Tag Archives: LGBT

Homophobia for the holidays

Spending time with family over Christmas and New Year can be a challenge for anyone, but journalist and author Michael Burge explains how his first collection of short stories grew in the fertile ground of familial homophobia.

WHEN I began writing fiction, I didn’t understand at first that the theme I was really exploring was homophobia.

“I hope I have captured the blatancy of homophobia, but also its subtlety.”

After years of churning out scripts in the corporate world, which was not sustaining me in any kind of career, I decided to turn my hand to short stories. Over the course of about ten weeks in late 2009, I started writing fiction like a demon, and the stories took shape with a range of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) protagonists, the likes of which I never imagined I could create.

As a reader, I had rarely encountered gay characters. I wanted to read a lot more of them, but part of me realised they weren’t really to be found widely in mainstream literature. I needed to create them myself.

About halfway through writing the cycle of stories I recently published as Closet His, Closet Hers I took a step back from the writing process to analyse the world of my characters. What startled me was seeing the range of Australian families I had created, and the LGBTI who inhabited them.

The title story is an account of a deeply-closeted gay man who marries a woman he went to school with, told from his perspective and from hers. To make that story credible, I needed to create two families with a past firmly rooted in the Australian suburbs, into which the main character’s homosexuality arrives out of nowhere.

While there’s not much overt homophobia in this story, the potential for it hangs on every plot point. It creates a pathway for the young man, who first realises his homosexuality at school Bible camp; but it also carves out the future of the young woman he marries, whose sexual world is no less restricted than his.

I’ve had my homophobia ‘radar’ set on high ever since I was almost completely disenfranchised after my partner died, and I believe it would surprise most people to see what a strong thread of prejudice runs through families, creating expectations for LGBTI and disappointments for their loved ones, who have not traditionally been prepared for homosexuality in their ranks.

But times are changing. In the 1990s, the media picked up on the ‘gay gene’ theory which was debunked by many as scientific fantasy and championed by others as proof that sexual orientation is not a choice. More than twenty years on, I have been part of many family discussions, particularly when multiple generations are gathered for Christmas, about how prevalent homosexuality is within the same family trees. Although the very idea of a gay gene offends people on both sides of the debate, these talks go a long way towards easing the feeling many parents have about what they fear was ‘bad parenting’ resulting in them ‘turning’ their children gay.

We’ve also seen great change in the Australian community, to the point that polling reveals a massive majority for marriage equality in this country.

I’d like to believe this means there is less homophobia within families, but I am not so sure. Homophobia takes many forms, not just overt violence against LGBTI. Much of it can remain hidden, taking the form of ridicule and exclusion. At its worst, ‘invisible’ homophobia leaves LGBTI out of processes that are routinely granted to our straight siblings and cousins.

I have a friend who recently came out to her family. She’s in a loving, committed relationship, but her partner is not welcome at the family Christmas event because her parents have a problem with her sexuality. LGBTI in this position are forced to choose between loved ones, meaning someone is always going to lose in the end. It’s this sense of isolation I have worked to express in Closet His, Closet Hers.

Many parents don’t really have a problem with their kids being LGBTI as such, but their homophobia appears when their sons and daughters manifest relationships.

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The stories in Closet His, Closet Hers illustrate this kind of prejudice. All the Worst Jobs is the story of a lesbian care worker, Jessie, who is outed by the older woman she showers every morning. The risk for Jessie immediately increases at this point, since she relies on the income yet walks the knife edge with her client, who seems to hold all the cards.

Multi-generational relationships are portrayed in They’re Curing All Sorts of Things Now, in which a grandmother’s advancing dementia is played out over the occasion her grandson comes out to her.

One of the most poignant stories, for me, is Dirty Nurse. Many years ago, I was told about an act of great heroism shown to the LGBTI community during the unfolding HIV-AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and I was keen to write about it, but I wanted to add to the tension by imagining how things would play out if this career nurse was gay herself.

