Category Archives: LGBTIQ Equality

Writing my way out of the closet

GAY MESSIAH Graham Chapman in Monty Python's The Life of Brian.
GAY MESSIAH Graham Chapman in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.

A Writer finally comes out.

THE late great Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman was the inspiration for my coming out.

In the year that homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, he famously hosted a party for all his friends, introduced them to his male partner, then got on with his life.

The news didn’t reach our small town until long after my homophobic brother and his poofter-hating mates had come to revere Chapman and his cohorts as the best thing on their TV screens, but it was a great affirmation for me to discover that the Python’s camp humour had its roots in a living, breathing homosexual.

“Stony silence stretched out in many cases to more than a week.”

I wanted to find a similar way to tell everyone myself and thought seriously about hosting a coming out party at my very first house in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. But it became apparent very quickly that there was no way I’d get everyone I knew and loved in the same place at the same time – they had far too many ‘issues’.

A few very close friends, and my sister Jen, already knew. I’d told them in person after going through much angst.

I have always been much better at expressing myself in writing than any other form of communication anyway, so I embarked on writing to everyone in my life. Not just a few people, but everyone – I drew no line in the sand for my sake, or theirs.

The first step was to find a beautiful book of postcards, and I was attracted to a lovely set by Asian master print-makers. I took my time and wrote that I had come to terms with my sexuality, sharing the good news that this had given me a much-needed dose of personal happiness.

When the writing task was complete, I determined that I’d walk to the local post office, buy enough stamps for well over 100 postcards, and simply post my future out to the world.

It proved to be one of the longest walks in my life.

Katoomba is a very small community, and as luck would have it I met many people I knew along the way, some of them what I’ll call ‘Difficult Cases’ – people for whom my postcard news was going to come as something of a challenge.

I endured their meaningless chit-chat, and just internalised my resolve to keep going to the post box, through which I was convinced freedom from the closet was only days away.

The first phone call came from my cousin, whose instant, unquestioning support spoke volumes of acceptance. Great start.

Two family friends turned up. Over cups of tea this support lessened a little when the inevitable “I already knew” crept into the conversation.

If they already knew, why hadn’t they had enough courage to be inclusive when they’d asked, quite regularly, did I “have a girlfriend?” by adding just three words to that question, “or a boyfriend?”

REACHING OUT Coming to terms with sexuality is an internal journey.
REACHING OUT Coming to terms with sexuality is a journey out of oneself.

Stony silence stretched out in many cases to more than a week, followed by stilted phone conversations in which people forced themselves to utter what they thought they should say.

Some Difficult Cases needed a little encouragement, so I went to see them. One crossed the street when he saw me. One broached the subject with a weird question: “Why do all lesbians hate men?” as though I’d know the answer even if such an ignorant assertion were remotely true. One looked startled when I passed her at the supermarket, her face not altering as I smiled, made eye contact, said “hello,” and kept going, since obviously she had a problem.

One assumed my postcard was a suicide letter. Another misread the words “I am gay,” thinking I’d written “I am angry”. What can you do?

“I am gay too,” was an interesting response, from the married father of two. That was out of the blue!

But it wasn’t all bad or weird: “Got your lovely postcard,” said dear Sal, mentor, friend, superwoman and strong out lesbian who’d long inspired me.

And the phone call from my grandmother, who said that she would help me find a cure, because: “They can fix all kinds of things these days, you know”.

“But I’m not sick grandma, I don’t need a cure,” I replied.

“Oh thank goodness,” she said, quick as a flash, her total belief in the way I felt about myself eclipsed generations of people in her wake.

At her 90th birthday a few months later, she raised her arms in delight when I arrived, enfolded me in a hug as the shouted: “You are so special!” so loudly that it echoed off the ranks of Difficult Cases in the family, standing in maudlin, silent rows. Priceless, unconditional acceptance.

With all the consummate skill of a country woman Grandma had hand-made clothes for my dolls when I was a toddler. She never questioned my behavior, or shamed me, she just joined in the fun and made a safe place for a young gay boy to play.

The overwhelming majority of my postcard’s recipients I never heard from again – close family friends, people I grew up with, people who were welcome in our home and accepted by our family in the face of their own ‘scandals’, people who had cried on my shoulder when I shared the intimate details about our mother, their friend, as she died. People who should have known a lot better by the accepting example that she set.

