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Queer experience is not limited to trauma



In the early naughts, I was a happy, well-balanced teenage girl who looked forward to the future; I was a moody, insufferable tween with no respect for her peers; I was a studious, engaged student; I was lazy and contemptuous; I was sweet and generous; I was an audacious brat; I was excitable; I suffered; I was the cause of the suffering of others; I wanted to kill myself; I didn't want anything more than I wanted to be 20.

Young black queer woman, photo from Safe Schools Story Project Each of these statements is true. Some were at times truer than others. But which of them is the truest?

And what happens when one true statement is not believed?

If the statement not believed is a crucial one, an important factor in a person's understanding of themself, they might repeat it out loud. They might repeat it so often that the other statements begin to lose significance. Other factors are erased in order that the person can convince the listener of the trueness of the crucial statement.

What is this about? It is about the demand made of queer people to repeat statements about themselves in order to convince listeners of their truth, and the cost of this demand.

'Coming out' is one of these statements: this gesture is specifically, politically required of queer people but not of straight people. Queers are asked to do it again and again, to tell the story of how and when and why they knew and how they announced their knowledge, whereas heterosexual people are rarely — perhaps seldom — required to come up with a story to account for their sexual orientation.

Another statement demanded of queer people is that they are injured and traumatised by the fact of their sexuality or gender. For example, when advocating for basic resources such as the Safe Schools Coalition, queer people are called upon to recount the trouble their queerness has caused for them.


"Same-sex attracted Australians are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. This is the real, lived effect of homophobia."


Collecting these testimonies, such as those in the Safe Schools Story Project, is a potent strategy to build a case for representation, to articulate the ongoing harassment and discrimination queers face, and to affirm to young queer people that they are not in it alone.

But why call on individuals to testify when the statistics are heartbreaking enough? Same-sex attracted Australians are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. This is the real, lived effect of homophobia in Australia. If that does not convince you of the need for more and better education and support systems around gender and sexuality, not a lot will.

On the one hand, recalling personal narratives to address these urgent political concerns is a useful strategy of highlighting 'real life' experiences of oppression. On the other hand, this demand on queers to continually deliver narratives of oppression limits their social roles, and even invalidates their voices on matters other than their sexualities and genders.

Speaking on women's voices in western history, Mary Beard says they have only been heard when they have spoken 'in support of their own sectional interests, or to parade their victimhood'. Outside the niche of their own gender, women are presumed to have no knowledge.

Likewise Vivian Namaste, whose writing refuses the style of autobiography, justifies her choice by writing that 'autobiography is the only discourse in which transsexuals are permitted to speak'.

Parading one's victimhood is exhausting work. As Jacqueline Rose writes: 'the amount of emotional energy you have to use up in keeping the symptoms and the defence in place, in the end it's too costly, and it's too debilitating, it's sucking off too much from everywhere else, so something starts to give'.

Also at play are the limits of the general understanding of queerness — which insists that queerness and trauma are mutually entwined. In fact it is homophobia that is traumatising. It is the dominance of inflexible heterosexual norms that is damaging.

In this way, many people's feelings about their queerness will not translate into ready-made narratives of schoolyard bullying, because despite the statistics, it is possible to be queer and fierce at the same time.

Requiring queers to repeat statements about themselves — firstly, that they are in fact queer, and secondly that their queerness is a source of trauma — erases their singularity, and smudges out the multiple, contradictory fragments of themselves that are true at any given time.

The fact that our culture prioritises heterosexuality over other sexualities, and cisgender bodies over trans ones, is indisputable. Even detractors of the Safe Schools Coalition comprehend this.

This leads to other indisputables: that sexualities and genders outside this culturally-sanctioned norm can be dangerous and uncomfortable, and that the internalisation of this norm can fracture how queers express and feel their love. There are no disputes here, so there's no need for queers to stand trial.


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing.

Main image from Safe Schools Story Project website.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Safe Schools Coalition, LGBTI, gay, transgender, queer



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Existing comments

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge so it is interesting that she quotes examples from Greek literature in support of her view. She is one of the most effective speakers I have ever heard but I disagree with her. There are so many great modern women, such as the late Anita Brookner, who were and are stellar performers in their own field and who bow to no man. My own feeling is that the gender wars paradigm is an outdated one. As a heterosexual male in his 60s who grew up in Melbourne I was fortunate in that both my family and my all boys Anglican secondary school were very tolerant of what was then known as homosexuality. Engendering tolerance of others in our society is an ongoing matter. I am not sure the Safe Schools Program is quite on target.

Edward Fido | 17 March 2016  

Is not the "requirement" for "queer people" to "come out" self-imposed by those who adopt the stance of politicising everything?

John | 18 March 2016  

I object, strongly, to the use of the word 'queer', which has derogatory connotations.

Pauline Power | 18 March 2016  

'Homophobia' or 'homoscepticism'? It's probably reasonable to assume that, no differently from their cisgendered sisters and brothers, many, if not most, transgendereds are sceptical of Donald Trump. But, are they phobic towards him?

Roy Chen Yee | 18 March 2016  

One step in the right direction would be to stop referring to homosexual people as 'queer'. I suspect that many may not see the usage as offensive, but I know that if I were homosexual, I certainly would be hurt and demeaned by it.

Alan Hogan | 18 March 2016  

Ellen, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is my understanding that 'queer' is a word chosen by LGBTIQ people not given by straights. Perhaps Ellena can enlighten us.

Lorna Skilton | 18 March 2016  

The few gay couples I have met did not feel it necessary to 'come out;. They simply started living as couples. A lesbian couple went interstate for a year where one partner underwent IVF and they returned as a family unit. Their neighbours had no inkling that they were gay. They thought they were just twentysomething girls sharing the rent in a suburban two bedroom unit. The girls put a birth notice in the local newspaper not as a public statement of their family status but rather to have something to show their child when she grew up. That Mummy and Mummy were proud of her. Admittedly this particular couple are not active politically. They are happy to let their behaviour as good neighbours be their 'coming out' statement. I feel sure there are other gay couples who feel the same way.

Uncle Pat | 18 March 2016  

Bullying is just wrong. Especially as Christians but perhaps just as human beings, we are called to empathy, love of neighbour and compassion for "the other". Much of that fits with the needs of "queer people" (I don`t like using that!) as Ellena might be calling for. BUT, hetero-sexual is the normative biological and social paradigm; as it represents 97% of the population it just has to be. I don`t believe that the high suicide rates referred to are mainly due to bullying per se, though there must be examples of that. Rather being radically different in some way is terrifyingly hard for young people to come to terms with and itself highly traumatic and a source of great anxiety. Very short people, or very tall people, or bad skin, or children with bad eyesight and hearing (my experience after maternal rubella) etc etc, are not so dissimilar. It takes great inner maturity to "come out" in oneself; growing up is hard enough for "normal people". Those that are without sin (or blemish) need to get it, though in fact for teenagers there are very few of those! and the bullies are usually those with hidden burdens they are carrying.We are just very messy and it takes most of ones life to start celebrating that.

Eugenew | 18 March 2016  

The ghastly term "Queer" in itself adds to the artificial and damaging disconnect from "main-stream" society that those with same-sex attraction often suffer. Queer needs to go into the dustbin of history along with the nonsense that some in society have to make a public political pronouncement in order to be true to themselves.

Martin Loney | 18 March 2016  

One's sexuality is rather like one's ethnicity; you're born with it and to a great extent you are defined by it as far as the anonymous general society is concerned. Ellena's well-argued piece focuses on how much more constricting trauma becomes when it is included in that general society image. While telling of trauma has been part of hard-won campaigns for greater social acceptance, an "outsider's" expectation of significant trauma could impede really getting to know a person of either an LGBT or ethnic minority group.

