‘I THINK MARRIAGE is between a man and a woman and that the Church shouldn’t be obliged to change that definition. It’s a sacred institution established by God and what God has made man cannot unmake or alter.’
I say these words with a huff, my maroon shirt ‘popping’ against the blackened room. I clutch nervously at my pant leg while a vein throbs on my temple. I am looking earnestly down the barrel of the camera for the 2019 SBS docuseries, Christians Like Us.
There are ten of us: Hannah the Latter Day-Saint; Tiffany, an Anglican female priest; and me, a Coptic-Catholic. There’s also Chris, a gay conversion therapy survivor, Assumpta, a former Hindu now turned Anglican, Steve the Evangelical and Steve, a sex abuse survivor. Finally, there’s Marty the Pentecostal, Jo the Roman Catholic and Carol, a Uniting Church gynaecologist who performs abortions. Our share house is in Bella Vista in Sydney’s west, a place described by narrator Anthony Griffis as ‘the heart of Australia’s Bible belt’. We are stuck together for a full week, set to discuss the ‘hot button issues’.
Things get tense at the dining table right after a round of introductions. The air is thick and claggy like tahini in my throat. ‘What the Church is doing to gay people is wrong!’ Chris shouts from his chair at the head of the table. Thin and very pale, he wears a cap over his bald head and has clear blue eyes. He asks everyone seated, one by one, if they will sign his petition to stop conversion therapy in churches. Both Stevens and Assumpta look down or away. Marty says, ‘Well, we should still have the right to teach our beliefs without judgement from others.’ Jo and Tiffany say that it’s wrong that this still happens, wrong to tell a teenager that their sexual orientation is perverse but can change with effort. In a broken voice, Hannah cries, ‘Gay people have the hardest cross to bear.’ I roll my eyes: ‘Just like the gays,’ I think. So dramatic.
The videographers duck and swerve, like hyenas around a carcass, or the cameramen at a top 1 per cent OnlyFans production.
IT’S A SATURDAY morning, I’m ten years old and Dad is driving me to Mid City Newsagency, the business we own on King Street, near enough to Darling Harbour to attract tourists but not so close that we avoid filing for bankruptcy a few years later. Saturday mornings at the shop aren’t much of a reward for a week of Year Five schoolwork – but at least I get to go to the city and have a sausage-and-egg McMuffin.
Working at the newsagency is tedious. Dad doesn’t say too much, so I must learn by watching. First we shunt newspapers, huge stacks of them, from the footpath to the shelves. We also tear off the tops of yesterday’s unsold papers and put these in a manila folder so we can get a refund from Fairfax for all the extra copies of the Friday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald. Ian Thorpe is on the cover, shirtless, broad and statuesque. The headline reads, ‘Thorpedo set to take gold in 400-metre freestyle’.
Next we start up the Lotto machine. There’s a big Powerball jackpot being called next week and we make a small commission on each ticket sale. Dad always says, ‘This Lotto is not pleasing to za Lord,’ but, like the porno magazines, he knows that selling them brings in good money.
Then we restock all the fridges. I follow Dad’s lead, moving the old stock to the front of the fridge and replacing the Powerades, Coca-Colas and Pepsi bottles at the back.
Only after all of this is done can we begin trading for the day. I’m good with small change transactions on things like chocolate bars, but get confused on bigger ones, having once lost $50 on a botched payment at the till. Dad was seething and I remember the way the veins in his neck bulged red and his eyes grew small like a shark’s.
That’s why I don’t usually man the counter, preferring to go to the back of the shop where I get to read all the Simpsons comics, National Geographic and Oprah magazines that I want. On the way I pass the pornos and DNA, a men’s magazine where the guys on the front are regularly shirtless.
On the wall to the backroom is a picture of St George killing the dragon, and inside is a yearly calendar called ‘Bible gems’ that Dad gets from our church, Kingsgrove Gospel Chapel. For the month of March there is a picture of the Central Desert. I remember seeing a documentary on the frilled-neck lizard on the ABC once. Surprising that something so small can survive for years in such hostile conditions, drawing on some inner strength or finding water in the waste like the Israelites in the wilderness. Today is 4 March and the calendar says, ‘God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does His will, He listens to him’ (John 9:31).
In the Simpsons comic I’m reading, Milhouse is trying to crack on to Lisa, who curtly rejects him. I like Bart, but I think Milhouse is funnier, sadder too somehow.
