Eden. The word doesn’t need adornment, it just evokes the image of paradise.
Except, it doesn’t in my case. Though not by any means hell, my Eden wasn’t the paradise you should find yourself praying for.
For you see, my Eden was, and maybe always will be, my community; a coastal Australian town, about five hundred kilometres, though at times it felt more like five hundred years, away from Sydney.
Eden was, as you might have guessed, where I grew up, a beloved daughter, but, nevertheless, a girl who came to increasingly feel like she was a stranger in this pleasant rural land.
In my early years, I couldn’t even begin to articulate why I began to feel out of step with the community I was born into. Drawing on words like normal, average, and regular had a pejorative overtone, so, even in my youth, I thought it best not to rely on them.
I know this will seem nerdy to you, although I have accepted that nerdy is what I am, but when I was sixteen, I settled on the mathematical term mode. The mode is, as you know, the most common, and it was becoming clearer that was a club I hadn’t received an invitation to.
My sense of otherness had, as I realized just after my sixteenth birthday, a specific cause. While my friends chatted endlessly about the senior boys in the First’s rugby team, I found myself developing a crush on their classmate and head girl, Sarah.
I can still see her now, olive-skinned and dark-haired, standing speaking in school assemblies dressed in her black school blazer, white shirt, and black and white tartan skirt; so composed, calm and drop-dead gorgeous.
Sarah’s love life was the subject of intense speculation amongst the girls in my year group. And we all hoped, though I was really following the herd in that respect, that she would date Josh, the school’s senior rugby captain and widely considered a star in the making.
Funnily enough, both things came to pass. Sarah did date Josh during her senior year and beyond, and Josh turned out to truly be a sporting star; going on from little old Eden to captain the Australian rugby team, to score the crucial try that won the World Cup, which bought enormous yellow and green cheer to the grey skies of that Eden winter.
Around the time Sarah and Josh went to their school formal, my year ten group went on a camp with local indigenous people to learn about Aboriginal culture. And there I learnt one of the most important lessons of my life.
You see Indigenous people in Australia have a unique world view that’s distinct from the mainstream. Land, family, law, ceremony, and language are five key interconnected elements that combine to create a way of seeing and being in the world that’s distinctly Indigenous.
As I came to understand how intricately interconnected these five elements were, I saw the damage done by colonisation. Disconnecting Indigenous people from their culture harmed their sense of identity and affected the meaning and purpose of their lived lives.
And you guessed it. Nerdy Annie internalised this lesson and for the last two years of school, and the two years beyond that, I came to see that my world view was, in one significant way, not mainstream and that my sense of otherness originated in a form of colonisation. I was disconnected from my sexuality, living in a place which only seemed to validate that which was most common.
I knew, but did not yet really own the thought, that I was a lesbian; partly because exactly what living as a lesbian meant was, without role models, less than clear to me. I had kissed a few girls and liked it, but the idea that this secretive pashing might evolve into a relationship, well there was no roadmap in Eden showing how that actually occurred.
But, apart from the well-intentioned but actually painful question of when would I have a boyfriend, I was generally content in school. Study, family, sport and hobbies gave my life meaning and focus, even though I knew a part of me was askew.
In fact, when it came to school, most people would have expected me to be more than content. For, like Sarah, I was an academic and sporting success which led to me being head girl two years later. And every week I stood in front of the entire school in my black and white school uniform and spoke, confidently and impressively, though, just between you and I, I should mention that the principal saw every speech before I gave it.
But, because I felt different in a significant way, my school leadership felt increasingly surreal. I was the standard bearer for the way things were always done at St Joseph’s. Yet, because I didn’t date for reasons that I hope are obvious, I felt increasingly out of step with my own rhetoric especially given my low-level dread of a looming event, namely my own school formal.
I had to go, of course, these things were expected, and in fact, I would have to speak. Speaking didn’t faze me, what did was the very idea of going with a boy and the expectations he might have. I had read about same-sex couples at formals overseas but in Eden? Dear God, that particular fruit seemed unobtainable, and at any rate, who would I have been confident enough to have asked.
Then something extraordinary happened. One of my friends, Andrew, who I had worked with on the Student Representative Council and who I had also got to know as he was the least introverted of those doing advanced mathematics, asked me. He was totally suitable I realised, kind of good-looking and studious, dressed well and easy to talk to so I, with a sigh of relief, went with him.
Interestingly my social standing was actually enhanced as the girls in my year group saw him as a very suitable date; openside flanker for the first fifteen, he could certainly play rugby and for that alone was widely admired.
You will get how silly this all seems now, but I never considered the obvious, that Andrew the mathematician could add and he had put two and two together and realized that he and I had something else in common. Stupid Annie never considered that Andrew could be gay, falling into that old trap of assuming members of what was reputed to be a homophobic place, namely the rugby scrum, were, by definition, straight.