Most of the stories in Closet His, Closet Hers are set slightly in the past, and while I acknowledge that things are very different for many LGBTI growing up now, I think it’s relevant to look back and record the emotional journeys taken by my generation.

Ours was the era during which homosexuality was decriminalised, and when HIV-AIDS ripped a hole through our communities and families. They were profoundly frightening times for young LGBTI and led to many of us, myself included, coming out rather late compared to young people today.

I hope readers can take a level of comfort from my stories, in knowing that times have changed, and that the work inspires them to make different choices when it comes to the LGBTI in their midst.

I don’t imagine many gay family members want special treatment at family gatherings such as Christmas lunch, but nor would we want to be made to feel somehow different, which occurs in a couple of the scenes I portray in Closet His, Closet Hers.

I hope I have captured the blatancy of homophobia, but also its subtlety. It can be a very discreet phenomenon.

Michael’s debut memoir ‘Questionable Deeds: Making a stand for equal love’ became an Amazon bestseller. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Navigating prejudice – Matthew Flinders

HELLO, SAILOR! Navigator Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)
HELLO, SAILOR! Navigator Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)

SPECULATION about the sexual orientation of iconic English seaman Matthew Flinders rose like a colourful maritime flag over a decade ago when previously unknown letters surfaced, including emotionally charged passages written by Flinders to fellow explorer George Bass.

In his 2007 Meanjin article “Exploring love: did they or didn’t they?” historian Garry Wotherspoon asserted: “If the excerpts from Flinders’ letter to Bass had been written to a person of the opposite sex, we would be in little doubt as to what sort of relationship it was or what kinds of hope and expectation it had once contained”.

“It’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.”

“We would probably even confidently presume a sexual component in it, a basis in physical feelings if not actions. The possibility of a physical side to or a sexual element in Bass and Flinders’ relationship should therefore be acknowledged and considered.”

In the years since, little acknowledgement or consideration has been given to the sexuality of either man.

Historians are invariably baffled by Flinders in particular. Many of his extraordinary reactions lead them to describe such moments as out-of-character; but for anyone genuinely wanting to understand him, it’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.

Both Lincolnshire-born, Bass and Flinders met on a voyage to Australia in 1795 onboard the HMS Reliance. Once in the new colony, the two made a series of expeditions together. First it was short trips along waterways close to Port Jackson. Eventually, onboard the Norfolk, they circumnavigated Tasmania.

It’s tempting to paint all kinds of Brokeback Mountain-style possibilities for two unmarried men isolated on vessels in far-flung locations.

“There was a time, when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me any degree of pleasure …” Flinders wrote to Bass towards the end of this period, “And yet it is not clear to me that I love you entirely …”

Both men returned to England on separate ships in 1800 – the year of Flinders’ ‘love’ letter – and were married within six months of one another.

Bass soon left on a trading mission to the southern hemisphere in January 1801, leaving Flinders’ letter at home, where Mrs Bass – Elizabeth – had plenty of time to consider its contents and form the response she penned onto the letter itself.

“This, George, is written by a man who bears a bad character … no one has seen this letter but I could tell you many things that makes me dislike him,” she wrote.

HMS sloop Investigator.
MARRIAGE VESSEL HMS sloop Investigator.

Her warning was given during a major turning point in Flinders’ life.

He shocked his friends and family by responding to a suggestion of marriage from a friend, Ann Chapelle, who he’d discouraged in previous letters.

Then he went so far as to invite her to return to Australia with him, keeping the reality of the Admiralty’s strict rules on wives from her until she was forced to get her things off the HMS Investigator and let him embark.

What the speed and the controversy of the marriage achieved was widespread gossip within the Admiralty and his circle that painted Flinders as a fervently married man.

Any Brokeback-style expeditions were off the cards in the following years for Bass and Flinders, whose paths did not cross again. Bass captained the Venus on trading jobs to New Zealand and Tahiti, while Flinders completed the first circumnavigation of Australia.

