Audio: As read by the author on Narratives, a Meanjin podcast.
I sat on the bed, staring at the phone like it had fangs about to dig into my skin. My cousin’s name was lit up like a flag. Dread pulsed in my chest. Here came the conversation I’d been avoiding for more than a decade. He now knew I liked sucking dick. I flicked my thumb over his name, tender as a blade, and watched it slide open.
‘Yeah, cuz,’ I said.
‘Shu, cuz, where are ya?’ He sounded like he’d just woken up, but only because he was almost permanently stoned.
‘I’m at my girlfriend’s house.’
‘Wahayat Allah, that’s the best thing you could have said to me.’
She lay nearby, a heaviness between our bodies, the weight of pain newly shared. It felt appropriate, then, to use her as a shield.
‘I know,’ I said. That morning some fool had written ‘Vote No’ in the sky and an even bigger fool posted a poem in response on Facebook, making it public so even his homophobic cousin could see it. I am going to break your head, he’d commented in Arabic. He was half my size, a small, bald, brown nugget of a man, but a street brawler, a terrier mad for the fight. It wouldn’t be much of a contest: we both knew he could kill me. I blocked him online anyway.
‘Has she got big snitties?’ he said. I heard the rapid bubbling of a bong being lit, his sharp inhale.
‘Um, yeah,’ I laughed awkwardly, getting up and leaving the room, trying to loosen the knots of anxiety in my gut. ‘Yeah, she does.’
‘Heck! Tik!’ He asked me a dozen questions about her and our relationship—we’d only been together for two months—with the relish of a hungry man finally having his dream meal. Then there was a lull, the brief charged moment before you rush your opponent, and he said, ‘So what’s this shit about you being bisexual? Is it true?’
‘C’mon, cuz, don’t say that. Tfeh.’ His voice was sharp with pain, as if I’d just stabbed him. ‘How come you never told me?’
‘Because I knew you’d react like this.’
• • •
It is undeniable that successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, have long trodden on queer rights and the queer community in this resolutely conservative country, adamant in their denial of equality. In 2016 there were multiple instances of gay or queer-identifying men who were bashed in homophobic attacks. Two prominent attacks took place in the white enclaves of Waterloo and Newtown. In the former case, 22-year-old Dylan Souster was attacked on the street and knocked out by unknown assailants. He was assisted home by a good Samaritan, who, upon discovering that Dylan was gay, also beat him. In the supposedly progressive and queer-friendly area of Newtown, Isaac Keatinge was jumped by three men for being dressed in drag. He was hospitalised and received 15 stitches for a head wound. That year also saw the tragic death of Tyrone Unsworth, a 13-year-old boy who took his own life after years of homophobic bullying. His story is just one of many, with LBGTQIA youth having an attempted suicide rate several times higher than the national average.
• • •
My cousin’s heavy breathing fills my ears. ‘You know I didn’t get your poem, bro, I kept trying to make it rhyme,’ he said finally. He tells me he saw a comment on it by one of my friends (‘what a big faggot’), that he clicked on that man’s profile and saw a link to a recently published article about me on the ABC.
‘I thought, oh mad, that’s my cuz!’ he said, ‘but then I started reading it. I was like, what the fuck, that’s not my cousin.’
I was pacing in the living room, trying to pretend he hadn’t just stabbed me. ‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘But fuck, cuz, how can you like zub? Doesn’t it gross you out?’ Incredulity rang through, a genuine disbelief.
‘Yallateef. How long’s this been going on?’
‘Since I was a kid. I’ve known for ages, why do you think I keep my distance? This is why I stay away from the family.’
‘Does anyone else know?’
‘Just my brother. He doesn’t care.’
‘Straight out, cuz, you know you’re like my little bro too, I’ll always love you. But fuck, please, stay with your girlfriend.’
I let out a long, long breath.
• • •
It was only in 2017 that the state of Queensland, after sustained lobbying pressure, scrapped the ‘gay panic’ defence law, which allowed men to claim in court that they should be exonerated of murder (or at least have their charge downgraded) because their victims had the audacity to flirt with them. A man desiring another man was deemed sufficient cause to violently lose reason, to beat and kill that person. South Australia still has this law on the books. As recently as 1997, gay sex was a crime in Tasmania punishable by 21 years in jail. The violent hatred white Australia has for queerness is too recent, too consistent to be swept under the rug by a same-sex marriage survey, a glorified $100 million poll that came bubble-wrapped in caveats.