I got through the formal without that thought registering, but then he kissed me good night, on the cheek I should point out, saying, “There was no-one else I could possibly have done that with, closet sister.”
I was changing out of my dress before the penny dropped, closet sister, oh my God Andrew was telling me he was gay. Yet, though we continued to talk and be good Facebook friends, nothing more was said over the next two years about our shared sexuality.
Andrew had gone to Sydney to start his engineering degree, but, unexpectedly, I hadn’t head north as my mother had had a stroke just before Christmas. I found I could study nursing at Sydney University remotely, so I stayed in Eden, hunkering down under the grey skies to study and help dad care for mum.
Mum improved, thank God, and shortly after my twenty-first birthday was well enough to manage on her own. So, I set out to live in Sydney and complete my last undergraduate year in nursing, living with my brother who had moved there earlier, to get away from provincial Australia as he put it, with his wife and young son.
Now it came to pass at the end of my second week in Sydney, that the March Mardi Gras parade occurred on Oxford Street. It was an iconic celebration by the gay community and I had, in past years, furtively scanned the web admiring the colours and the confidence of the hundreds who marched with pride.
And when I said to my brother that I might pop into town to see it, he reacted in a way that amazed me at the time; he was like, whatever, just as if me going was the most okay thing in the world.
So, I caught the train and walked through town to Oxford Street, dressed in jeans and a black tee-shirt, with red floral print matching underwear which, as it turned out, was a more on pointe choice than my usual black or white sets.
I unobtrusively found a front row position and wiled away the time listening to music, as the crowd around me built and bubbled with expectation, excitement and colour.
But when the dykes on bikes led off the parade itself, the music was forgotten and my sense of sight was totally engaged. As were my hormones as the wink from the cute buxom rider closest to me sent a shiver through me.
The frayed, somewhat grubby street that usually was Oxford Street, came alive in a cacophony of colour and noise, as the floats and marchers then rippled past. It is that sense of a flowing force, one community rather than a collection of individuals, that remains with me to this day.
Of course, there are snapshots or fragments of the parade still lodged in my mind, but it felt like the parade was a living organism, a kaleidoscope of different shapes and colours unified by a shared world view, snaking its way down the street.
I was gobsmacked by the red dresses, spinning like whirling dervishes, which seemed so full of life. Were they women or were they men? No-one cared in the end, they were gorgeous as they twirled with beauty and elegance.
I identified with a gorgeous orange float peopled by medical types, knowing that orange is the colour of healing. For the first time that evening, I found my voice calling out my support and getting a cheery wave back from a beautiful blond woman dressed in what I presumed she thought of as orange scrubs, but more resembled the scanty attempt at a nurse’s uniform you would get from a risqué store, not a hospital.
Ribbons of green twirled in front of a float advocating climate change action. And one of the pretty young things, twirling a ribbon, locked eyes with mine. She smiled and it took a while, but then I recognised her and smiled back. Mel, who had been in my year at school, was always quietly sullen and dressed in goth-like black, but now seemed a different person in her green bra and skirt.
“I didn’t know,” I said, acknowledging her ownership of who she was, as she stopped beside me.
“Me too,” she replied, “I always assumed head girls had to be straight.”
“Everyone did which made it hard as I never felt straight.”
“Sorry, that thought never occurred to me. I felt lonely and withdrew; if only I had known.”
I put my arms around her, whispering, “I was a crap leader in that respect, Mel. I didn’t own up to who I was.”
Mel smiled and said, “Don’t be hard on yourself. It takes courage, but the most liberating thing I did was come out, lose that black and wear rainbow colours.”
And with that, she slipped my black t-shirt off, and with a twirl, and a flick of her green ribbon, she re-joined the march, yelling back over her shoulder, “We are so catching up Annie. Keep having pride, you don’t need black anymore.”
Tears welled in my eyes, and then they flowed as the original Sydney78ers marched past followed by a choir in blue. Their singing of We Shall Overcome, found an echo in the crowd, and Oxford Street resounded to the voices of diversity in perfect harmony.
I was still sniffing, contemplating what just happened with Mel and the choir, when with a cry of, “Annie,” my hand was grabbed and I was pulled into a group of men, topless, but incongruously wearing purple and blue striped rugby socks.
It took a moment for me to realise that the face, painted in pride colours was none other than my school friend Andrew, who said, “Tears Annie? This is about joy and love, come walk with us.”
Stepping from the safety of the curb and into the parade was like being dunked in the river Jordan; I felt reborn, no longer an observer, now absorbed into the organism snaking down Oxford Street. I picked up on the spirit of the group and moved my hips in front of the purple float where topless men danced, or at least danced as well as rugby players, even gay rugby players, could dance.
