When someone with any amount of notoriety comes out, as seen with Apple CEO Tim Cook recently, there is inevitably an outpouring of opinions (unlike at all other times on the Internet when anything is said). The first type of comment come from those who think being gay is disgusting, going so far as to claim that they will boycott Apple (they won’t) because he came out publicly and they don’t want to be made aware that queer people exist in the universe because it terrifies them and makes them think that Cook will secretly change iPhones to make them emit some kind of gay-waves that will make them want to kiss their friend Matt. I can dismiss their opinion easily because they are homophobic deadshits, and therefore their opinion is like homophobic garbage water off a lesbi-ducks back. But there are also people who are progressive, who aren’t homophobic at all, and who also take issue with this kind of announcement being made. They are generally kind people who find it sad or annoying that this kind of announcement is still news. But the fact that it is still news is exactly why it is still important. The fact that there are 500 chief executives of America’s biggest companies, and Tim Cook is the only openly gay one, means it is necessary, and it is news.
Of course, it is getting easier almost by the day for (especially) a certain kind of white, middle-class person to come out. But let’s be very clear; that doesn’t make it easy. That is a very important distinction to remember. It can be simple to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t think like you, when looking at your carefully cultivated twitter feed. It is sometimes easy to forget that things are still hard for other people in the real world, when sitting at a bar with your carefully cultivated group of cool-guy friends. It is easier for me to remember, when my friends are being called faggots on the street, when they are being bashed. When people give same-sex couples disgusted looks as we walk down the street holding hands. When people in my government think and say that my relationships are unnatural, and block moves for equality. When sporting culture, so important to many Australians, is still so homophobic. When my sexuality is used as an insult. When I see no representation of myself in entertainment. When grown-up people in progressive cities are still in the closet, when young men in the country are still killing themselves. It is easier to remember, then.
Usually when discussing the real effects of homophobia, we talk about violence against us, we talk about rights being denied to us, we talk about external things that hurt us. But it is not just in these external things that you can see the tarnished reflection of homophobia. It is here in this simple story about heartbreak. It doesn’t end in death, and it doesn’t even end in tragedy. Except, it sort of does.
I was nineteen. I was living in Toowoomba, a regional city in South East Queensland. Even though Toowoomba has a decent population, it has always had a small country-town feel. It has a lot of conservative people, a lot of old people, and a lot of religious people. There are a little surrounding rural properties and country townships, (one of these being where I went to a primary school with 31 kids in the entire school), and those contribute to the overall vibe. I had just dropped out of my first attempt at university, and I was working in a very glamorous job as a cleaner in the Grand Central food court while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life (still unsure). Every single day I was growing to hate humanity more. Hated how people in these jobs were treated, the working conditions, and the shit they had to put up with. Hated how most of the general public treated us, like we were stupid, worthless, servants, or invisible. As an aside, if you are dating someone, pay attention to how they treat wait staff and cleaners, it gives you a good indication of their empathy levels, and how they will treat you one day. I was getting towards the end of my rope with each passing second. When I would take the piles of rubbish into the lift on a trolley, descending down to the smelly loading dock where I would toss the bags into the crusher (the only fun part of the entire experience), I used to wish for the lifts to stop and trap me. I would have preferred to spend hours in an elevator with bags of rubbish in a Queensland summer, than have one more person look at me like I was a piece of dog shit on their shoe as I took their leftover KFC to the bin.
But all of that changed in an instant, when she came along. Alexandra*. I noticed her name immediately, shining on the new badge pinned to her shirt. I noticed her and her name badge the minute she started working at the sandwich shop I passed a hundred times a shift. By now I knew most of the people working in most of the shops in the food court, and I would always try to become friendly with new workers. It made my job easier if they liked me. So I decided to do that with Alexandra as well. But this time it was different, I was too nervous to strike up a conversation. So I just went about my day, glancing over at her from time-to-time. She was about my age, smiley, bouncy, expressive, and completely adorable. That was my routine for a couple of days, until my manager told me to go to the sandwich shop to ask them a question about the plastic trays we cleaned and delivered back to them. I can’t remember what the question was, but I do remember that Alexandra was the only person there when I went up. I remember being surprised that up close, her face was covered with what must have been hundreds of light freckles. I asked the question, and then I introduced myself. At that time, I lived with my parents, and I was in the closet. Back then the small-town vibe of Toowoomba lent itself very easily to small-mindedness and homophobia as well. But (thanks in part to the internet) I had started becoming much more comfortable in my own skin, in identifying as a lesbian.
