“Any plans for the evening?” a colleague asked, as we walked out of work together this evening. “No”, I told her, “just a night of watching television I guess”. By this time the rain had already set in, and as it later became heavier, it soon became clear I had few other options than to come home, put on my tracky-dax, and go through the television guide.
I caught a bit of the “7 pm Project” (fairly inconsequential tonight) and a fair amount of “Q and A” (having lived in WA, I got a little bored with some of the parochialism), but missed “Four Corners” and “Media Watch”.
I also missed “Australian Story”, though I caught up with it later. Although I usually record it, I can usually take or leave “Australian Story”. Sometimes the stories are interesting; other times they leave me cold. My feelings tonight were a combination of both. Tonight’s episode was about David Graham who appeared a few years ago on the Australian version of “Big Brother”.
I was quite a fan of David when he appeared on the show with his “softly softly” approach to his sexuality. On tonight’s program, he explained how his plan was to go on “Big Brother” as a contestant “who just happened to be gay”, rather than a “gay contestant”. The program suggested he abandoned this approach when it became apparent this “deception” (that’s not the right word, but close) was having an impact on fellow housemate, Camilla who had fallen for him.
This “softly softly” approach was clearly explained in terms of his upbringing. He grew up closeted, bashed at school, and in a conservative rural environment best summed up by the phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell”. “There are lots of gay people in the National Party”, Senator Barnaby Joyce said at one point, adding “They just don’t walk around with a wrist band” (or words closely similar to that). Barnaby Joyce was an early supporter of David when the “controversy” surrounding his sexuality became an issue in the Queensland National Party. Still, Barnaby emphasised his view that “if you want to break down stereotypes, appearing on Big Brother isn’t the way to do it” (again that’s a rough, though meaningfully accurate quote, but the essential meaning is “don’t ask, don’t tell”).
The “softly softly” approach was also clearly explained in terms of his relationship with his family. “I was there for the balancing act” was a quote I remember from his mother to explain her position in the family. It seems David’s family, especially his father Max, had a lot of expectations of him, particularly as the only son, around notions of family farm succession planning. David, of course, went off on a different path from what his father expected, though I sensed from the program he’ll fulfil most of his father’s expectations except that instead of having a wife and children, David will have a male partner and children.
I feel lucky in that I never grew up in a family of “expectations”. I’ve never had a feeling in any way, shape or form, that I’ve “let my family down”. In fact, quite the opposite, having always felt my family was quite proud of my achievements. Thus, it was interesting to see Max acknowledge his son’s achievements, saying publicly, “he’s done things I could never do”. Still, I got the sense David’s internal battles with his sexuality (and perhaps his feelings he hasn’t lived up to his family expectations) aren’t completely over yet. Presumably, that will come with age. And also that the family “wounds” about the way David came out on television also don’t seem to have been completely healed. His sister said, at one point, “the way dad found out was very public for a very private family”, adding that it was a “cruel way” for their father to find out about David’s sexuality.
Sadly, in the world in which we live “the coming out process” and the associated issues haven’t been completely resolved. For the individual, they still remain a crucial part of life’s journey. You can see this in the recent spate of gay youth suicides in the United States. You can also see this in the number of people who go – for whatever reason – into heterosexual relationships, later to come out. Sexuality is fluid, to an extent, but there’s still a lot of pressure on people to “conform”. And you have to remember it’s only 26 years ago that you could be sent to gaol in NSW for 14 years for engaging in same-sex sexual activity.
In our modern lifestyle, you can also sometimes forget things can change suddenly and considerably. Back in the 1920s in Germany gays and lesbians enjoyed considerable freedom. Ten years later they were in death camps. Obviously, they were extraordinary circumstances, and it’s hard to imagine the same thing happening again, but it could. If you’re a middle-aged bloke who lives in the homo-haven of places like Surry Hills, you can sometimes forget the ongoing daily issues faced by people in non-Western democracies and by people who are younger, gay and lesbian, and who live in rural/remote locations. That said, it’s not all that bad. Not everyone in the bush is a redneck who is going to bash you. I know that from having lived in the bush for most of my life, until moving to Sydney fifteen years ago.
I guess that’s why I found tonight’s program interesting in a historical context. You could almost imagine a similar program having appeared on television thirty years ago. The approach would have been different. The story would have been different. But still, it would have been a story about a family “coming to terms with” (I hate that phrase) their son’s homosexuality. The narrative has moved on in a national, political context, but on a personal level, things have remained much the same for many people.