That’s when I hear shouting from the front of the shop. Dad often shouts at the customers. His favourite rejoinders include, ‘This isn’t a library!’ and ‘Plan on buying, mate, or are you just standing here!?’
In his tight denim jeans and with a hand on his thin waist, the customer is irate as well as feminine.
‘I don’t like your body language and I don’t like your attitude!’ the man says in a shrill voice.
‘I got no problem with you, but my son is in the back, and if you’re going to buy this stuff, you better be quick there, matey!’ Dad shouts back gruffly.
I look at the counter. Along with a packet of Marlboro Lights and a Lotto ticket are two DNA magazines laid out and sheathed in protective plastic. One of them says, ‘Jumbo Mardi Gras edition!’ right over the crotch of a smooth-skinned Asian man in a sailor hat and nothing else. He is winking coyly at the camera, hand on the brim and smile gleaming. The customer leaves in a huff, but not before spitting ‘bigot!’ out of his curled lip.
On the way home that night we pass Oxford Street. It’s lit up and people are dancing in the windows of the clubs. There’s a rainbow flag on one of the buildings. Dad turns to look at this with a grimace: he shakes his head and sucks his teeth. He turns the volume up on the CD player and focuses on the road ahead.
IT’S LATE 2019, and the bridal party at the Renaissance Westella wedding reception lounge is taking ages to sit down. The main venue hall is a gleaming (imitation) marble room in Lidcombe with three giant glass(ish) chandeliers, surrounded by a halo of (fake) white lilies.
Dancing to 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’, the bridal party entersin a procession: first the bride and groom, then the father and mother of the bride, then the in-laws and the groomsmen, bridesmaids and page girl and boy. The women look like drag queens with their heavy eye make-up and the men are all in waistcoats like French courtiers under Louis XIV.
At our table, which I know from experience is the ‘singles’ table, I accidentally make eye contact with a young woman, who from her olive skin, wide mouth and curly hair seems Egyptian.
She approaches. ‘Excuse me? Is this seat taken? I saw you on the TV show about the Christians.’ She leans in close, exposing the top of her cleavage.
‘It was great the way you represented our community on the TV. We have to protect our values. We can’t let the gays and the lesbians take over!’
Guests swarm the dancefloor, carrying the bride and groom off their feet. They are being tossed up and down with abandon. The bride’s veil falls off and floats to the ground, where it is trampled upon by many feet moving in a messy dabke. Looking at it nauseates me.
The girl with the cleavage is staring at me. I can’t avoid her gaze. We join hands and enter the throng. It feels like I have no other choice.
AT EL JANNAH Blacktown the owners are Lebanese, the staff South Asian and the queueing system non-existent. You can never tell if the other customers have already ordered or are just examining the giant menu, which is brightly lit with dishes such as Shish Tawook Wrapand Shawarma Meal.
Adam and I have just finished 2017 Easter Sunday mass at an ex-gay Catholic ministry called ‘Bravery’ that claims to ‘assist men and women with same-sex attractions in living chaste lives in fellowship, truth and love’. His dad is in Egypt and my parents are Protestant, so it’s just the two of us on this day of Jesus’ resurrection. We park at Punchbowl shopping centre and walk to the chicken shop.
Adam used to be called Abdullah. He converted from Sunni Islam to Catholicism in Cairo five years ago. Though I had left my parent’s church, dissatisfied with its reductive ideas of salvation, I still longed for a community. I also wanted to meet other gays without feeling afraid I was ‘enjoying worldly sins’.
Adam and I clicked straight away. Even as the old gays told Father Roberto sad, salacious confessionals about getting hand jobs on cruise ships while their wives took care of the grandkids on the deck, we would laugh, smiling at the absurdity of it all. When our turn in the sharing circle came, we would say that we felt bad for masturbating.
When the waiter rushes past to drop the two chicken plates onto our table, we get stuck in straight away like jackals. It’s a penance watching Adam eat, so much mouth noise, spitting bits of cartilage out and licking his fingers.
Adam and I love to talk shit. Today it’s about his student exchange in Hong Kong.
‘It was my prime-time Danny… I was out every night. Rooftop bars and night markets. I was experimenting a lot…those were the party years.’ I stuff some hot chips into a triangle of soft white Lebanese bread, wrap it tight into a thick pipe.