Ian Fraser | 18 March 2016  

It is becoming ever- clearer that God has decreed that everything and everyone must evolve. This implies that there must be many transitional stages, where living beings will need to either "not adapt and die" OR "adapt and thrive". Babies live in their own little world with their own little concerns and viewpoints, but inevitably they must put many of them behind them as their urge for greater fulfilment projects them into 'childhood'. The rite of passage through puberty is much more complex and disturbing, raising questions about 'Who am I?' and 'What am I?'. At first we instinctively look to our peer group with whom we had earlier identified. This often results, among males, in what was called 'horse-play', and can bring a certain reassurance of 'normality', in what is otherwise a suddenly confusing world. For a variety of reasons, some remain in this stage of evolution, but most awaken to the attraction of one or more members of the opposite sex. In societies when the choice seemed to be 'populate or perish', that option was strongly promoted. Now with over-population a problem, it is no longer so relevant.

Robert Liddy | 18 March 2016  

Worth noting that reclamation of the word 'queer' goes back to the 1980s. It is often used by LGBTI people as a unifier; many of them identify as queer. I would trust in Ellena's use of it.

Fatima Measham | 18 March 2016  

Way way back there were women who called ourselves radical feminist wimmin and also Lesbian, the latter referring to a political stance as much as anything else. Somewhere along the line we have been obliterated by the understanding that living differently is all about sexual preference (ignoring the political aspect of it all), that it is about gender (a term that was not even invented when I was born). I do not identify myself as “queer” and I do not “have a sexual preference”. Someone in this sea of genders and sexual preferences are some old-fashioned Lezzies paddling to keep our head above the waves - and keeping very, very quiet. Good on you all you young people forging your own lives, but please do not claim to speak for everyone, especially for those of us who are older.

Lez | 18 March 2016  

Not correct Lorna. It's a derogatory term initially used by homophobes; I am GAY and proud of the term.

Pat Garner | 18 March 2016  

Thank you Ellena for a very thoughtful discussion. On Lorna Skilton’s point about using the word “queer”, that is my understanding also and it is slightly comparable to the use by African Americans of the “N” word. It is a negative term they have claimed as their own. But this should not distract us from the point of the article. “Coming out” can set positive examples for other people coming to terms with their sexuality. We are all in different places and the personal influences (positive and negative) can really be tough to deal with. The act of coming out still requires some courage, even in our more “tolerant” society these days. I’ve never supported the “outing” of people, which I see as a militant political act with very little thought for the person being “outed”. It must be a personal thing and many people are justifiably reluctant to open up the window of voyeurism onto their lives, for the reasons outlined in the article. As Ellena says, other people don’t have to do it. It shouldn’t be necessary in a “live and let live” society, which probably shows we still have some way to go.

Brett | 18 March 2016  

Gay people don't have to come out as regularly as the article implies! Many simply do not. Some choose to come out publicly again and again as statement which may help individuals and our society know about difference. The statement below sums it up for me. "Also at play are the limits of the general understanding of queerness — which insists that queerness and trauma are mutually entwined. In fact it is homophobia that is traumatising. It is the dominance of inflexible heterosexual norms that is damaging." Nice article, Ellena.

Kate | 19 March 2016  

"The fact that our culture prioritises heterosexuality over other sexualities", or, 'hetero-normativity' is a reality that has been made into a negativity. Hetero-normativity is not a negative, it is simply both a statistical reality and an evolutionary necessity. However, those who do not fit the hetero-normative label need to be accepted and loved in the same way that any group that does not fit the 'norm' for reasons beyond their control; they need to be accepted and loved (and certainly not 'bullied'; they are not a 'they', but a 'we'; other forms of being human. Non-norm contributions to society are most often deeply valuable for an understanding of what it means to be a human being. But, for those minorities to then turn around and tell the majority that they need to accept their gender agenda (the Safe-Schools program) is reverse prejudice and social control. As well, for society, work places etc, where the minority try to rule, for that minority agenda to quash freedom of speech and belief of those who may disagree with the minority gender agenda to the point of creating fear that they in turn are too afraid to 'come out' is again just reverse oppression.

