by Ramelle Lewis.
Growing up, I knew my family was different.
When I was very young, I didn’t realise that different didn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’. I just knew that my family would never conform to the nuclear bloc of Mum, Dad and child. I had Mum, and later Ann, my other Mum.
In primary school, any mention of ‘family’ or ‘parents’ would send my stomach into nervous convulsions. My face heated up, I became nervous and flustered, and hoped that no questions would be directed towards me. Once, while I was sitting on the sidelines during sport, another girl came over and sat next to me. She started asking me questions about my family, eventually arriving at, “Who’s that woman that’s always hanging out with your Mum?” I stared down at the sand, scuffing patterns into it with my runners, praying that the ground would just open up and swallow me whole.
She was my Mum’s ‘special friend’. I called her Ann, some kids have alternate nominations for their second mother, but I thought Ann would just be easier. I would always know she was my Mum, but even now, I jumble the words when I have to explain this to other people, calling her my ‘mum, my ‘other mum’, or ‘Ann’.
I was about six years old when my parents got together. From what they have told me, they met at a conference and spent some time together before Mum introduced her to me. One afternoon, I picked up the phone, ascertained that it was Ann on the end of the line, and called out, bellowing at the top of my undersized lungs,
“Muuuuuuuum, it’s that girl you like on the phone!”
Mum rushed in, face red, shushing me. Six-year-olds aren’t the subtlest of creatures.
Whenever a friend slept over, my parents would offer to sleep in separate rooms. They were always extremely anxious to make sure that their relationship didn’t cause me problems, or give people reason to pick on me. At my Bat Mitzvah, our Rabbi chose to acknowledge A in his sermon, recognizing her role as my parent. Unfortunately, he had not consulted us prior to doing this, so I was caught by surprise as I sat on the platform and gazed up at the rows of my school peers as the Rabbi spoke openly about the true, but previously hidden nature of my family. Given the innocent oblivion of adolescence, I doubt anyone even noticed- except me, extremely anxious, anticipating a million questions (that never arrived), as I sat in front of the congregation. I was just so used to having to explain what most people can simply say in a few words. Though it was tiring and frustrating that social ignorance affected this situation, I never resented my unique family circumstances; in fact, I always felt blessed, as my parents are the most kind, generous and courageous people I have ever known. They have supported to to develop into a stronger person, something for which I feel uniquely blessed. I have grown up imbued with a vigour that I hope will allow me to make some positive changes to this world for the many, kind, lovely and sensitive people within it.
“That’s so gay” was a commonly heard aphorism during my school years. ‘Gay’ meant bad, rubbish, a generalised put-down. But my Mum was gay. Ann was gay. I had gay parents. As I grew older, I realised that being afraid to talk about my family offended the respect I felt for my parents and the positive atmosphere I felt at home. I decided that if anybody thought badly of my family because of my parents’ sexuality, I didn’t hold their opinion in very high regard. I began to speak out against people using the words ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’. I was quick to inform my young teenage peers that the word ‘faggot’ was used to refer to gay men because they used to use faggots to light fires below the feet of homosexual men as they were burned at the stake. Somehow this fell flat on the ears of my classmates. “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,” or “When I say ‘gay’ I don’t mean homosexual. It just means something else now.” But ‘gay’ is still an identifier used by and for people who are homosexual, and the linguistic synonymy of ‘bad’ and ‘gay’ is undeniably damaging. In 2012, Stonewall Research published ‘The School Report’, based on responses from an online survey completed by 1,600 LGBT youth. It revealed that 55% of participants had suffered bullying at school and that 96% enduringly heard, and were offended by, derogatory uses of the appellations ‘poof’ and ‘lezza’.
By the time I was fourteen, a group of my male friends had decided it would be hilarious to call me a heterophobe. It grew tiring to explain to them that I was trying to make a point, to encourage people to think a little more deeply about what they were saying, and how it could affect others. “You don’t know if someone around is gay, and that what you are saying may make them very uncomfortable.”
My mum would often come home from study or work, upset by a comment made by a peer, or even a passer-by. It is impossible to perceive the barrage of insidious homophobia in everyday conversation until one is made aware of it, forced to think about it. I know that when people use my mum’s sexuality as a put-down, or a slur, it hurt her. It hurt her, and it hurt me to see her hurt. I could not understand why people might be unwilling to make a slight change to the language they use in order to allow space, tolerance and respect for the infinite variety of humans that speak it. In high-school, I came to the depressing conclusion that the more I agitated for the respect and rights of LGBTIQ people, the more it amused my friends to see me get worked up, and actually encouraged them to use derogatory language to get a rise out of me.
Now, I find it mildly amusing that the two guys who took the most pleasure in calling me a “heterophobe” have, of late, come out. I wonder if they challenge people who use their sexuality as an insult now.
I once asked my mum if she was disappointed that I was not gay. She looked at me, slightly shocked. “Ramelle, I just want you to be happy, however you are. To be honest, if you were gay, I know it would be harder for you and I don’t know if I could expect that of you!”
Eventually, I grew comfortable enough in myself that I spoke openly and in an upfront about my family. The late stage at which this occurred is perhaps more to do with my own insecurities than the social atmosphere of the time. Chronic low self-worth drove me to hide every aspect of myself that was different, that might draw attention to myself, and all my faults. Interestingly, I never experienced any blatant homophobia. Although some perceived it as an invitation to ask about the specific mechanics of my parents intimate relations (“So, how exactly do your parents have sex?”), most of my peers appeared non-plussed, although it generally remained unspoken.
My experience with psychiatry, however, was considerably more interested in my parents’ sexuality. Most practitioners came to the immediate conclusions that all of my problems stemmed from my mum’s homosexuality. A former family friend even once told her that it was her fault for being gay that I was so sick. That she was being selfish.
I have never, ever resented my mum for her born, natural and deeply felt sexuality. The ire that roils within me arises from the heteronormative expectations of society. It still perplexesand dismays m that difference, simple, non-violent, love-fuelled difference, can inspire such hatred from people in no way affected. I do, however, know that these things take time. I feel privileged to be brought up in a household that encouraged tolerance and respect for all peoples, that preferred to listen rather than judge or belittle, and most of all, that opened my eyes to the fact that it is our variety, our assorted nature that infuses what can be an otherwise mundane existence with beauty and love.
Throughout the world, from Iran to Nigeria, from Pakistan to parts of Somalia, there are laws criminalising homosexuality. Other laws that affect the LGBTIQ community include laws relating to sexual orientation and military service, age of consent laws and the absence of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Legal recognition of same sex marriage is needed, among other reasons, in order to legitimise the notion of a natural and normal variation in human sexuality and affirm that sexuality is not a choice. Despite this, it was not until the 9th of December 2017 that the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act was passed in Australia. As a volunteer at the Office of Senator Janet Rice, I have been involved in lobbying against the religious exemptions that allows schools to discriminate against students and teachers on the basis of sexuality.
Finally, for all those who have ever felt they are ‘different’, but who are nonetheless eager and brave enough to fight for love, to strive and to endure against ignorance and bigotry – know that you are not alone. Know that we who who fight with love in our hearts, rather than hate- the world will be a better and more tolerant place when we raise our voices. In the words of Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, there was within me an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says, no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing me right back.”