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July 17, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

In the Mirror: Queer, Brown and Catholic

As a teenager, being queer was a foreign concept. I was already othered so much already, being half Māori and odd-looking, with delayed social and learning skills due to a difficult birth. By the time I was 13 I was already too much, too weird, too other and too pitied upon that finding a table within the LGBTQIA+ community was a step too far in an already-othered existence. It’s not like Queerness didn’t exist—I knew lesbian women and saw fa’afāfine at church on Sundays and in Youth Group. But again, that was for other people.


My mother had openly gay friends in her friendship circle who were like extended family, and no one said anything about their otherness. In fact, they seemed to like it; they seemed to thrive in it. 


My mother’s type of faith in God and her Catholicism was, and still today is, enviable to me. It follows the lines of what my grandmother had taught her as a girl, with her hand-me-down Irish Catholic stoicism that God’s love was for everyone, and God’s love was best felt when people were kind to one another; that we were expected to lead with empathy and to stay kind despite all odds. Despite being a lapsed, culturally Catholic woman, it is something that I still carry with me and use in everyday life. 


This upbringing—this absolute shining and golden love, coupled with a faith that is the core of that love—is the ideal for queer kids. It ticks all the boxes of acceptance and yet, the crippling loneliness and fear, self-isolation, and self-hatred kept me silent for years. My teenage years from 13  to 18 were a hell of my own making. Hell isn’t other people; its you staring at your reflection in the bathroom mirror, willing yourself to be normal. 


When you hear other queer people talk about their journey, “I thought there was something wrong with me” is a classic line because it is so true. You do think something is wrong with you, like you’re an alien amongst your peers—enough to coast by day-to-day, but there is something very wrong with you and since you can see it, you’re just waiting for everyone else to as well: Not only are you a fraud, you’re a weird fraud.


Because of the very limited reflections in media, literature, and other content out in the world as I was growing up, confusion and self-hatred came with the label of “bi”. I was weird within the other weirdos. I could barely do being a lesbian right because I still had fantasies of Colin Firth as William Darcy being my boyfriend in Regency Era England. Bisexuality was sneered at; seen as a phase, seen as attention-seeking or just a shorthand for being a slut—the label when you’re a man, of course, comes with its own set of challenges and assumptions.  


Growing up, Queerness was for other people. Other people were that kind of different, and that was okay—accepted, even—to be different. But the fear of difference is paralysing when you are young. ”Queer” wasn’t a label available to me like it is today.


Today, I use “queer” and “bisexual” almost interchangeably. Queer is the shorthand, and bisexuality the ‘deeper’ label reserved for people who know me properly. I guess I should pick a label, but right now this is the system I have. It is better than hiding from my own reflection. It’s the label(s) that fits right—not perfect, and it could change as I grow into being an actual adult, but right now it fits like my favourite second-hand coat: worn, well loved, and perfect for me. It took a while—lots of nights full of crying and reading queer fanfiction secretly—but I am here and queer.


Comparatively, my little brother who is 14 and identifies as gay, has had a very different experience. We grew up in two different worlds of queerness: one that is comfortable and one that is uncomfortable in the face of the ghosts of my past, my own mistakes. 


My brother is his own big and proud one-man parade of gayness: ^RuPaul’s Drag Race^ reruns, eye makeup with pops of colour, and an Instagram bio that literally reads, “Hello, I am gay as hell”. His pride is something I admire, but it also makes me fearful for him, because of course there will always be bastards in this world.  


My world of queerness at 14 consisted of looking at girls a little too long, long-lingering looks, hugs that lasted a little too long (only drunk, though, because if you’re drunk it doesn’t mean anything), and kisses at parties. His queerness, on the other hand, is so tangible and real. Mine wasn’t real in that way for a long time. Because you don’t want to make it harder on yourself, because you already tick so many minority boxes in the census of your life.


My brother came out to me when he was 13,when I had just turned 21. I had more or less come out when I was 18, forgetting to actually come out to my Dad until we were walking back to my Wellington flat from a comedy show last year—my poor father, always the last to know; partly because I want to stay his child for as long as possible, partly because it was just embarrassing. When I came out, it was alone, in hushed, fearful whispers. My brother came out excitedly and joyfully—the kind of coming out I had wanted for myself, and the one I had hoped and wished for him. 


My parents are well-meaning, and trying to educate themselves. They’ve never had to do this before; to deal with an out and open gay child. And it is their last child—my little brother is the youngest of five; the baby of the Dawson family. 


They’ve had to do a lot of research, a lot of consulting me and other queer people they know, and even have organisations like Rainbow Youth at their disposal I remember hiding a Rainbow Youth card in a notebook of mine when was 15—we had just had a sexual health class at school, with a pamphlet that basically read, “if you choose to be gay, then think about the impact it will have on your family and friends.” So having Rainbow Youth as a resource for my parents is very full circle for me. 


I try to be the best role model for my little brother, because being 14 is hard. And even with increased visibility for queer people today, being 14 and gay is even more difficult. I try to be the person I would have wanted at 14. The world doesn’t need another self-hating queer kid crying in a bathroom mirror.


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