A writer’s encounter with PFLAG.
AS the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine, it’s easy to focus all the content on sumptuous homes and gardens, and interviews with local business icons.
But for me, the job was an opportunity to explore the stories of the district’s many cultural pioneers.
So it was no surprise, when I turned my gaze to LGBTQI heritage, that I came across another groundbreaker – Australia’s first country PFLAG (‘Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays’) group, and two of the courageous rural people who were instrumental in starting this much-needed family initiative.
This feature was published in Blue Mountains Life magazine in December 2011.
Out in Bathurst
How one family fosters acceptance in the Central West.
Tony and Bernadette Sutton were brought together by telecommunication – Tony was a telephone technician and Bern worked as a telephonist at a local manual exchange. In 1971, after a five-year courtship, they were married at Coolah’s Sacred Heart Church.
Once settled at Bathurst, the first of their two children, Jeremy, was born in 1972, followed by Anne a decade later. Tony was raised in this proud Central Western community. His father was a local butcher. Bern came to Bathurst from a stock and crop farm near Coolah. Like generations of country families before them, the Sutton’s expectations about family were deeply etched in their history.
“On September 17th 1993, two days after his 21st birthday, our son told his Mum, during a weekend visit home, then returned to Sydney, leaving a letter for me,” Tony recalls of the very moment their lives changed, when Jeremy told them he was gay. “Bernadette held the letter, not being sure how I would take the news. This says volumes about his confidence in his Dad.”
“I read the letter one week later, and though a little numb, I managed it better than Bernadette. I felt terrible about some of the cruel comments I had made in previous years. I was as homophobic as the next bloke.”
Bern particularly had difficulty with questions of faith: “During that first week I would often think ‘I don’t know how I am going to deal with this … what would the family and neighbours say?’,” she recalls. “Gradually I realised I was only thinking of myself and not of Jeremy, who had already been through so much struggle.”
Jeremy Sutton (a Marketing Manager now living in Sydney) recalls his perspective: “Living in Sydney had allowed me to become who I really was, as I never felt like I could do that in Bathurst, so it was time to tell my parents. It was a relief, but it was also a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle. There was no turning back to how things were before. I also felt very guilty – seeing your mother cry is never easy”.
“I thought they would really struggle with it on account of their traditional views and being good Catholics, and I’m sure they did. Deep down I hoped they would find a way to deal with it as they are also incredibly good people. I very quickly received a letter from my father in response to the one I left for him which was very supportive.”
Had anything prepared this family for the challenges that coming out brings?
Tony explains: “We weren’t equipped at all, having been conditioned by society and the official position of our church, and the prejudice promoted by anyone and everyone in authority”.
“We love our boy Jeremy, and told ourselves he was still the same person after telling us, but we were very challenged by community opinion relating to gays and lesbians, but there were some surprising exceptions.
“Luckily for us, our parish priest (being ‘pastoral’) was not constricted by the institutional church. He recommended we speak with another family from out of town who were experiencing the same situation. I clearly remember thinking ‘why would I want to speak to this farming family about this topic?’,” Tony recalls. “How wrong I was!”
“Well, we all leaned on each other, for support, during those first months. It was a relief to find that we were not the only family experiencing such a significant challenge to our beliefs, and the values of what a ‘normal’ family is.
“As we were all Catholic, we used to joke that ‘only Catholics had gay children’. Our initial journey was challenged by Vatican teachings of prejudice and discrimination. Yet in 1994, our local church brought (then Father) Paul O’Shea to Bathurst for World AIDS Day to conduct a workshop in an attempt to counter homophobia.
“As a result of this, and with encouragement from our parish Priest, a meeting on March 14th, 1995, considered the establishment of a support group. Contact was made with PFLAG (‘Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays’) in Sydney, and one month later eight people met for the inaugural meeting of PFLAG Bathurst. This was the first rural Australian PFLAG group.”
PFLAG groups worldwide have become the life blood for families and communities seeking to stay together through the coming out process and beyond, but outside cities they often struggle against localised negativity and ignorance.
Tony describes one of he and Bern’s greatest challenges: “To eventually be open with our family and friends, while honouring Jeremy’s trust and privacy”.
“Even now PFLAG is not very prominent in the wider community, especially in rural regions. It began in 1972 in America. Perth, around 1989, had the first PFLAG group in Australia, followed by Melbourne, then Sydney and Brisbane. We are the most westerly group in NSW, though we have tried to get groups going in Dubbo, Broken Hill and Mildura/Dareton.
“Homosexual issues don’t challenge us at all anymore, but we still encounter homophobic comments, even from friends. We are distressed when PFLAG brochures we display in our Catholic cathedral are removed and destroyed by fanatic parishioners, even though we are encouraged to place them there by clergy.
“The wider community are basically ignorant of the true facts about same-sex attraction. They take the lazy path of believing what shock jocks and prejudiced religious literalists promote as ‘gospel’, instead of informing themselves from reliable, accurate and up-to-date material. Jeremy has done us a great service in forcing us to re-evaluate our attitudes to numerous issues in our society. We believe we have become better people as a result.”
Jeremy is very proud of how far his parents have come with PFLAG: “My parents have always liked getting involved, whether it’s the local school, the church, and environmental groups. I even recall going to a peace rally with them once. I think they really like being able to help other parents when they first discover they have a gay child.”
And the journey continues, with all the Suttons getting behind the push for Marriage Equality in Australia.
“We don’t think that ten per cent of society should be denied what the other ninety per cent receive,” Tony says. “They weren’t born gay just so that the ninety per cent majority would have a group to marginalise and allow themselves to feel superior to. They want their committed relationships acknowledged, just like heterosexuals.”
Jeremy agrees: “While a lot of discrimination against gay people has been removed, the fact some still remains gives some people a basis for their prejudices, and gives young gay people another reason to feel inferior or that there is something wrong with being gay. I think everyone knows that one day we will look back at this period with amazement that gay marriage was not legal, the same way we look back at amazement that women once were not allowed to vote.”
Anne Sutton (a primary school teacher living in Victoria) says: “It is ridiculous in such a modern multicultural society that we are still against such a simple thing as two people of the same-sex being joined together in marriage.”
The last of the immediate Sutton family to know about her brother’s sexuality, Anne felt less need for PFLAG. “Since leaving Bathurst I have lived in cities which have had an accepting nature towards gay and lesbian individuals. I think that we have been brought up in a generation which is accepting of homosexuality and has not felt the need for support or to formally offer that support to anyone else.”
From the perspective of his generation, Tony says: “PFLAG is still needed in rural and isolated areas. Communities in these regions can tend to be more conservative, and less tolerant of difference. Rural youth suicide undoubtedly has an element of homosexual despair – no one can ever know to what degree.”
Tony and Bern continue to spread the PFLAG message throughout rural mental health networks, but the results are often frustrating. “Where services are founded on a Christian platform, we often see a typical institutional religious prejudice. The lack of response on this issue can be very disappointing,” Tony says.
“Even when same-sex marriage is approved, PFLAG will still be needed. Parents will experience a range of emotions when they first hear news that their son or daughter is gay or lesbian. Support will still be sought and supplied by PFLAG.
“During Jeremy’s adolescence relations between him I were rather strained most of the time,” Tony recalls. “Following our acceptance of his sexuality, things have never been better. It’s great!”
PFLAG Central Tablelands (Bathurst) 6331 7267 or 0407 336 020.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.