This is a transcript from our February 2017 event, where three speakers shared their stories of experiencing change. Below is a transcript of Georgina Vallance’s talk, which focussed on her journey to identifying as a queer woman.
Georgina Vallance is a lawyer by profession and is the 2016 ACT Poetry Slam Champion and National Poetry Slam finalist. In her spare time, Georgina is the Gender and Sexual Diversities Officer for Out for Australia, a Council Member of the Australian National University Young Alumni and a purveyor of fine smoked meats. Much of Georgina’s work is focused on improving visibility and understanding around mental health issues for young LGBTIQ people.
Before launching into this story-share, can I please take a moment in my capacity as a solicitor to offer a disclaimer to you: I in no way have my life together and, if anything, it has been proven that in the past I have, and no doubt will, continue to in the future struggle to adapt to change.
For me, change has always presented itself in three forms: the changes that have come about through decisions I have had some part in (consciously or unconsciously), changes that have come about from decisions others have made on my behalf, and change that, out of the blue, creeps up, slaps you in the face and makes you its own. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the latter is my least favourite, but overwhelmingly has consistently provided me with the most useful amount of information about the kind of person I am.
You see, I grew up in a small town on the south-coast of Victoria and I learnt very quickly from an early age that the easiest way to get by was to fit in. My parents heavily encouraged me, as a girl, to play netball instead of football, go to dance classes instead of scouts and while there is nothing wrong with either netball or dance, they aren’t me. I wanted to do what my brothers did, but I was also raised to be compliant. There isn’t much to gossip about in a small town and my parents are upstanding people so they didn’t want to be the topic of conversation. Sometimes, though, that also meant not speaking out – whether that be against racists, homophobes and bigots, you didn’t want to be the people who stood out. I don’t say this with any pride whatsoever. I’m ashamed of it. But my parents, like me, are a product of theirs and so on. It can be hard to break the cycle, particularly when you aren’t even aware that one exists. I hid in the background for such a long time, speaking up but not speaking out, so I was able to avoid a lot of the horrible shit that people deal with growing up; for example, I wasn’t bullied and I never had to deal with being an “other” – the vast majority of the kids I went to high school with were white, straight and middle class.
And then at 19 I moved to Canberra to study at the ANU. I remember in my first few weeks of university I met a number of people who pulled me up, or pulled me aside and told me that some of the things I was saying just weren’t right. They weren’t rude about it, in retrospect those people seemed mostly perplexed that people like me existed. In the same way now I look at people like Pauline Hanson and George Christensen and wonder if there had been people in their lives who had pulled them aside, maybe they would have turned out differently. And then, at 23 years of age I met a girl who I couldn’t stay away from. It sounds ridiculous to me now, years later, that I didn’t know I was gay – but I honestly didn’t. I didn’t know many, if any, gay people and I had had boyfriends both in high school and in university and they were great, but it just wasn’t the same.
After a few months of secretly dating the new woman in my life I decided to tell my parents. When I say that I am one of the first gay people my parents ever really knew, it’s not hyperbole, it’s the truth. When I told them initially they weren’t able to cope with their changed perception of who I was and what it meant for them. For a long time they had difficulty reconciling the idea that the person they had raised with the same values they held could grow up to be an “other”, outside the norm. One of the issues I think was that they were asking me to explain my decision making – why had I chosen to become gay? They had no comparison, experience or adaptability for a change of this kind and I didn’t have the language to explain what I was, what I am, in order to smooth that transition for them.
One of the phenomenal things about being LGBTIQ* is the support of others in the LGBTIQ* community. It wasn’t until I returned to Canberra after my meeting with my parents that through the help of the community I was able to find a language to describe myself and words like “queer” didn’t scare me anymore. Ultimately, I found my voice and using the skills I already held started to project that voice outwards. It’s not easy as an adult to reflect on behaviour that you would now consider cringe-worthy at best and discriminatory at worst, but it has allowed me to reflect on the ways other young people might be struggling with how to come out or have mental health issues as a result of that internal struggle.
If you told me even five years ago that I would be here, I wouldn’t have believed you. But my poetry has given me a voice and enabled me to explain to my parents and to myself what I am. I have also been very lucky that I have been involved with the not-for-profit group Out For Australia who provide mentoring and support to young people in the LGBTIQ* community and more recently to perform a spoken word poem – a letter to Cory Bernardi, George Christenson and Tony Abbott about equality – at the Opera House with my parents in attendance. Having them there supporting me made me realise how far we had come, together.
Change for me is a process, one step at a time, one foot after the other.