I have to admit that with the heat pressing into my skin as I paced around the lounge, the awareness of my girlfriend lying alone in the next room, and the twisting hurts of a decade flowing through my body, it took me longer than it should have to realise two basic facts: my cousin knew, and he was talking to me. He was still talking to me. I remember how one of my uncles, several years ago, saw on Facebook that I would be attending a marriage equality rally, one of many futile gestures I’ve made over time. ‘Delete me if you’re serious,’ he said. So I did, and we haven’t spoken since, not even when my grandmother passed away and we both had to oversee the transfer of her body to the morgue attached to Lakemba mosque. It was night, cold and raining, and we both stood in complete silence, grieving in more ways than one as her bagged body was wheeled away.
Although the phone was slick with sweat against my ear, I began to relax. ‘Okay, wait,’ my cousin was saying, ‘are you actually attracted to men? Or is it just like, any hole’s a goal?’
‘I’m attracted to men.’
‘Fuck. I was gonna say maybe …’ He was contemplative for a minute, then it just exploded out of him. ‘So you’ve actually sucked a dick?’ Horror and awe laced together. Horror that someone could do something so gross, and awe at the depth of transgression.
I stalled. ‘Look, I don’t ask you all the things you’ve done.’
‘Eckol khara, dickhead, don’t act like I haven’t told you when I’ve stuck my tongue up a bitch’s bumhole.’
We cracked up, my laugh a shriek. ‘Okay, yeah.’
‘Tfeh, bro, I can’t believe you had someone’s bits dangling on your forehead.’ Another laugh. I felt dizzy with wonderment. He was making crass homophobic jokes, sexist jokes, but he was joking with me and I could fight those fights another day.
• • •
In his Quarterly Essay ‘Moral Panic 101’, Benjamin Law writes that over the past year notable white publication The Australian pushed out an incredible 90 000 words on the Safe Schools program. ‘That’s at least one story about or mentioning Safe Schools every two days.’ This anti-bullying program designed to protect LGBTQIA kids in particular, but also to provide strategies and educational outcomes for every student, was subject to an astonishing campaign of misinformation and queer phobia by one of the largest and most reputable newspapers in the country. Considering the moral touchstone of conservatives—far too polite a term for these relics of an unethical past—has always been children, and their safety first and foremost as an integral part of the family unit, it is worth noting the effort they went to in order to ensure these particular children weren’t safe.
How can this paradox be true? The same way it can be true that Indigenous youth have been routinely abused—physically, sexually and emotionally in detention centres across the country; have been over-policed and criminalised from the outset; and have been forcibly removed from their families, all of which continues to this day. The same way refugee kids can suffer similar abuse in offshore processing centres and not inspire a single strident cry from a bigot’s mouth. Put simply, only some kids are human to the white writers, editors and readers of The Australian.
• • •
Yeah, I’m on the phone with my cousin but I’m also reading the email my now-dead father sent me at the beginning of the year comparing homosexuality to paedophilia and bestiality, and I’m hearing my aunty laughingly say she’d hang me if I turned out gay, and I’m reading my sister’s message on WhatsApp urging me to vote no, calling me an abomination in the same breath. I’m reliving that irreparable damage to our relationship because the peculiar truth of abuse is that it lives outside time, throbs through every moment. I’m thinking about then-Liberal senator Cory Bernardi and federal MP George Christensen saying the same things my father said to me, and a thousand other instances that demonstrate if my family is guilty of anything, it’s of being utterly assimilated into Australian culture. How else to explain the ease with which they parrot the ideas espoused by major news-papers such as The Australian and The Daily Telegraph, and by so many true blue private-school-educated politicians?
‘So, what are you gonna vote?’ my cousin asked, and I’m momentarily stumped. I just can’t believe he thinks it’s a question.
‘Yes, of course. What about—’
‘As if, bro. As soon as we get those letters, it’s a no.’ He didn’t sound so stoned or so sleepy then.