All of those feelings and desires I had pushed down for as long as I can remember were starting to surface. I was starting to think seriously about coming out to my family, to dating, to experience what my friends had been experiencing for years. I had never really let myself go there before. I had plenty of friends who were always just friends, plenty of fun, but I had been too scared to open up that part of myself. And I really had no opportunity to open up before. By that point, I think I had one openly gay male friend. I didn’t know any women who were interested in other women, and I never, ever had. But there was something in the way that she looked at me. Somehow in that few minutes, I knew that this was different, something I had never experienced before. My mouth was dry and my heart was racing as I walked away.
For the weeks that followed, work was much easier to get through. I would try to seem cool, spending my minimal cleaner wages buying a sandwich from her every day instead of bringing lunch from home like I usually would. In the minutes during which she would make my sandwich, I aimed to make her laugh, which was actually quite easy because she was so full of joy (and I am hilarious). I would take the food, and I would make sure to sit where she could see me. I would recline back and listen to music, and read the paper, or a book I thought would impress her. I had no idea what I was doing. But it somehow seemed to work, I imagine some form of dark lesbian magic was involved. After a little while she asked me what music I was always listening to, and we bonded over PJ Harvey. After that, she asked if I wanted to have lunch together, and knowing that this meant she had changed the time of her shift to be able to do it, my heart roared and my stomach fizzled with nerves.
After that, we started getting in contact outside of work, we would have breakfast together before our shifts started, we would text and call. She was smart, she was funny, and she felt like she didn’t fit in this town, or with her family, that she needed to escape. We bonded in so many ways. This all somehow felt different to how I had interacted with new friends in the past. I could feel that it was building to something, and I could see it in her eyes when she looked at me. In her smile when I would look up and catch her looking at me from across the food court (again, very glamorous and romantic). She was all I thought about. When she sat with me and read the paper, the backs of our hands would touch, and I would think about that for the rest of the day. It was definitely building to something. And finally, it did.
She called on a Friday afternoon to invite me out to a pub that night. Toowoomba is not a very big place; I had been to most of the pubs. Not this one. It was a run-down old pub, where I assumed the clientele were 80-year-old men talking about the races, or being racist. Or both. I said yes, because of course I said yes. I wondered briefly if she wanted to go there so nobody would see us together. She picked me up in the evening, and we drove to the pub, listening and singing to PJ on the way. At some point she offhandedly told me that she had found out that once a month, on this particular night, the pub we were going to had a ‘gay night’. So, this was it then. Proof. My stomach was churning.
She parked behind the pub, in the dirt car park with no lighting, and nobody else around. She switched off the car, and PJ’s voice died down. We got out, and she came around to my side of the car. And then, she put her hand on my wrist to stop me walking off, and leaned in and kissed me. My first kiss from a woman, the thing I had been unsuccessfully trying not to fantasise about my entire life. It was just a quick moment. A soft pressing of her lips on mine, and in that moment my mind and body reacted like one of those exploding bi-carb and vinegar volcanos people make for science class. And that was it. I was done for. We went inside the pub, and our dynamic was so different than before I had gotten out of her car. The pub had quite a few people in it, just normal looking humans playing pool, or drinking at tables. I have no idea if any of them were gay, but I assume so. But maybe not, because all I could focus on was her. They could have been aliens. I had blinders on for the rest of the world. And she did too. We flirted, touched discreetly, and chose songs on the jukebox. We played pool and drank and laughed, and pressed ourselves into each other when we could get away with it. It was the greatest night of my life up to that point.
We stayed there, comfortable in ourselves, knowing that the other people there would be on our side. That’s a funny thing. As far as I know, I am the only queer person in my giant extended family, whom I love dearly. Also, it’s just happened that I have always had more straight friends, men and women, than not. The friends I’ve had for the longest time are straight, because I didn’t know any queer people growing up. I feel totally comfortable around heterosexual people, especially the wonderful ones I choose as my friends. And yet, on the rare times I am at a gay bar, or at a pride event, or somewhere that I am in the majority, it feels different. And it feels nice. It is hard to explain, but it is almost like a weight is lifted. For brief moments, every single cell that makes up me knows that I am completely safe. Not only safe, but also accepted. I can’t be judged, I won’t be assumed to be straight, I won’t be asked questions, I won’t have a slur thrown at me, I won’t have a man hitting on me, I won’t make anyone uncomfortable by being me. I just am. And that feeling still happens now, after years of being comfortable with which I am. Imagine the feeling as a closeted 19 year old, on her first outing with another lady. It was euphoric.