By the time the Investigator docked in Sydney in 1803, Bass had departed on the Venus bound for Tahiti and South America on a voyage for which there remains no known end – the ship and her crew all disappeared completely.

Flinders also had problems returning to his wife, when, in December 1803, he was arrested on the island of Mauritius, a French-held colony.

Much has been made of Flinders’ seven-year imprisonment at the order of Mauritian Governor Charles Decaen. The records revolve around spying accusations against Flinders and his incorrect passport, understandable concerns considering the English and the French were at war.

But what if homophobic whispers had pursued Flinders to the southern hemisphere? 

French Captain Nicolas Baudin.
CORDIAL CAPTAIN Nicolas Baudin in 1801. (Engraving from a portrait by Joseph Jauffret)

By the time Flinders limped into Mauritius in his damaged schooner the Cumberland, Decaen had heard of Monsieur “Flandaire”, probably from French captain Nicolas Baudin.

Baudin and Flinders had two previous encounters onboard Baudin’s ship, the Géographe, off the coast of southern Australia in early 1802.

After much flag-raising and shouting, when Flinders pulled the Investigator next to Baudin’s vessel and boarded, the men had the stilted, competitive discussion about charts and landmarks that has become folklore in the maritime history of both nations.

Researchers Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby had another look at the accounts of the Flinders-Baudin meetings in their 2005 essay A Cordial Encounter?

“Certain discrepancies between the accounts of the two captains are difficult to explain,” they wrote. “These have generally been attributed to communication difficulties between the French navigator and his English-speaking counterpart”.

“We do know Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will.”

“This assumption, however, is far from self-evident. We have thus chosen to canvass the full range of possible explanations for the conflicting accounts of that meeting, including the hypothesis that Flinders, who is generally considered a reliable witness, may indeed have misrepresented his encounter with Baudin.”

But the one possibility they neglected was that Nicolas Baudin knew a homosexual when he saw one.

Eleven years prior to this encounter, the French Revolution recognised the existence of homosexuality when it left consensual, private sexual relations between two men out of the French Penal Code of 1791 (and again in 1810).

Before this, gay men could be burned at the stake if caught in sexual acts. As a consequence of the change, they were generally free to be themselves in public.

Compare that with Flinders’ place of birth, where, at the time of his meeting with Baudin, Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 still listed sodomy as a hanging crime. Consequently, writing love letters would only have been for the extremely courageous.

Baudin arrived in Mauritius, and died there of tuberculosis, just months before Flinders’ incarceration. Its doesn’t require a great leap to imagine him describing Flinders to Decaen as “pédéraste pétulant” instead of “un navigateur qualifiés”.

We do know Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will, from letters the French Governor received from the explorer.

Decaen requested Flinders dine with he and his wife on the second day of Flinder’s detention. Flinders, who’d refused to remove his hat when he met the Governor, declined the olive branch and kept to his prison room dusting-off more missives.

His responses were so stinging that the Governor never repeated his invitation and kept this bird in a cage for a further seven years. 

The cage wasn’t entirely austere for Flinders – trips to the theatre and stays with local aristocrats, and parole for extended periods, took place in a civilised French colonial society which tolerated any gay rumours and allowed him to pass the time writing.

But Decaen maintained his personal control over Flinders’ detention, even contravening Napoleon’s 1806 directive to free the Englishman. The Governor’s excuse was the kind of blanket term used to beleaguer Oscar Wilde: Flinders was dangerous.

After his release and return to England in 1810, where he continued writing on his many groundbreaking explorations, Flinders’ ill health brought about his untimely death at the age of forty.

PLUCK COVER copyYet his remarkable achievements resulted in inexplicable omission from the ranks of the Royal Society, the Admiralty’s old boys’ club that may, like Baudin, Decaen and Mrs Bass before them, have suspected the truth.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded