What’s To Celebrate?
33 (as of January 27 2017)
Born: Melbourne, Kulin Nation
Raised: Adelaide, Kaurna Country
Live: Sydney, Eora Nation
Fifteen years ago, when I came out as gay, I took umbrage with the label ‘queer’, I wasn’t comfortable reclaiming a derogative, nor being seen as different. This attitude changed as I navigated my way through the mid-00s phase of using the adjective ‘gay’ to mean a lack of quality, cheesiness, annoying. I fought the word back from friends, I’d become attached to it, I’d been born with it, I’d just gotten used to it. It’s not an uncommon experience for those in the LGBT community to have battled with labels thrust upon us, mulled over, teased out, worn like a glove or an ill-fitting shirt. I can find it exhausting. You don’t wake up gay. As your day unfolds, you are reminded of the restrictions of the identifier: the partner question dodged at work, the repression of affection towards your partner in public, news on politics, the source of an underlying anger. Oh yeah: I’m not that story told to children. I’m not that superhero. I’m not that carefree. I’m the other. I wake up being normal — as much as being me is normal. But for all the frustration, being ‘different’ has given me a better understanding of the game that identity politics can be. You are at once your label and also indefinable. You can be oppressed, but not a victim. This can be a hard concept for people to understand. Perhaps because some become so defined by events they lose the inclination to see themselves as anything but the sum of their circumstances. It’s tougher to be someone who acknowledges their skin-history, but has chosen to move on: scars are just decoration and a reminder. For me, self-transformation has been a salve, not a solve-all. I am me, but I’m also free. As RuPaul says, “We are born naked, and the rest is drag.”
Australia Day is the day before my birthday. I am older than it has been a national holiday. I’ve enjoyed days off work, fireworks, and other people organising events for it. Being white, I didn’t question the significance. I lapped up colonial stories like milk. The press makes protest seem like the diversion of strangers. Sadness in the eyes of black elders seems like a needle stuck in history. Anger in youth seems misplaced: it’s been taught, hasn’t it? Australia was invaded. We are survivors. It’s remarkable the speed at which a person forgets that acute pain in others is real; that pain is passed on through generations. We see it as principled pain, which is harder to digest. Being white, I had to seek out alternative narratives — if not the text, then the acceptance of them. I chose to listen, even though it was confronting. Stories of suffering were not told for me to feel guilty. I understood this. I’d been in the same place. I’d requested the same patience and action. Recognise me — at least. Speak my name.
If I’m asked outright, What should we call our national holiday? I would say the great thing about this country is that we can call it whatever we like. Sliding off my fencepost, I suggest that Australia Day doesn’t necessarily suggest BBQs, Genocide, the Hottest 100, Casual Racism, or Goon-of-Fortune— ‘Australia’ is still open for interpretation. Is January 26 offensive? Well, subjective adjectives aside, it’s the date of colonial arrival. Those people were British, not Australian. It would take generations before that identity stuck with ANZAC pride. And aren’t we talking about pride if we talk about a national holiday?
Pride is a tricky one. Pride was another noun I had trouble with when I was a budding gay. I took it literally: how could I be proud of something I couldn’t control? In my youth I witnessed and partook in very un-pride-like acts of selfishness, blame, mopishness, manipulation. Gay pride wasn’t earnt, it seemed. You were expected to have it, and for shame if you criticised it. As I matured I realised that pride was a ‘fuck you’ tool used to combat the exhaustive contempt thrown at you by society. It was a counter to shame, a survival tool.
National pride works in the same way. People want to feel no shame in where they were born. It wouldn’t be surprising if those most vocal about defending Australia for Australia’s sake are at the two ends of the class spectrum: at one end, those overly aware of silver-white spoons; at the other, those desperate to have a birthright to be proud of. Criticism of pride is hard to take. Criticism is privilege. I criticised gay pride because I was born in 1984 and had loving, supportive parents. I have criticised national pride because I’ve had nothing to lose in feeling ashamed of my country’s governmental decisions and policies. National pride isn’t dumb, but we need to talk about what’s worth being proud of and how we can earn it. What does the ‘Australia’ in Australia Day actually mean? What are we celebrating?
Perhaps pride and celebration are not the key words here. Appreciation and acknowledgment come to mind, though they are much less fun. Australia means a multitude of positive and negative noun phrases and adjectives to all of its citizens. Wouldn’t the mature approach to pride be to recognise the conversation those oppositions create is the unique thing about this country? What sort of quasi-adult reaches maturity thinking they are an infallible loudspeaker of reason? Contradictions in bodies and cultures are what make those people and countries interesting.
White Australians are reluctant to adopt the colour title because it’s the first time a label has been thrust upon them, or it’s a label they didn’t want to deal with on top of working out just how gay, liberal, conservative, straight, middle-class they are. It’s also problematic because the only whites that have seemed to claim the title with gusto are supremacists. But the only way Australia can move positively forward, culturally, is if white Australians accept that, like any group of people, we have a history, we aren’t sacrosanct; we should not be vilified, but not free of blame either. We should also be targets of the “But where are you really from?” interrogation. White Australians have a culture that dominates the discourse in the country. We have a present and a future that doesn’t have to be associated with being shit. Maybe you’re doing your best already, but never assume you’re the example against which everyone else should be judged.
Sometimes the request for this type of reflection is met with hostility. The takeaway is that you should be ashamed of the flesh sack your ego was poured into at birth. I get it. Fifteen years ago, when I came out as gay, I took umbrage with the label ‘queer’, I wasn’t comfortable reclaiming a derogative, nor being seen as different.
On Australia/Survival/Invasion Day I am going to think about the following things:
- Laughter being a default leveller. Delivery dry as a dead dingo’s donger.
- The fear of people in boats taking away the lifestyle we’ve become comfortable with.
- The denial, for better or worse, of social stratification. We’re all mates. Fair go.
- Both genocide and civil laws implemented with frightening paternal intentions.
- The freedom to call your mum a sick cunt and the acceptance that you’re a little shit.
- Piss-taking that walks the fine line between stereotype irony and casual racism.
- Genuine love of word play: making words shorter, nonsensical, figuratively unsightly.
- The ability to discover food that had existed for hundreds of years before the café found a philosophy.
- Finding peace living with wildlife that gives no fucks whether you live to televise the encounter.
- Common sense when it comes to ownership and use of handy death machines.
- The weird obsession with rules that makes our sporting teams either very good or mediocre (but never terrible).
- Drag queens being the icons of our cinema and cross-dressing an obsession of the alphas.
- The erasure of an old, complex culture and the determination not to forget, to bring along with the new.
- Changing Australia Day to May 8 for the pun of it.
- Happy with international acts topping our national holiday’s music best-of list.
- Superficial friendliness, noncommittal dances, lifelong loyalty once behind the fence.
- Processing that discerns whether new arrivals actually want to be here, for better or worse.
- Starving, violated persons waiting offshore for the tightly-knotted red tape of our government to prove a point.
- Democracy sausage.
I’m keen to hear other Australian thoughts on the matter. I’m proud of the conversation.