I never thought I’d go to a comedy show and spend half the time suppressing an explosion of tears. The first half of comedian Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette, was hilarious and unique in the way she poked fun of herself, her upbringing and her knowledge of art history and Vincent Van Gogh.
However, Tasmania’s Gadsby took a turn in the second half of the performance, where she explained her 12 year career as a comedian was coming to an end, because it kept her stuck in her adolescence, unable to move on.
With homosexuality illegal in Tasmania until 1997, Gadsby grew up with shame and hated herself for being queer. Her career has been partially based around jokes on these subjects, where she made light of her lived experiences.
I silently cheered on her courage for telling her story of homophobia and sexual assault while openly calling out our patriarchal system; she addressed the men in the room by pleading with them to take responsibility and be part of the change.
While I identify as bisexual and felt some of her stories of homophobia were familiar, the part that hit me hardest was the mention of sexual assault.
Just like Gadsby, I kept my stories bottled up. I pretended when I lost my virginity to rape at 16, that I wanted it.
It happened at a friend’s birthday party with a boy – we’ll call him Alex – who was considered one of the popular kids at our high school. I had met him in art class and although he had rejected me at first, he later began flirting with me for months, via text.
I was one of those misfits who went to school dressed in clothing that were more like costumes than an outfit. My friends were the stoner kids and I often skipped class to read or to draw in the art room. I wasn’t at the bottom of high school’s hierarchy chain, but I certainly wasn’t at the top.
That’s why it was easy for Alex to spin a new version of what happened.
By Monday, rumours were flying. Because I had been the one to initially kiss him at the party, who would believe me when I said I only wanted to kiss him, but sex was just too far – that I told him I no, but he went ahead with it anyway? At a time where people believed women claim rape to save face, I didn’t think anyone would believe the truth. I had really liked Alex before the incident and everyone knew that. So the idea that this attractive much cooler than me-guy forced sex on me, seemed outside the realm of possibility.
So instead I did the only thing I felt I could. I held my head high and acted as though nothing was amiss. I never made eye contact with him again – even though I sat directly across from him in English class. That was my act of defiance, to show I did not care about his existence and wanted nothing from him.
I made jokes to my friends about that night, just like Gadsby joked onstage, as a coping mechanism. It was easier to make light of it and pretend that the moment hadn’t affected me deeply, that it wasn’t something I stayed up thinking about, wondering if I really had been raped or if maybe in some realm I had been unclear when I told him no. Maybe he didn’t understand and it was therefore not his fault – but mine.
It took me six years to finally tell someone about it. While there were several factors that meant I finally felt safe enough to do so, the relief of finally being open about it was liberating.
I went to a rally against sexual abuse shortly after coming to terms with what happened and found more than half of my friends there, all with similar experiences. I nearly fainted when one of the speakers shouted, “it’s not your fault!” They were exactly the words I needed to hear.
Now, I talk openly about it because I’m reminded of my scared 16-year-old self who felt no one would believe me because I thought, these things don’t happen to people like me.
But it’s tough. That fear and shame never quite goes away. There is still so much stigma around sexual assault that most women will be doubted and blamed for what happened. “Well, what were you wearing,” or “were you drinking” are still common questions that are asked, upon speaking up.
So when the older Caucasian man beside me at Gadsby’s show sat with his arms crossed and refused to clap or stand up at the end, I wasn’t surprised. There’s still a long road ahead of us, but this well-known comedian stood up and told her story, and the women in the audience hugged each other at the end, and a man on the other side of me howled in support, so I think we are off to a pretty good start.
Seeing Gadsby on stage reminded me of myself, when I struggled to tell my mother what happened or when I could hardly breathe as I approached my first protest against sexual abuse. The beginning of my storytelling was much more fragile than the stance Gadsby had made, but I’m sure there were more vulnerable moments for her as well. It takes time to bring trauma to the surface and to talk about it not as a victim, but as a survivor.
Listening to Gadsby, I wanted nothing more than to run up on stage and hug her, knowing all the pain she has had to endure. But like she said, this isn’t just her story, “it’s all of our stories.” And while men must stand up as well, it’s women like Gadsby who propel us forward with their courage, inspiring myself and many others to make our stories known.
Dana Bowen is a Canadian journalist who previously worked as an arts reporter in the sub-Arctic as well as in Vancouver, where she was born and raised. Currently, Dana is living and travelling throughout Australia, where she freelances as both a reporter and photographer.