I am not so gay that I can’t appreciate the male body and it has to be said there were wonderful torsos, honed by rugby, to be appreciated. And while I was looking back admiring them, and wondering uncertainly exactly how my place in all this would evolve, two bulky props from somewhere produced mascara and, on the run, touched up my make-up.
Despite not wearing purple underwear, I was accepted in my red florals, and they gave me a bucket of purple mini rugby balls and instructions to throw them into the crowd. Which I did, laughing and giggling with Andrew as we caught up.
I never did see the floats that followed, but I no longer cared. I had stepped over the Rubicon, and that was a relief. Absorbed into the march, I got into the spirit of pride, totally accepted as a friend of Andrew’s, happily mincing down Oxford Street and, for the first time in my life, not caring what anyone thought.
My sexuality didn’t seem relevant or asked about, yet I embraced the joy that came from everyone around me just assuming I was, like them, gay.
It became obvious when we went to the Horton Pavilion for afters, that there was more than friendship between Andrew and one of the other guys, Mark. Mark, was the hooker for the rugby team which was, as you might imagine, the position that enabled more grubbier innuendos than all other rugby positions combined. And, dear God, it became clear that pride for gay rugby players didn’t extend to dispensing with grubby innuendo.
The Pavilion was totally eye-opening, very gay and very male. I haven’t seen as much leather in my life as I saw that night, and as for the rest, well I am offering no comments at all. Yet I belonged there. Belonged in a way that I never felt I did amongst the straight women in my school friendship group.
As the night drew to a close, or more accurately dawn broke over Sydney, I was leaning against a wall, on the alcohol induced side of happy, watching, through glazed eyes, Andrew and Mark circle, dancing with arms around each other.
Andrew looked over, called to me, and I joined in, my hands across Mark and Andrew’s sweaty backs. After a few moments of quiet snuggling, I whispered, “You would think a girl would feel like a fish out of water here. But I have never ever felt more like I belonged.”
“We danced at our formal,” Andrew replied, “Yet it was like we had to adapt to their expectations, here the expectations are ours.”
He got a kiss on the cheek for that, and I eventually found myself, still without a top, at their apartment. Drifting off to sleep, my curvy body pressed between the firm bodies of my original guy friend and his boyfriend, I knew my monochromatic world had irreversibly changed. I had seen the rainbow’s colours on Oxford Street and, like Alice and the looking glass, I had stepped through; accepting that on other side was my team, and I was no longer a stranger in my own land.
I had found my tribe, well at least the boy half of that rainbow nation. Best of all my tribe had made me a promise as we staggered home. They would scour Sydney for my girlfriend, and they had convinced me they could find, as they put it, a vanilla girl who liked girls, on one condition.
Invitations to the wedding darling.
Well, ironically enough, it turned out that that was one promise the rainbow nation didn’t need to deliver on, as my birth tribe had that matter in hand. And it occurred when I promised my brother to pick up a boy I desperately love, namely my ragamuffin five-year-old nephew, from kindergarten.
And when Alexander, his curly hair dishevelled as usual and his knees even more caked with dirt than his hands, saw me he screamed excitedly and took my clean white hand in his muddy one and dragged me outside to meet his teacher, Ms Jones.
So, standing on the veranda, I watched the curled blond hair and yellow Laura Ashley printed dress, turn to face us when Alexander called out. And my heart skipped a beat. Backlight by the summer sun, her dress was transparent leaving her shapely long legs totally visible.
She introduced herself as Mary and we chatted about Alexander. Well more than Alexander, but I was kind of tongue-tied, and to be honest all I can now remember about that afternoon was how she looked so golden and gorgeous against the yellow setting sun.
When I said that I should take Alexander home, Mary said, oh so sweetly, “I was thinking of having a drink at Kipling’s Wine Bar around five.”
I nodded, speechless having clearly received her message. But, after playing with Alexander and then my sister-in-law running late, it was almost six o’clock when I arrived at the wine bar, heavy-hearted it has to be said, expecting her to have flown the coop.
But no, I was greeted by a smile that created more electricity than all the solar panels that dotted that North Shore neighbourhood. And we talked over a bottle of Chardonnay, oh boy did we talk, and the words kindred spirits doesn’t do justice to our connection.
Mary lived in a small apartment nearby on the Pacific Highway and, as she finished her wine, her hand lightly touched my knee, and she whispered, “Normally I don’t throw myself at a woman on our first date, but …”
“Date?” I replied, giggling, “I thought this was just drinks.”
“It was until I found out how sweet and desirable you are.”
All my caution got thrown to the wind, and I felt a hunger like I have never felt before. I nodded and, as we left Kipling’s, she took my hand and for the first time in my life I walked down a well-lit street hand in hand with a woman.