Some Difficult Cases hung in there for a while, but fell away in the wake of me manifesting my first gay relationship. For many people it’s okay if you’re gay and single (and lonely!) but bringing a partner into their home creates a challenge of “What do we tell the neighbours?” proportions, poor things.

For someone who was sent-off from his community with a mass of support, I certainly came home to a resounding rejection.

But growing up in that community had taught me to help others, so it was with a great sense of validation that I later heard about another coming out.

“I’ve done a Mike,” one young gay family friend said to his loved ones as he got real a few years after I did, at a much earlier stage in his life.

That was all I needed to hear that I’d done exactly the right thing, the Difficult Cases be damned.

To anyone who is closeted, my best advice is to love whoever you want. If anyone has the guts to ask you what your sexual orientation is, reward their courage by telling them your truth. Forget coming-out – it’s just society’s outmoded and unnecessarily pressure-filled way of working out who is ‘normal’ and who is (to quote The Life of Brian) a “very naughty boy”.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The thing about Britain

BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square.
BRITAIN AT WAR The 1990 poll tax riots in London’s Trafalgar Square.

TOWARDS the end of my second year working for United News and Media, the staff received news that our company was in the final stages of broad economic reforms that would cut right through the Farming Press office at Ipswich.

Signs of this began when an all-staff memorandum indicated that only one bottle of wine was permitted at business lunches, a message met with glee from people like us who worked at the fringes of this multinational company and had no idea we could even put wine on the company tab!

Perhaps it was our new-found business-lunch rights that finally tipped the company into financial free-fall? I doubt it, because it turned out the mechanics of change were underway years before my position was ever advertised.

By the end of 1997 the writing was on the wall. With no new employees since I’d started, I was faced with being ‘last on, first off’. So I took stock, decided it was time, for many reasons, to return to Australia, and accepted an offer of voluntary redundancy.

Having lived in a permanent state of debt for five years, my payout would be enough to buy a one-way ticket home and pay off my credit card. It was an easy decision to make.

NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.
NO SOCIETY LADY Baroness Thatcher on the newly opened M25 Motorway in 1986.

Being part of a folding company was the last in a long list of eye-opening experiences of living in Great Britain’s economy.

The late Baroness Thatcher made no secret of not believing in society, which seemed to stand in the way of her penchant for the free market.

Having landed first in Yorkshire and then South London, I experienced life first-hand in territories where Thatcherism had left its mark on formerly cohesive and supportive communities.

I would later say, with regularity, that everything I learnt about economics and politics I learnt from living in Britain, simply because I joined the ranks of everyday people trying to earn a living in the immediate post-Thatcher years.

Here are some other observations about Britain in the 1990s:-

No-one could afford a day out at the beach. In Australia we call this a human right, but in England day-trippers were faced with whopping public transport costs. Few people I knew could afford cars, but a one-way train ticket for the short trip to London from Ipswich was well over twenty pounds for one person. This was solely due to the privatisation of every possible segment of the railways – one company owned the carriage, another the rails, another the station, and they all wanted to profit from ticket sales. A similar journey in Australia still costs far less than half that, twenty years later.

When buying an electrical appliance, the cable cost extra. What better way to gouge a bit of extra profit than to make the mains cable of most electrical appliances a separate item the customer must buy to use the equipment?

The country was full of criminals. Speaking as a citizen of the nation invaded to set up the penal colony of New South Wales, I have to say the common sight of colleagues being marched out of the office by a pair of police officers says a lot about the British criminal disposition as opposed to the Australian. These were never ‘bad’ people, they were just trying to keep their family afloat in the economy. Every single company I worked for contained employees who were on the take, and I don’t just mean the toilet paper.

