Every day I’m inspired by my husband, Sacha. He suffered the most heinous abuse at an orphanage as a child and he was a part of the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Despite that heartbreaking start to his life, he’s survived and at 78 works in our local performing arts centre, entertaining the over-60s.
To a much lesser degree I also experienced incidences of abuse growing up. It was with a lot of support, I was able to become the man I am today, yet I still occasionally suffer from quite debilitating panic attacks and am often anxious. At 74, I’m fortunate to be still working and have the most loving and compassionate friends.
Recently I became aware of the incredible number of people who are still suffering abuse in all kinds of situations. What was brought to my attention was the prevalence of gay people who have either not been able to come out or who have come out and lost families and friendships, as well as those who are suffering abuse for their sexuality on social media. I was saddened to hear that when compared to the general population, members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) community who have experienced abuse and harassment are up to 11 times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime. I grew up gay in much different times, but I hope that in sharing a bit about my story there is someone who can see there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I was born in Perth and spent my first years of life in the small town of Mount Barker in the south of Western Australia. My parents were both very loving and very strict, which gave me a good grounding for some of the challenge’s life was to throw my way. My first predilection for things not usually associated with being a young boy was when I wore my mother’s brassiere to kindergarten at the age of five. It was a small Catholic convent and the poor nuns were deeply shocked when one of the brassiere cups fell out of my shorts. They called my dad to pick me up and take me home. I will never forget the look of disappointment on his face that day.
Later, we moved to Perth where I attended a boys’ catholic college in Claremont. At nine, I was a very shy and nervous lad, unable to communicate with my peers. At recess I would sit under a tree in the school yard, always on my own. I looked different to the other children. During the second term I was tortured by a school bully, who was encouraged to do so by other pupils in my year. I remember how he used a metal compass to engrave my initials on my upper leg, the pain was indescribable but my fear was so great I never spoke out. It was only when my leg became swollen that I told my parents who took me to the doctor for treatment.
My father was appalled at both the act and my inability to speak up or fight back. He took me to the prefect of studies, a priest who I felt loathed me. The outcome of the meeting was that my father had been convinced I’d done the damage to my leg myself as a need for attention. That I could not convince my father otherwise contributed to the stammer I went on to develop. I could barely speak without my body going into a sort of spasm.
I did however, become dux of my class that year. Immersing myself in my studies was the only escape I had and I spent my breaks glued to my school books. I wanted my dad to be proud of me and I believe that ultimately he was.
By my third year my stammer had become so horrible and I had become so lonely that I would wag school and use my lunch money to go into Perth where I’d watch whatever was on at the cinema. I’d sit watching the cartoons, newsreels and travelogues on loop for a couple of hours until school had finished and then I’d go home.
It was here that my curiosity about sex was initiated. An older man would sometimes sit beside me and try and touch me by pushing his knee against my knee. Although it was scary, I was not revolted. I was confused though because every other boy I knew was actively pursuing girls, which was something I had no interest in. I knew then I was different and became more confused about who (or what) I was.
When my stammer worsened, my parents sent me to a psychologist. Tests showed I had a high IQ, but that I also had serious confidence issues. These issues were not helped by the psychiatrist. My grades were slipping and my parents decided I needed a private tutor. It was quite a shock to learn that my tutor was a particularly aggressive paedophile who sexually abused me during our sessions. Because I’d not been believed previously, I felt I could not tell my parents about this abuse. After the third visit I broke down and informed them I would not be going back to the tutor. They accepted this without further explanation, which led me to think that perhaps they knew something was amiss.
I was upset and very confused about what was happening to me. I was deeply religious, praying daily and believing wholeheartedly that all religious people were God’s representatives on earth. I saw a bishop, who I believed was as close as I was ever going to get to seeing God. Sadly, after a small chat in his lounge the bishop gave me a lemonade, left the room and returned completely naked. I could not move, I could barely breathe, and to avoid shunning God’s right-hand man, I again sat there, my body shut down. I was in survival mode.
My father moved us to Sydney later that year and I attended another boys’ college. My experience here was more positive. I developed the confidence to make a couple of friends and was treated much kinder by the clergy. I excelled in class. I was still shy and stammered and remained terribly confused about my sexuality. Looking back, I can see that the feeling of acceptance from both staff and most pupils was all I needed to feel I was a worthwhile person. Bigger trials were ahead, but the memories of my year at this school are dear and proved to me how much a little kindness could mean!
I know there are people going through similar experiences and my wish is that they find the courage to fight back, to report bullies and abusers. These awful people in our community are only as strong as the power we allow them to have.
The memories of the pain and indecencies I’ve suffered never go away, but as I’ve grown older they have diminished. I’m grateful they did not define me as a person. I’d like to think overcoming them has made me stronger. Pushing through what felt like insurmountable barriers of loneliness, shyness and disappointment opened new worlds for me. I can only encourage others facing such challenges in their life to find the support they need and know they are not alone. At my lowest I considered suicide, but a wise man said to me that it would be ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem’. Words I never forgot.
It was years after my schooling that I came out to my parents. Their love for me seemed to increase when I shared my feelings with them, although I did see great sadness in my dad’s eyes that haunts me a little to this day. My parents’ support never wavered. Despite the difficult challenges I’ve faced and the unimaginable cruelty suffered by my husband in his early years, the love and support we’ve had along the way has made all the difference. Remember the old proverb ‘it’s darkest before the dawn’, for it is true.