That night with Mary was the beginning, and as I emerged from the stupor of it all, I felt totally and utterly bonded for the first time in my life.
About a year later Mary and I were in Eden for my father’s sixtieth birthday. My parents had quickly accepted Mary as part of the family which somewhat embarrassed me, as I had been reluctant to introduce her for fear about what they would think.
But, as always, the weekend passed incredibly easily, though dad did manage to embarrass us both when we overheard him sharply saying to his mother, who I suspect was, until that point, less than fully enthusiastic about a lesbian granddaughter, “Don’t be silly mum, a lesbian couple has two wombs which increases the chances of children.”
When I cornered him in the kitchen later that afternoon, intrigued by how long he had been contemplating the matter of lesbian fertility, he smirked and observed, “I thought it a good response that showed your grandmother you had my complete support and that I wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense from her.”
Dad got a huge hug for that.
The day we before were leaving Eden to return home, we stopped for coffee in a local café, and an elderly man, a Catholic priest, came up to us. Mary looked a tad tense as if she expected she would have to go on the defensive. But I just giggled at her, knowing that the priest was, in fact, my school’s chaplin and a man whose intelligence and decency I had come to admire and whose advice I had often sort out when at school.
I introduced Father Ryan to Mary, and he seemed totally delighted that I was happy, seemingly having no issues with the gender of the love of my life.
All was going well until he dropped a bombshell onto my lap, asking me, as a former head girl, to speak, as one former head boy or girl traditionally did, in front of the whole school at the end-of-year school leavers assembly.
“First,” I replied after a long pause, my mind a muddle of conflicting emotions, “Let me ask you a question. You remember you used to say that we had a kind of a duty to share what we believed with others?”
“Is that your question? Well, the answer is, yes I remember.”
Even Mary giggled at that, his humour having, to a degree, started the long task of winning her over.
“I seem to recall,” he continued, “Saying that evangelism didn’t oblige you to preach on the street, rather it was about openly living what you believed in your daily life.”
“Yes exactly. So, Father, what would you suggest a gay woman would say about how she lives her life if she was, for instance, to talk at a school assembly.”
He smiled, “Well consistent with my observations about sharing what you believe with others, I don’t think it is something that God would expect you to shy away from.”
“Even if it scares me?”
“It may scare you, Annie, but you won’t now be as scared as some in your audience who are struggling with feelings they can’t process as well as you are able to.”
Mary could contain herself, she was brusque almost rude spitting out, “The church is opposed to homosexuality. Look at Israel Folau.”
There was a sadness in the old man’s eyes, as he replied, “Yes, that is my particular cross, Mary. But pastoral care is my mission. I have worked all my life with young people and have come to appreciate the value this generation ascribes to love, which is, after all, the primary gospel value.”
“But,” Mary replied, her tone suggesting she was settling in for a long debate.
Father Ryan held up his hand, stopping her, and said, “I can’t justify the unjustifiable, Mary. The tide has turned and is running against people like Israel Folau. I also can’t right past wrongs. But I can do what I can do, which is to look forward, to support today’s young people, and, therefore, to ask Annie as a past head girl to speak openly at the leavers’ assembly this spring.”
How could I ever have said no to that? But preying on my mind was my leadership as head girl, and I whispered, “I wasn’t a role model for people like Andrew and Mel.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said, “It takes maturity to understand that. But because you do, you can now reach those struggling in a way no one else can.”
Which is how I come to be walking up onto the school stage, five years after I last trod these boards, wearing a yellow dress, accessorised with a rainbow scarf, with speech notes about joy; my joy in helping people suffering from trauma as an Emergency Department nurse and my joy in the total support and love of the woman I love.
I want to encourage this year’s school assembly to find and pursue their passion. But more than that I want to be a role model to those like me, Mel and Andrew who didn’t glimpse that alternative way of living when we were at school.
For if there is only one gay person in the school, and God knows statistics say there will be many, many more, then they deserve to hear, unlike every previous assembly, loudly and clearly that they should have pride in themselves, knowing that there is a rainbow nation, always there and always with their backs, just as I discovered on Oxford Street that they had mine.
And while I expect to find this speech hard and would rather let this particular cup pass from me, there are some for whom a sense of belonging is far harder and, in Andrew’s firm, yet wise though anatomically incorrect words, I should just man up, grow a set of balls, and represent.
Which, because I now can, I will; using my public speaking gifts to show there are gardens in my particular Eden where the rainbow colours will grow in this and every forthcoming spring.
For I have accepted I have a sacred duty; to accept and carry the torch from those who have gone before, like the original 78ers, and to light the way for the next generation so their journey in love is smoother than mine.
We shall overcome.