Many people were closeted. Perhaps it’s a case of like attracting like, but most men I became friends with in England turned out to be gay. From the married father of two to the tough-as-nails London busker, they all came tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out. It was an eye opener about the choices faced by the British male under the infamous Section 28 of Britain’s Local Government Act, which embedded disapproval of gay lifestyle and relationships into the country’s law. For a nation which had decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, this was a mean-spirited regulation which was seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

British food was crap. When you think about the proximity of Britain to the fresh produce of continental Europe, the lack of affordable nutritious food was a terrible side effect of euro-phobia and economic rationalism, and an indictment on the ‘Grocer’s Daughter’ who had contributed to the scarcity. The only ‘fresh’ fruit and veg I saw in my first month were lumpy potatoes, mouldy onions, and bunches of silverbeet, withered and pricey. Most people I knew ate everything out of tins, and ‘boil in the bag’ meals were the norm.

You could still sense the war. People would still queue uncomplainingly for things that were freely available in other western nations. Avoidable diseases were still common in England’s north, and childhood mortality was higher-than-average.

The tenant paid the council rates, not the landlord. Thatcher’s infamous poll tax was well and truly in place when I became a renter in London, and my Yorkshire flatmates showed me the clever ways their parents taught them to avoid the payment as long as was possible. Often, it was the catalyst for moving house.

No-one answered their front door. Due to avoiding paying the poll tax (see above) and the TV licensing charges (see below), I was always under strict instructions from every flatmate I ever had to never open the door to a knocking visitor in case it was someone coming to collect taxes. I was once fooled by the TV license man when he pretended he was delivering a parcel to the first floor flat I shared in Lewisham. He launched himself through the front door into the foyer, and I had to pretend I was a visiting friend who had no idea if the flat had a television or not. Luckily I had some acting training under my belt.

MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like scanner.
MEN IN SUITS The notorious TV License man and his Doctor Who-like ‘scanner’.

It cost a lot to watch the tele. A hefty annual television license fee comes with the pleasure of tuning in to the BBC, oh, and all the other channels who would appear to be doing quite well already with all the advertising revenue they’re getting from the endless commercials, of course. The jury is still out on whether the mysterious vans driving around Britain’s streets are capable of telling who is receiving a TV signal are real, or some kind of psychological warfare. It’s all very Doctor Who. Another reason to avoid answering the front door (see above).

This list is cursory and might seem glib. But it’s also true. I will always remember many colleagues in Britain who worked long hours for the same very low rate of pay I was on, only they had mouths to feed and backs to clothe. I don’t know how they did it, but most worked with a ready smile and by doing without luxuries that most people in Australia take completely for granted.

But I also recall how few of them thought it was worth getting off their backsides on election day and voting.

By May Day 1997 Tony Blair seemed determined to sweep away two decades of Thatcherism, convincing the nation of the merits of ‘New Labor’. I can remember where I was when I heard the news – working on location in the Yorkshire Dales. Never had I experienced such a sense of palpable hope and imminent change amongst the British as I did across that summer. Princess Diana’s death knocked most of that energy out of the British only a few short months later, but I witnessed the brief smile on the nation’s face.

Ever since I returned home I have been vocal about the P-word. Privatisation has not spread its destructive fingers into every Australian industry, yet. I know what an impact it will have on that day trip to the beach if public transport is ever extensively privatised in a nation where long distances are the norm.

I will be eternally grateful for the support I received to travel overseas in the first place, but ‘travel’ is a great distraction. Living and working in another country, for more than a stint fruit picking, is what I call an education.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

E. M. Forster – literature’s god of love

BARED IT ALL Edward Morgan Forster, 1911 portrait by Roger Fry.

A Writer’s first hero.

FROM the moment I saw the trailer for David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of his A Passage to India during an English class, I became a sucker for the literature of Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970).

I’d been ambivalent about the drab Penguin Modern Classics edition, but the sight of Judy Davis as Adela Quested, scrambling down the dry slopes of the Marabar Caves, bloodied by thorns, pith helmet rolling in her wake, dislodging rocks (and an ensuing British panic) gripped me into attention.

We had our toes dipped into the ideas of Bloomsbury and the racial overtones and class structure of Empire.

Merchant Ivory did the rest, with their iconic production of A Room with a View in 1985. Through their lens Forster’s English hypocrites and heroes came to life.

“Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.”

The icing on the cake was the word which I spied in the blurb of the edition of Maurice that my enthusiasm for Forster had garnered me at Christmas. The word, of course, was inescapable when describing that work.

I wonder now if it was the first time I ever saw the word in print? Only whispered around the schoolyard, it had, by that time, been uttered louder at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s.

But here, on the reverse of Forster’s posthumously published story of Maurice Hall and his gay sexual awakening, it brought a wave of validation.

I recall waiting for my family to register the word. Had my mother seen it when she purchased the book? Had my brother sneered about it when she gave it to him to wrap up for me?

When nobody mentioned “homosexual”, I took that as tacit approval.

I subsequently devoured all Forster’s novels. My favourite moment was starting Where Angels Fear to Tread when alighting my train to university, only to be flawed by a classic Forsterian-surprise-death before reaching the next station, just six minutes down the track. What great ignition for a story!

On summer holiday, during my first year in the United Kingdom, I came across a collection of Forster’s short stories at a hostel in Cornwall.

The inclement weather saw me feast on them, immediately hit by one in particular – Other Kingdom. The Irish Home Rule theme of this story went right over my head, but the gusto of the young Irish protagonist (Evelyn Beaumont), brought my consciousness to a standstill, while I tried to capture her, as did all the other characters in this shining example of Forster’s storytelling skill.

I agreed with Iris Murdoch, in that “I loved Miss Beaumont, because she bamboozled a pack of bores.”

Being a film school student, I had big plans. The biggest became my obsession to bring Other Kingdom to the screen.

I adapted it into an approved screenplay at the behest of the owners of Forster’s work (King’s College Cambridge) and tried for some years to tout it around the funding bodies, to no avail.

The central mystery of what happens to Evelyn Beaumont when she escapes from an ill-fated marriage into a dour English family could not be explained even by Forster himself, let alone by a potential screenwriter in a pitching session.

It wasn’t for another decade that I really understood my attraction to the story, when I realised a deep-seated wish for a solution just like Evelyn’s. I admired her escape in the light of my own need to find a way out of the life I was leading.

In the wake of my coming out, Forster continued to deliver. My second reading of Maurice brought the searing grief and triumph of his gay protagonists back to haunt my recovery from the death of my partner five years later, because Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder loved, no less ordinarily than any other couple.

Forster’s long-unpublished epilogue to Maurice was the heartbreaker. Anyone seeking to understand this novel should read Forster’s exploration of what happened to his characters, for it is no elemental conundrum like that of Miss Beaumont in Other Kingdom.

Forster’s trusted friends who read the drafts prior to 1933 suggested the epilogue be cut from the final manuscript, but I get the distinct impression they were baffled by Forster’s unsullied vision of Maurice and Alec happily ensconced as woodsmen, living rough, fused by the heart, and happy, despite their accidental discovery by Maurice’s unsettled sister Kitty.

Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.

Forster left as much written material about his childhood, his career, and his relationships as any biographer would ever need. Trouble is, few have used this resource – the ‘sexuality issue’ undoubtedly the main obstacle.

The finest work on Forster is Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History. This study has done more to debunk the myth of Forster as simply a class-conscious comic novelist who stopped writing in 1924, than anything which came before.

PERFECT PANIC Adela Quested (Judy Davis) flees in David Lean’s screen adaptation of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

Forster earns hero status from this writer for protecting his great love, policeman Bob Buckingham, from the criminal courts while he, Bob and Bob’s wife May lived-out a three-way relationship from 1930 until Forster’s death in 1970.

He earns it for politely, and with humour, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in positions of power and privilege in his literature.

He earns it for writing himself onto Hitler’s ‘hit list’ of authors with his WWII broadcasts exploring the axe of Nazism as it threatened to fall onto the neck of civilisation.

He earns it for not killing himself, despite as much cause for depression, isolation and marginalisation as Virginia Woolf cited.

He earns it for creating the archetype of the lusty English Gamekeeper. Long before D.H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors’ trysts with Lady Chatterley, Forster’s Alec Scudder hunted his way into Maurice Hall’s bed, and his heart.

And he earns it for diarising himself as he was, warts and all, and sometimes that meant writing about actual bodily warts.

For gay men, Forster’s humanist document on the entire life of a homosexual man will endure as a record of emerging and practical homosexuality which may well come to eclipse his novels.

E.M. Forster might not have physically embodied a Love God, but with his pen, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, he carved a place in history as a Titan who turned from the affairs of men and women, to those between men and men. His publishers must have hated him for it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.