Adam’s eyes turn sad and distant. ‘That’s when I started fooling around with guys, too. This American guy I met at the uni dorm. I think I just wanted the attention. He was flirting with me all day, so I went up to his bunk and thought, let’s give it a go! Made out for a while but then when we went to grab me…nah man! Not for me. I was disgusted.’
Adam is laughing at his crazy story. He asks me if I’m going to finish the last bit of chicken. I say, ‘Go for it.’ I watch a Sri Lankan waiter toss a plate of half-eaten chicken bones into a bucket.
‘THE BASTARD RAPED me…we worked it out, it was probably 250 or 300 times.’ The cameras are rolling, and Steve has just told his harrowing story of abuse. Between the ages of nine and fourteen he was a victim of an Anglican bishop’s sexual predation. He’s now an old man.
Hannah is crying, Marty is shaking his head. Carol turns to Steve, takes his hand, says, ‘I want to hold you.’ I am frozen, incapable of forming a coherent response. The cameraman is lingering over the distraught look on Steve’s face.
Later, after being filmed brushing my teeth so that the production team can get enough overlay for this episode, I finally have a few moments of privacy. As the impact of Steve’s story takes its toll on me, I hear a buzzing in my ears. I sit on the side of my bed, holding my head in my hands. I can feel pressure building behind my eyes and soon my face is covered in tears. Chris, the gay conversion therapy survivor, comes in and sees me crying.
‘I’m so ashamed,’ I blubber.
‘You shouldn’t be…it’s not your fault.’ He draws me into a hug; his hands feel tight and strong around my back. I abruptly pull away, wiping my eyes. ‘It’s fine. I know it’s not my fault…it’s fine.’ He is smiling at me but there is something concerned, or maybe confused, in his blue eyes.
I go to wash my face. The fit-out of the bathroom is bougie: beautiful vast showers, clean white basins, shiny tiles. Then I return to my bed and the four books I brought with me. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, a Bible, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Collected Works of Rumi. I flick to Rumi’s poem ‘Shams of Tabriz’:
Why should I look for it?
I myself am the same as him.
The essence of him speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself.
I try to read more but can’t focus. As I turn onto my other side to get comfortable, I knock my New King James Bible off the bed stand and onto the floor. I look to the other bed, just a few feet from mine, where I see Chris fast asleep and looking as untroubled as a child.
IT’S ONE OF our first family dinner parties after the pandemic. We’ve invited everyone: Uncle Youssef, Tant Huda and their children Bishoy and Emad.
They all sit down in the salon, where the couches are embroidered in gold lace and everything is covered in tassels. I jokingly call this room ‘the Duke of Windsor suite’. Mum brings out little trays with tea and Lebanese sweets.
‘Bishoy has done very well – he has made it to the IT team at Google in the city. All the Google, all across Australia, he manages the IT for,’ Youssef says of his eldest son, beaming with pride.
‘Congratulations to Emad for his engagement! Why didn’t you bring the aroosa?’ Mum asks my cousin Emad.
‘Shukran tant…she couldn’t make it, she had work today,’ he shoots back quickly.
‘Danny too, when will he tie the knot?’ Auntie Huda adds. ‘Or is he too busy being a big TV star?’ In response, Mum looks up to heaven, hands outstretched in an expression of supplication. ‘Soon, Insha’Allah,’ Dad adds, patting me on the shoulder. I feel the weight of his hand.
To escape the suffocating pressure of the room, I run upstairs, saying I have some work to do. I call Father Roberto from ‘Bravery’. I hear his deep sonorous voice and imagine his face with its receding hairline and giant nose. I close my bedroom door, talking low to be sure that the family can’t hear anything. I tell him that I feel bad that I spoke on the TV show, Christians Like Us, to defend the Church’s teachings on traditional marriage. ‘Everyone encouraged me to do it, Father. Like I had some moral duty,’ I say. He tells me that my only duty is ‘to myself’ and that I can always choose the ‘middle path’.
I ask him what this means and he tells me that I can still have gay relationships, go to confession and never tell anyone about it and ‘that’s what many Catholic priests do’. I ask him if he doesn’t think that this is wrong. ‘Son, the Church has changed its teachings on many things,’ he begins. ‘I could never have sex with a man myself, for example – to be honest, I’d rather eat poo. But I’d watch, I’d be happy to watch.’
I hang up abruptly. My head feels light and my stomach is turning. Everything I’ve been told is a lie.
When I come downstairs later, everyone has left. Mum and Dad have washed all the dishes and are watching Egyptian TV.
