances. I found guys were hesitant to challenge my sexuality if they saw I was participating in the same masculine activity as they were. While the rest of the team were pulling on their boots and their guernseys, I was putting on my mask.
Eventually though, I grew away from the male friends whose masculinity I idolised. I realised sport was merely a place where men were allowed to feel. In games they can get angry, even get into fights, and it’s accepted as a part of the activity. On the rare occasion they make it to a final but lose, they’re even permitted to cry. Having already established my own emotional outlet through music, over time I began to realise – even more importantly accept – that I didn’t need football to complete myself as a man.
Instead of playing sport, I began to sing again. However, this kind of change came slowly. Sexuality doesn’t define a person, but for so long I’d defined myself by trying to avoid mine. The challenge was deciding which parts of my identity had been constructed in order to survive as a straight man, and which were truly my own.
During my time at university, I was a fervent user of online dating apps. My profile would say “masc looking for masc”, meaning I was just another jerk who liked reminding gay guys they aren’t considered masculine.
On one of my first dates I arrived – late as always – to find the tall athletic man I’d pictured (and frankly been led to imagine), was in fact a short soft-spoken twink. I’m ashamed to say I spent the better part of our date being surly and unamused: possibly because I felt lied to, but mostly because he repulsed me. He wasn’t at all like the sexy alluring males that film had taught me to expect in a love interest
To make matters worse, I was also incredibly awkward with guys when in public, something that was at least founded in reality. I’ve been on dates where people have driven past and yelled “faggot” out the window. I’ve had the stares and glares from people that I walk past on the street. I’ve had strangers call out to me, even wolf-whistle, and get angry like I’ve somehow deeply insulted their very way of life.
I became a much happier person the moment I stopped valuing the archaic ideas of what men should and shouldn’t be.
These ideas – this hate – seeps into you. I only realised I was still homophobic myself a year later when I was dumped by my boyfriend of the time.
When left on my own, I had to face the truth. I still looked at my sexuality as a burden and given the option I would’ve changed it. Of course I would’ve, I never wanted my life to be this hard.
I’m not certain how it came about, but eventually I realised the reason I was so opposed to effeminate guys was because I was insecure of my own identity. I became a much happier person the moment I stopped valuing the archaic ideas of what men should and shouldn’t be.
I finally returned to a gay bar from which I’d fled a few years earlier in high school, I knew something in me was different. From the moment I stepped through the door I felt that rush of relief and excitement I’d so longed to feel. I was finally home.
Kienan McKay is an emerging writer, and the author of Laundry: a series of seven short stories hanging out to dry the secrets of seven individuals. He was the inaugural Writer in Residence at Carclew in North Adelaide for 2020, and grew up in rural South Australia, a place that both tested and inspired his creative sensitivities. You can follow Kienan on Instagram @kienan_mckay or his website.
This story was originally entered in the 2020 SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition and forms part of a special collection curated for Mardi Gras celebrating LGBTIQA+ writers and stories.
Follow the conversation on SBS Australia socials #WeRiseFor #MardiGras2021 and via sbs.com.au/mardigras.
The 2021 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras live Saturday 6 March 6pm AEDT on SBS On Demand or catch the full parade at 7:30pm on SBS and NITV.