‘Oh. Okay.’ I sat down, falling into the quiet. Sweating, feeling like a fat hairy donkey. As if I could have expected anything else. Then my cousin started laughing, a sputtering throaty laugh like an old engine failing to start.
‘Come on, cuz. Since when do we vote? We’re gonna throw them in the bin. Besides, once America did it, we were always going to follow like a bitch.’
I laugh with him, relief coursing through my blood. A marathon couldn’t have taken more out of me. We talk for a bit after that. I’m moving back to Sydney where I’ll be staying with his mum, the aunty who raised me; I tell him the dates, he tells me about his bad back and how his wife said he screams even in his dreams. As a final word, he offers me this warning: ‘Straight out, don’t tell my mum you’re a half’n’half. She’ll kick you out, she’s not like me. But if that happens, don’t worry, you can stay at mine. We’ve got a spare room.’
• • •
Unfortunately my postal survey arrived while I was still living in Melbourne. I voted and a week later moved back to western Sydney, the region that hosts many of the majority No electorates, and also my home. I wonder now, in the aftermath of the results, which led to swift condemnation of the ‘ethnic enclaves’ my family and friends live in, how many people like me had left the area and were voting from their new localities? It’s an idle thought. Bigots desperate to deny or stall same-sex marriage equality were always going to shift their frame of attack as soon as it was clear they had lost, regardless of the percentages involved. Unsurprisingly, they chose race and, in particular, Islamophobia. As Osman Faruqi, the political editor of Junkee, put it on Twitter: ‘Muslims make up 2% of the Australian population. The No vote was nearly 40%. Even if literally every Muslim voted No you’re going to need to find a better scapegoat you giant, giant knobs.’
The speed with which numbers produced by this flawed mail survey have been seized on is not altogether surprising, given they provide a (false) sense of certainty around a confusing, complex issue. In the lead-up to all this, much was made of the potential for fraud and inaccuracy, a potential that was at least partially realised with reports of people stealing mail en masse in certain areas, to either dump elsewhere or to use themselves, garnering many extra votes. A friend of mine told me his mother collected the letters meant for him and his siblings and voted ‘no’ for them, knowing that otherwise they would have chosen ‘yes’. Of course this delivery method was chosen as a deliberate ploy to skew the results in favour of the elderly and therefore presumably more conservative voters who were less likely to have moved recently and to be more familiar with the process. Despite these and other issues, the resulting numbers are being treated as gospel, which should be concerning for all involved.
Far more surprising to me were the number of people who leapt to western Sydney’s defence. It was pleasing, if confusing, considering that both sides of the debate were talking around and about the area as if it couldn’t or shouldn’t be allowed to speak for itself. White male politicians such as Tony Abbott couldn’t be heard enough in the weeks before and after, campaigning for relevance with the usual bigotry, a hard-on for traditional marriage so large he quite happily whacked his gay sister with it too. How many people like my cousin did you hear from? A man who, for all his thoughtlessly hurtful comments, still offered me a room and a bed if I needed one.
That said, while it’s true people like my cousin aren’t heard from enough and it’s true the area is hectic in specific beautiful ways, it’s also true that it’s not an island the way this country is an island. It just so happens western Sydney likes to pretend it’s completely separate from the rest of Australia, and the rest of Australia likes to indulge the fantasy; ironically, it suits both groups’ politics.
‘We’re not like them, the shahosh.’
‘They’re backward, uncultured.’
As a tertiary-educated poet, born and raised in Liverpool, a queer Arab Muslim who walks in both worlds, let me assure you: they’re equally shit. Of the two, however, I know which one I belong in, which one I prefer, and it’s always going to be western Sydney—not just because of all the hot shame fucking the closeted wogs and Arabs and Pacifikas are having in the backs of Subarus at night, trackies around their ankles, a titanic romance—but because the white conservative world has all the power, the white conservative world will act like devils while dressed up as angels, and most of all because the white conservative world could never conceive of loving me, even imperfectly.
Omar Sakr is an Arab-Australian poet. Published in English, Arabic and Spanish, his poetry is featured in national and international journals. His debut collection, These Wild Houses, was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Calanthe award.