Tag Archives: Homophobia

Apology from a school bully

HOMOPHOBIC BULLYING has long-lasting impacts on perpetrator and victim.

A Writer’s reply to a childhood persecutor.

THERE must be something in the planets, because this week I was contacted out of the blue on social media by two bullies from my past.

One of them – a family friend in her sixties – is an educated, well-spoken, active-in-the-community, serial bully. She contacted me to get at her daughter, who she’s created devastating conflict with, but all she got was a reminder of her unfinished business with me.

The other is a man I went to school with.

Unlike my family friend, he made an unreserved apology for bullying me at school, some 30 years ago.

“I am a white, middle class, heterosexual male, who, for no other reason than the lottery of my birth, has never had to deal with discrimination,” he wrote.

“I want to be part of the change, part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”

“All l can do is try to imagine what it would be like to deal with fools like me and their behaviour.

“Growing up, dealing with parents and high school, and puberty, and relationships, while also trying to find out where you fit in amongst it all of it was tough.

“Tough enough without also having to deal with the added layers of ridicule, judgment and misunderstanding.

“I apologise for bullying you, I apologise for ridiculing you, I am sorry for all of the ways I disregarded your feelings and failed to consider your emotional wellbeing.”

Revealing stuff. He asked me for feedback, so here’s what I wrote in reply …

Dear (name deleted),

I am a little cynical about your letter. So often I engaged in conversations with boys in our class, only to find your invitation was really a cruel trap with a bullying sting at the end. Your approach to me now could well be a case of the ‘little boy who cried poof’.

Your particular behaviour was more a sneering from the sidelines of the main bullying action, although I remember one occasion when you openly shamed me about my sexual orientation in front of an entire classroom of people, and I retreated in shock.

That sort of thing definitely contributed to me staying closeted until I was 28, by which time one of my parents had died before I had the courage to come out to her. That’s an irreversible regret I carry.

There is no doubt you remember my mother – she was one of the most active parents at our school, and you benefitted from her contributions.

OKAY TO BE GAY Front cover of the Sydney Star Observer when men could no longer be arrested for sex with men.
OKAY TO BE GAY Front cover of the Sydney Star Observer after men could no longer be arrested for sex with men, in 1984.

My family had survived death and divorce by that time, and the community I lived in, primarily made up of school families, led me to believe that my sexuality was only going to deliver more bad news.

What a fool I was to buy into all your fears.

During our high school years, homosexuality in NSW was decriminalised.

Even though your behaviour was wrong, it was sanctioned by the state and the establishment at a private Anglican school. You and your mates were only responding to society’s pressure to shame and ridicule same-sex attracted people, but it’s great to see you’re not still letting yourself off the hook.

Truth is, our school had as many homosexuals as there were homophobes – staff and students in all years, male and female. The gay staff members were particularly vulnerable to sacking without cause, and still are, so when you were throwing around your accusations, alarm bells would have been ringing deep down for many.

Hopefully you agree that to toy with that bell is a power no child should ever have.

“Bullying children should never have power over gay people.”

If I’d been a smaller person you might now be regretting physically abusing me, but because I grew to the size I am now at the age of 15, none of you ever had the guts to approach me with the kind of abuse many other gay boys endure from their classmates. Even an awkward blow from me would have landed unpredictably and heavily.

You didn’t always succeed in shaming me.  I clearly remember with great delight the day on which I turned the tables on you.

We were playing indoor cricket and I was selected to bowl with you at the crease. Your assumptions about a gay bowler saw you step forward expecting to knock the ball to the ceiling. Instead, it snuck straight under your triumphant pose and knocked the stumps over with a clatter.

The PE teacher gave me a validating look, while you had no choice but to walk to the sidelines, where your attitude belonged.

Team sport… it has its uses.

My other strong memory of you was the day you brought a cassette into English class – Cold Chisel’s “Khe Sanh” – and you asked the teacher if you could play it for us all. She agreed, sensing it was important to you, and you unabashedly sat at the front moving your head and drumming your hand on your desk.

What drew my attention was your affinity with the song and its message, and the shame-free way you claimed your right to self-expression.