Jo | 19 March 2016  

“A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack them, saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

Homonorm | 19 March 2016  

You start your article affirming that multiple things can be true of the same person at the same time, and then switch to saying that queer people speaking out about their oppression invalidates their voices on other matters. Why can't we recall our histories of trauma at the same time as affirming the 'contradictory fragments' of ourselves that you describe? I don't see that these things are mutually exclusive, and voicing the actual lived effects of queer- and transphobia is sort of politically necessary. I feel uneasy with you taking the Safe Schools Story Project to task when they're doing valuable work in giving people a platform to voice their very valid feelings about the need for Safe Schools. I don't really see why you need to deny that people could be fierce and at the same time recall their struggles in solidarity with others. Suggesting that people not speak up about trauma because you don't want it to be entwined with queerness is kind of silencing.

Jemima | 19 March 2016  

I have read this article (and many others like it) several times. Constantly confronted by the seeming assumption of the validity of categories such as "queer" for human beings, I find it difficult to engage in any real meaningful way with dialogues that make these assumptions. What do these words mean? What is being (overtly or covertly, tacitly or explicitly) advocated. What am I assumed to accept as valid if I participate?

Peter Carblis | 19 March 2016  

Urrgghhh! When did we start using that old derogatory term again? There sure as hell isn't anything "queer" about any of my friends or family who are LBGTI. Gee, see, its hard to escape labels. But they don't need to be offensive.

Kate | 21 March 2016  

heterosexuality is presently a privileged majority culture position. Sadly this seems generally to produce a deep fear of losing the privilege. And this results from some brutal behaviour. The public conversation is demanding and importantly awareness-raising. But so is the daily personally lived response.

helen cantwell | 23 March 2016  

“Same-sex attracted Australians are 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. This is the real, lived effect of homophobia in Australia.” Typical of much of the narrative supporting the Safe Schools program, neither of the statements above is accurate. As far as I can tell, the 14-times figure is an outlier and comes from a small sample Canadian (not Australian) study. Many more studies return much lower rates. A British metastudy found rates reported of about 2 times for male homosexuals and 1 (ie, no difference) for females. As for “homophobia” being the cause - this was not even investigated in the Canadian study. The fact is that gays have above-average rates of mental health issues such as depression even in cultures that have long since accepted their lifestyle. Beyond all this, it’s a myth to think of the "Safe Schools" program as an anti-homophobic-bullying measure. Co-founder Roz Ward has admitted as much. True, it *is* about bullying: the Safe Schools program is an ideological blitz aimed at bullying kids away from the allegedly hideous “inflexible heterosexual norm” - that boys and girls are naturally different in fundamental, complementary ways. Pity the children subjected to the dangerous nonsense of “Safe Schools” program.

HH | 29 March 2016  

This is from another blog (The Conversation), but I think it is really worth adding here - makes a lot of sense to me. I have long suspected that this whole issue is about adults somehow trying to come to terms with their own sexuality issues through the lives of other children - lives they may have somehow missed out on. "FYI males and females reach puberty a quite a few years after prep… until the oestrogen/testosterone/puberty kicks in, the behaviour is not sexually orientated unless influenced by other children /an adult. I probably would not be attempting to judge the children as homosexual, heterosexual or transgender until they reach puberty.......thinking that someone sees heterosexual/homosexual/transgender behavior at a young age or projecting heterosexual/homosexual/transgender behaviour onto children is effectively sexualising children at a very, very young age, which is offensive. You can call it education of gender diversity if you want…. but ultimately it is sexualising children or projecting (visualising) sexual behavior on pre-pubescent children who don't normally demonstrate sexual behaviour until the hormones start influencing behaviour.

Jo | 30 March 2016  

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