On Nilesat is footage of the rainbow flag waved at a Cairo performance of Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is gay. One of the concert attendees, Sarah Hegazi, was arrested and tortured for ‘perversions against the state’. She killed herself in Canada shortly afterwards.
‘We are a religious society, and this is against our values,’ says the director of the Musicians Syndicate. His suit is grey polyester and his moustache eats up a third of his pockmarked face.
We change the channel to see a flamboyant nine-year-old performing on The Voice. His mum is crying off stage. ‘I’m so proud of him’ she says. ‘I never want him to feel ashamed or that he’s different.’
Mum asks me if I’m still ‘talking to’ Merna, one of the Church girls that she likes. ‘I’m talking to everyone, Mum,’ I say. We keep watching the sissy boy sing his little heart out. ‘You need to get yourself a wife,’ Dad says, spitting the shells of pumpkin seeds into a small bowl.
That’s when something snaps inside me. ‘What if I don’t want a wife?’ I bark back.
I’m surprised by my admission and the way that time stops, my breath catching in my throat. Mum and Dad turn to me, stone-faced. Eventually Dad answers, ‘What do you mean by that? If you don’t want a wife, what do you want?’ Dad and I look at each other in silence.
Dad breaks it. ‘Do you want…a husband!?’
The stare between us stretches into an eternity, though it lasts only a few seconds. The nine-year-old is singing ‘All by Myself’ in a nasal shriek.
Dad’s voice, now low and grave, matches his wide, terrified eyes. ‘A man may come to you. An old man, a young man, whatever.’
I think I know where this is going. I hope I am wrong.
‘He will say come here and do this or come here and do that. Don’t listen!’
I put my palm up, beseeching him to stop. My chest is tight and my heart thumps like a gazelle in flight. Dad stops abruptly and Mum is staring down at her hands.
Later, after my shower, I find Dad outstretched on the couch. He is staring into space. I go back upstairs and into the overwhelming stillness. Even the crickets outside have fallen quiet.
I MEET JORDAN at the Marrickville Hotel in early 2021 after flirting on Hinge for a month. We talk about everything: I tell him about Bravery and the lingering shame of that torturous experience. He tells me that he grew up without religion in a permissive household, though he was christened Catholic. That he dropped out of his economics degree and made money as a sex worker in Amsterdam, then shacked up with a woman during a gap year in London.
‘After Europe I did the Caribbean and heaps of South America, I worked in an orphanage in Lebanon and then on a farm in Canada with my cousin for a while.’ He talks fast and smells good: woody and sweet. His whole life seems to be one untrammelled adventure.
We share a pad thai and massaman beef curry at Thai Pothong restaurant in Newtown. I suggest we go back to my place to ‘watch an episode of Drag Race or three’. He smiles, rolling his eyes at my cheesy line.
We drive down the M5 in my Toyota Corolla, listening to Kylie and Madonna. We ascend the stairs of my building in silence. He compliments my little Bankstown apartment. I light a patchouli-scented candle and turn the dimmer, setting the lights low and warm.
I offer him some red wine in a thin flute and he knocks it back in one gulp. I flick the TV on and a Eurovision Song Contest commercial plays. Jordan’s shoes are already off and I join him on the couch where he immediately grabs my thigh. His shoulders are broad, his shirt tight. He turns his head to me; his lips are freshly chap-sticked and gleaming.
Gripping the back of my head, he pulls my face to his lips. He kisses me long and deep, exploring my mouth with his tongue. I push him down onto the couch, laying him flat. I pull off his shirt and gently kiss his Adam’s apple, moving down to the glistening hollow at the base of his neck. Then I lick my way down to his belly button where blonde hairs poke out of the waistband of his Bonds underwear.
Just as we’re about to head into my bedroom, I think I’d better turn the TV off. That’s when it happens. I see someone who looks and sounds just like me on the screen; yet it is not me. He is in a maroon shirt. The vein on his temple is throbbing. He is clutching his pant leg. I know what his next words are going to be.
Jordan turns to see why I’ve stopped tonguing him.
‘Hey, isn’t that you?’
More from author
Gay identity is not a single, fixed thing. But the flamboyant brand of this identity, which is on display at Pride or Mardi Gras, seems to have become the most important and recognisable version of queerness in the public imagination. When we focus on this entitled, Western version of gay identity, entire communities get overlooked.
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