The euphoria made time pass quickly, and the light outside faded as it got later and later into the evening. We were sitting at a table drinking, and talking, and she was telling me about a tattoo she planned on getting on her upper arm. She grabbed my hand, and ran my fingertips slowly over the spot she wanted it, staring into my eyes. Oh yes, something was building. The moment is burned into my memory, the moment before everything changed.
The door to the pub swung open, and in walked a group of young drunk people. I figured out pretty quickly they were unaware of the ‘gay night’ pub status. But unfortunately, they were aware of who Alexandra was, and it turned out that they were friends of hers. Her face fell, and she moved her chair away from me quickly, and bounced up to greet them. She introduced me as someone ‘from work’, and that’s when I knew this wasn’t going to be good. I think they were friends that she had known from school, and they certainly didn’t match the person I had come to know, and they certainly weren’t people that I would want to be friends with. They questioned what we were doing there, and she told them that we wanted a quiet drink before heading into the ‘city’ (a few blocks over), to go clubbing. What a cool coincidence, that is what they were doing as well! So, that's what we did. We all left in a drunken group, and headed to one of the gross pub/clubs in the main street of Toowoomba.
From the moment her friends had walked into that pub, she had shut down to me completely. It was like I was a stranger that had just glommed onto their group. I was hoping to find a chance to talk to her, explain that I understood she didn’t want any of them to find out about us, to explain that I knew the fear, that it was okay. Instead, I found myself standing on the upstairs balcony of the pub, tequila sunrise in my hand (I was a forty year old trapped in a 19 year old body), with her friends. I watched as she left to go to the bar with Brad, an obnoxious Bintang-singlet, cap wearing, probably racist, rats-tail having, hotted up-Holden kind of guy. I watched as she flirted with him at the bar, smiling that smile I had come to know as for me. I watched as she made the briefest eye contact with me on their way back, the flicker of hurt and sadness in her eyes reflecting mine, before the shutters came down. I sat there with her friends, chatting to them, as Brad took her to talk somewhere quieter. My stomach filling with more dread as each second passed. I sat there when they came back holding hands, and she was doing everything she could not to look at me. And I sat there when he pulled her onto his lap and stuck his tongue in her mouth.
Then I wasn’t sitting there anymore. I was up, and I was almost hyperventilating, and I ran past them, and down the stairs. I wasn’t there anymore, I wasn’t anywhere. I was crying on the street, as a million Brads and a million Alexandras walked past me. I was looking for someone to understand, but nobody could, so instead I looked for a cab. As one pulled up to the curb, I heard her say my name, and she was behind me. She looked pale, her freckles as stark as I have ever seen them against her skin. She looked terrified, and devastated. I knew from looking at her that this was the way it had to be. She said five words to me, as I opened the door to that cab. She said ‘I don’t want..’ and gestured back towards the club. Then her hands fell to her sides. She looked down, defeated, and empty. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said ‘I’m sorry’. I got in, and the cab drove away. I didn’t look back.
This all happened when I was around 19. I am 31 now. And yet, I can still feel every single emotion that I felt on that night. Finally opening up to someone after years of pushing every emotion down far enough so that you can’t feel anything, finally opening up to someone despite the fact that you are fucking terrified, only to have their fear be the thing that overwhelms you both. That is not a feeling you forget easily. You don’t need to look very hard to see the effects on homophobia on public policy, on how queer and trans people are treated in society, on the slurs and violence we face. But as this (long and maybe boring) story shows, it also just breaks our hearts.
What happened to me is not unusual, not even in 2014. I know that Alexandra ended up marrying a man (not Brad) soon after, and staying in Toowoomba. If I’m being optimistic I like to believe that it would have happened anyway, that it what she truly wanted, and that she is happy. But remembering the look on her face, I’m not optimistic very often. There is every chance I could be wrong, and i hope so. Even after it happened, I didn’t harbour any anger towards her. How could I? She was taught that what we were doing was wrong, that people like her parents might not love her if she went through with it, and that the right thing was to be with him. When I think of that night now, I just feel awful for us both.
The point in all of this is that we didn’t have the chance to find out what might have been. We didn’t get to have a relationship you have when you are 19, when everything is amazing and full of energy and excitement, and then crashes and burns. Every time someone like Tim Cook comes out, and comes out in such a public way especially, we get closer and closer to a world where people like Alexandra aren’t filled with fear, or self-hatred, and can safely experience love with the people they want to. And that will be a beautiful thing.