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Small town black queer

Photograph of Daniel Browning as a child
Daniel as a child. Courtesy of Daniel Browning

Written by Daniel Browning.

You could say I grew up in a different place although geographically, I was raised on the Tweed. I knew I was different when I was seven. I knew my difference was something that could get me hurt such was the blatant, endemic homophobia that existed. As a child, you can perceive threat. Innocently, you care what others think. So I consciously set about denying myself, barely hiding my effulgent light under a flowery bushel. I can’t say that I knew exactly what my difference was, but I knew it was something to be ashamed of. I had three sisters and I played with dolls and dressed up. In our cubby houses at Fingal (we had marooned old campervans and the concrete slab of our old family home to play in). There I could pretty much do what I wanted, my sisters and female cousins never made me feel ashamed of who I was or who I pretended to be. I was protected by a rearing army of wild (and sedate) Black women, who didn’t know how to disown or abandon one of their own.

Look out dagai, they could lacerate you on the lids of their squinting eyes and break your sticks and stones with their fingernails.

Have you ever been spat on? In the way that you are nothing but filth - an object of disgust? A kid, the local toughie, saw me walking alone in South Tweed one day, probably in 1984. I’d just had a disagreement with one of my cousins and she’d walked off, crying softly. I don’t remember what we fought about. She was older and bigger than me, and didn’t back down from a fight. She had that magic ability my Mum always talked about - she knew how to stand up for herself. Anyway this tough kid and his mates rounded on me, throwing their bikes down and grabbing me. Toughie spat at me right in the face. As his saliva trickled down and my eyes started to well and sting my cousin turned the corner, raging like a bull. She bailed him up, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck. She boomed,

Don’t you touch my cousin.

That kid nearly shat himself. Fear and contrition stained his face.

My cousin wouldn’t always be there to protect me. My Mum always said you gotta learn to stick up for yourself. But she never quite explained how. You just gotta learn.

I’ve been on the receiving end of serious, recurrent physical and verbal abuse from complete strangers. Once at night on a ferry on the Brisbane River, I was ganged up on and almost thrown overboard. The violence spilled over on to the wharf. Try though they might, I wasn’t going into the water. On that occasion I invoked my drunk superpower.

I have been in a court room seeking restraining orders against a neighbour, who because we complained about the extreme domestic violence in his home, would slur drunkenly behind the common fence “asslicker”. Another time I was pulled by the hair on the street.

These encounters taught me one thing, for certain. The fear of unprovoked violence can be as debilitating as the violence itself.

Homophobic abuse is so basic that it constructs the mere homosexuality of its object – even the appearance of it - as an accelerant to its irrational fire. Humiliation is a strange thing; it depends on a critical mass of people who silently also harbour the same contempt. They regard the humiliated as entirely deserving of public shame.

To be gay was to be persecuted, to be tripped, to be muddied, to be picked last, to be ostracised and alone.

Photograph of birds flying
Courtesy of Daniel Browning.

I had one Aunty in particular who indulged me, who bought my fanciful otherworldly whitewashed drawings of unlimited rococo splendour and
suppressed rectilinear Victorian comfort,
of brimming flower beds and voluminous hoop skirts
and rigid white picket fences and enveloping lace curtains,
for fifty cents a piece.
In her deep brown eyes I could do no wrong.

The abuse got so much in high school that at one point my mum decided she would home-school me. I’d already experienced years of targeted and sustained homophobic abuse, and although one group of boys graduated to the next high school another group would soon take their place. What isn’t often talked about is how homophobic abuse and bullying has a homosocial aspect – to target an object of attack, a victim, actually creates bonds between the abusers, as they pour their contempt on a shared, common enemy. Collective violence is often gendered and fixed in a toxic masculinity that is so much part of the Australian character. But we can dismantle and reset the structure. King hit went coward punch.

Is bullying the national sport? Let’s face it - almost everyone gets bullied at some time or another, and our blithe acceptance of it as normal perpetuates it. At home, in the schoolyard, on the worksite, in the office. Our tolerance for this behaviour is herculean; it can’t even be considered to be anti-social, although it produces broken people, because it’s socially productive to create resilience, right?

If outright bullying and name-calling and homophobic abuse must be made invisible, say in a workplace, their more latent forms take over. These little, almost imperceptible versions of homophobia – these microaggressions - are daily, multiple and hard to measure precisely because they are hidden and slight.

They are glancing, like surgical cuts, but the body can be so perforated and scarred and unhealed that the soul ebbs away.

My Dad played football for the Cudgen All Blacks and I knew from an early age that I wouldn’t grow up to be like him.

All his cousins and mates knew the same.

The shame of a son
who didn’t play the game.

I watched him shave once. The nicks and blood and aftershave made me sick. I declared I wouldn’t ever shave. I asked my Mum how I could never bleed, she said you’ll have to bronze your face son. She knew too. It was only many years later, long after I came out, that she spoke about it, how she knew. It hurt her, because she didn’t want me to get bashed. It turned out she too had experienced homophobic abuse, even though she was straight. Homophobia captures even those who are not gay or lesbian, in its imprecision. And that was the reality of being gay, or gay-acting, and no doubt that’s still the sick reality of it today.

This is not a happy story, and I don’t owe anyone a happy ending.

It may sound it, but

I’m not bitter.

I’m not even angry.

That’s disempowering.

Powerlessness is real. And I’m not powerless. The facts might be hard to recount, but I’m not broken. Not even close.

Read more about Daniel Browning.