I accept your apology because unconditionally offered amends are the very rarest, and you seem to ‘get’ that if I had played a song that moved me in front of our class, the outcome would have been very different.

SMALLTOWN BOYS British Synth Pop band Bronksi Beat.
SMALLTOWN BOYS British Synth Pop band Bronksi Beat.

My choice would have been Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”.

Have a listen to the lyrics one day and you’ll find some insights. The song laid out the options for growing men as starkly as Jimmy Barnes did for you.

In the 27 years since we left school I have tackled more discrimination than you can possibly imagine. Not the predictable gay bashing crimes, or the puerile name calling, but the far more subtle disenfranchisement that underpins the last frontier in same-sex equality.

I would like you to do one thing, if, as you wrote, you really seek to be part of the solution to homophobia.

Find out where your federal member sits on the issue of marriage equality through the Australian Marriage Equality website, and, regardless of what you find, write to them.

Congratulate them if they publicly support same-sex marriage – they’ll need courage from their constituents to enact change in the small window of opportunity we have to achieve this human right during the current parliament.

And if they don’t, please tell them why you now support the equality that will deliver the greatest message to school children about gay people.

That our love is equal to yours in every way.

And that bullying children should never have power over gay people.

If you do this, I’d love to see a copy of it on your Facebook wall. I’ll know when to have a look when you send me a friend request.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

I have a man here who won’t take off his hat

HATS OFF or else, in some parts of the world.
HATS OFF or else, in some parts of the world.

A Writer’s encounter with the Catholic faith.

FROM the shade of Bodhi yum-cha restaurant we could see the steeples of St Mary’s Cathedral rising above the bustling lunchtime streets of Sydney.

It was Richard’s birthday, so it was up to him where we spent our city day trip. He’d expressed an interest in going to the Australian Museum, just along the road, but the thought of the cool air inside the cathedral beckoned us both.

I’d also wanted to show Richard the reproduction marble of Michelangelo’s heartfelt Pietà sculpture of Mary and the dead Jesus in her lap, which I’d last seen on a school excursion.

That idea sealed the deal, so we paid for our meal and ascended the steps in the heat of a late summer Sydney day.

“I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.”

I spotted the ‘no photography’ sign at the last-minute, and the memory of numerous cathedral visits in Europe made me think of removing my hat. But there was no sign, and a flock of tourists in hats beyond the threshold, so I shrugged and left my cap on.

The darkness and temperature drop was immediate, as was the sense of calm away from the traffic and crowds. Richard disappeared towards a set of stunning brass gates, as we started our respectful, slow search for the sculpture.

We were soon separated by another crowd of tourists, and I waited in the half-dark by the gates until they passed.

By a door on the eastern side of the nave, I saw a sad sight: an old man, slumped pitifully against a pew, wisps of hair lifted by the breeze. A homeless man, perhaps, or someone so down on his luck that only time in this place of worship could restore him?

His demeanour was so compelling that I turned away, because looking seemed an imposition.

But as I went to move, a sudden jabbing drove into my shoulder from behind.

I turned in shock as a security guard said to me, breaking the calm: “Remove your hat!”

CATHOLIC GROUND Interior of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney.
CATHOLIC GROUND Interior of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney.

In a bit of shock, I paused, looked at the tourists near me, some of whom had heard the guard, and said: “I will, in a moment,” and turned to find my husband.

“You will remove it now,” the guard said, loudly, “hats are not allowed in the cathedral!”

I turned, looked at the be-hatted tourists, and said: “I will remove my hat, when you ask them to remove theirs.”

I moved off quickly and heard him muttering at my heels. Adrenalin rushed through me, the result of the sudden physical attack on my shoulder, and something about the guard’s attitude towards me in particular.

When I caught up with Richard, his hat in his hand, I ascertained that the original request had been made to him. The guard caught up with us and repeated his demand.

I refused, and repeated my request for hat-removal equality in the cathedral, adding that I would be more than happy to remove my head covering when the same demand had been made of all the visitors.

“Women are allowed,” he snapped, thinking he’d snookered me.

I looked at the group again. Women and men, many of both, wearing hats, a point which I assertively made to the guard, before I turned away and determined to find the Michelangelo reproduction.

His unmistakable footsteps came after me, so I did the first thing that came into my head. Inspired by George Emerson in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, who, when harassed in Santa Croce, slumped to his knees in a position of prayer, I slid onto the cool marble floor and put my hands together.

Richard chortled.

The guard stopped, tutted, and waited. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. We were in a waiting game I’d need to play to its end if I was going to stay prone, so I took my time, finished my ‘prayer’ and stood, before calmly resuming my search.

“I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was.”

My tactic got him off my back, although he kept his distance and tried a new one of his own. He reached for his mobile phone and punched numbers into it as clumsily and implausibly as a comedian would, and said: “Hello? Is that the police? Yes, I have a man here who won’t take off his hat!”

Suppressing laughter, I told him I’d give him a Logie for that performance, and we did a dance of barely controlled energy all the way back to where Richard and I had arrived, my hat firmly in place all the way.

As I left, I turned and saw the guard attempt a dreadful impersonation of a poof. Limp wrist, hand on hip, and a lisped farewell: “Bye-bye, see you laytaaa!”

I laughed. I’d impersonated a devout catholic, so fair cop that he did his best impersonation of what he thought I was, but when I told my husband outside, Richard stormed back in and demanded the guy’s name.

Holding his hand over his badge, he began a tirade that did not end until we were both ejected through the door onto the steps, the place where thousands, perhaps millions of those in need had sought help from the church: at their door.

Adding to the surrealism of the moment, the poor soul I’d taken pity on by the eastern door came over and joined in the very loud rant about respect, hats, and who gets to wear one and who doesn’t on hallowed catholic ground, saying we could do what we liked in the world, but in the cathedral, it’s their rules. All of it avoided the reality that surrounded us: many men with covered heads, going into the church unmolested.

We were spat out, rejected and thoroughly repelled, but none of it was really about my hat.

As we descended the steps, the Museum in our sights, I asked Richard if he still wanted to go there.

“No, I’ve had enough of antiquities for one day.”


We went shopping instead, and within minutes I’d worked out why the incident had happened.

Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which has taken place annually on the doorstep of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney’s gay heartland – Darlinghurst – was in its final days.

I’d read years before that LGBTIQ catholics from around the world make a point of visiting the cathedral and visibly asking for confession and communion as a form of protest.

Thus the security guards, who, I hasten to add, have very delicate gaydar sensor settings indeed. Richard and I had not held hands or been in remotely close proximity while in the cathedral, but, like most gay men, we have a kind of ‘uniform’ when it comes to clothing.

CREATING WAVESWe wear hats because we’re both rather bald, but the classic baseball cap (as opposed to the truckers’) is probably a bit of a giveaway for security in a Darlinghurst cathedral.

I’ve never been so quickly labelled as gay without opening my mouth.

And I’ve never so mistakenly labelled a soul in ‘need’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics

Human rights of reply

FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION Andreas Ohm and Jim Woulfe, Michelle McCormack and Lynne Martin with son Tom, Michael Burge, Maria Vidal and Susan Everingham with daughter Antonia, and Jiro Takamisawa. (Photo: Sahlan Hayes).
FIGHTING DISCRIMINATION Andreas Ohm and Jim Woulfe, Michelle McCormack and Lynne Martin with son Tom, Michael Burge, Maria Vidal and Susan Everingham with daughter Antonia, and Jiro Takamisawa.
(Photo: Sahlan Hayes).

A Writer discovers his voice.

SOMEONE once said: “Don’t get mad, get even”, which must have been on my counsellor’s mind when he suggested something towards the end of my two years of grief counselling after the death of my partner, Jono.

The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), now the Human Rights Commission, were looking for people to make submissions to illustrate various aspects of their Same Sex: Same Entitlements investigation into financial discrimination against same-sex couples in Australia.

“Why not think about writing your experiences?” he put to me.

I said I’d think about it, although my first thought was that my experiences were somehow not relevant. Then I thought deeper.

The death of my partner, with whom I cohabited, ran a business, and had joint financial affairs, had cost me dearly emotionally, but it had also cost me economically.

Unlike straight people in my situation, Centrelink did not recognise the validity of my relationship in any way. I was unable to claim any kind of support linked to my grief or my monetary losses when I had to move house three times in one year, and take time off work.

Centrelink staff had been quite defensive about their organisation’s shortcomings, and told me to apply for Newstart (Newspeak for ‘the dole’) which came with the requirement to be seen to be seeking work and attending mind-numbing ‘how to write a resume’ courses.

I’d taken things into my own hands and gotten a part-time job in aged care, which I happily did for a few months until my car blew a gasket, and needed thousands of dollars for a new engine. I sold it as scrap, had to quit my job (for which I needed a car), and proceeded to hunker down in my cheap accommodation, a granny flat, until I had to move because the property was sold.

I headed back to Sydney and city rent, and tried to speed up my application for Jono’s superannuation, which was slowed by the machinations of his family. They threatened to apply for it in its entirety, then didn’t apply for it at all. None of them were in any way financially dependent on Jono when he died, so none of them were eligible.

I was, but, thanks to all the unwelcome nonsense, it was months before Jono’s super fund could simply do what the law required of them and send me a cheque.

I endured financial discrimination because my country had nothing for me by way of support. What was slightly galling was that certain demographics – straight divorcees over the age of 50, for example – were allowed to access the ‘widow’s pension’ automatically. No job-seeking or resume classes for them.

Me, a genuine widow, could get nothing.

ACTU-Worksite-Australian-Human-Rights-CommissionI didn’t feel like entering into a sob story, but when I contacted HREOC, they encouraged me to submit a written document on these experiences, because they had not received any accounts of people in my particular position, and many of the unequal laws applied to the circumstances of being widowed.

Like my affidavit to the Supreme Court of NSW, my submission to HREOC was easy to put together. They have strict guidelines, I couldn’t just cry: “It wasn’t fair!” and let them sort it out, I had to show where I fell between the cracks because I had lived in a same-sex de-facto relationship.

Part of the deal was the delivery of a live submission to the Commission, and a willingness to submit to media interviews afterwards. I agreed without thinking, because, when the day came, I had a plan to follow the contents of my written submission, but completely overlooked the possibility that emotions would take over.

I watched as other gay and lesbian people expressed their experiences, and, when my turn came, I forced my story out from beneath an aching heart.

Expressing the inexpressible about death is one thing. Defining negative behaviour by other people around that death is another. I struggled my way through my submission, masking hurt with the kind of plosives that hit the microphone with the cut-glass anger that is entirely suitable for such occasions.

As I exited the hearing I forgot about the media, and had more microphones shoved in my face to elaborate further. The interviews went live at midday, and many of my family and friends, and my counsellor, heard me explain the disenfranchisement to a State that finally seemed to be listening.

report_coverAdele Horin, formerly of Fairfax Media, interviewed me at length on the phone after my HREOC submission, for an article which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

It took her a few attempts to fully understand my position, and with hindsight I understood her difficulty was the same obstacle that many people encountered when coming to terms with my experience, because they simply could not understand why Jono’s mother and brother would do what they did, it was such an aberration.

In the end, I suggested she ask them directly for their reasons, to secure the ultimate right of reply, although I suggested she’d need to be tactful – their son and brother had died, after all, and the illegal actions they’d taken made them vulnerable to heavy fines and/or jail terms, had anyone really wanted to “get even”.

Somewhere in her research, Horin came to realise that my experience went way beyond financial discrimination and spoke to one of the final frontiers of same-sex equality in this country: marriage.

The last twelve months of the Howard government needed to pass before anyone in power was willing to read the Same Sex: Same Entitlements report.

So it was with great delight that many in the LGBTI community watched 11 years of conservative government swept away by KevinO7 and the ALP, who’d made the implementation of the Same Sex: Same Entitlements recommendations an election promise, and finally altered almost 100 pieces of discriminatory federal legislation in 2009.

The fight for full equality continues.

Michael’s story is published as Questionable Deeds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.