Like many five year olds who grew up in Australian suburbia, I had a best friend who would jump on her bed with me to the theme song from British police drama series Heartbeat. We would also sing along to the song, but here’s a fact: I only knew the lyrics ‘Heartbeat, why do you miss when my baby kisses me’, and consequently, the real song was drowned out by the two of us belting out the same sentence for two minutes and fourteen seconds.
When we were puffed from jumping and shout-singing, we would mutually decide it was the portion of our playtime dedicated to pashing on to the theme song from British police drama series Heartbeat. And while 1960’s Yorkshire was solving neighbourhood crimes to the dulcet tones of Heartbeat we were making house to Heartbeat, or cooking chocolate and carrot water-soup to Heartbeat, or peeing in the same toilet at the same time to Heartbeat because we figured hey, that’s gotta be how babies are made, and as they say, first comes soup, next comes pissing to make a baby.
Fifteen years, another city, high school, two long term boyfriends and half an undergraduate degree later, I was moonlighting as a waitress in a small mountains township. I had it all: a shit job, an arts degree, a relatively serious boyfriend with wildly polar political views to mine, and a crush on one of the lecturers at my university. She was a novelist, and if I were to rate my infatuation from one to ten, I would say it was about the length and depth of the great pacific garbage patch that sits in a deadly, unsubtle pile somewhere between New Zealand and California. I’m sorry, I said I would rate it from one to ten and then I got distracted remembering the time my lecturer called me into her office to show me a birds nest she had found, and I imagined ramming her against her bookshelf featuring her own novels and making out with her like Hearbeat was playing really, really loudly and quickly. In my vagina.
To cope with myself, in the evenings after work I would perch on the open windowsill of my bedroom, light a cigarette, and watch what I can now only call a seminal television series, The L Word.. The L Word showed me a sunny, coffee-fuelled Los Angeles filled with misadventures and heroines kind-of like those of Sex and the City, but with less taxis, and pretty much no ‘weird’ sex because the whole show was entirely queer: I discovered lesbians who had long hair and worked jobs in elite art galleries despite the fact that I witnessed more ‘curatorial action’ than curatorial action in any art gallery scene. The L Word introduced me to bisexual ladies who wore cute dresses and ran successful statewide radio programs about the fact that everyone sleeps with everyone in gay LA. Most appropriately, I was introduced to a shy, psychopathic writer called Jenny Sheckter, who realises she is inexplicably attracted to tall, intelligent women even though she’s engaged to her All American swim instructor high school sweetheart.
As a character, Jenny was a doe-eyed irrational, vindictive pain in the ass, but as a character going through something deeply secret and personal, Jenny Sheckter was exactly the person I needed to meet. I could identify with her uncertainty, her desire, and her decision to lie to her fiancée because she didn’t know how to go from being safely nestled in the kingdom of straight, to traversing the queer badlands – braless and with only a laptop for comfort. So I did what any young questioning writer lady would do. I broke up with my good boyfriend, and I moved to a big city – and by big city, I mean Canberra. Yes, you can have your flashy Sydney Harbours and gallery-riddled Melbourne streets, but I like a city where you are guaranteed a response to your parking ticket inquiry within seven days. Canberra is so straight-shooting, it has eliminated the need for West and East: you can only live on the North side or the South side. It is the Ron Swanson of Australian cities, and it was a place I could come out. But there’s a difference between meeting people as someone who is out, and coming out to the people who you’ve escaped by moving away.
Six months later, on a grizzly, late afternoon in the middle of winter, I was sitting in the car with my Mother, who had collected me from a train station in the Blue Mountains. I had come home from Canberra for a week. The day before, my new girlfriend Lydia – who my mother didn’t know about – had organised a birthday party for me. She had also showered me in entirely wearable gifts, and I had unstrategically decided to don all of them, simultaneously, for my trip home. It took my mother five minutes to detect something was different. She said I looked extremely well – that I was in fact GLOWING. She asked me what I did for my birthday and I explained my friend Lydia had thrown me a party. She asked me where I got my new watch from. I said Lydia had given it to me. She asked me where my space-themed leggings had come from. I said, weirdly enough, they had been a gift from Lydia too – haha, weird right? So weird.
Three hours later, on the night of my 24th Birthday, sitting on a sofa in my mother’s house, in a onesie my mother had decided was a reasonable birthday gift for a grown adult, I knew I had to tell my mum I had a girlfriend. At the same time, I was irrationally convinced my mum already knew I had a girlfriend. I was convinced she knew because friends don’t buy friends watches and two pairs of seventy five dollar leggings and bust out birthday parties all over the place unless my life was an episode of The OC or Gossip Girl. I knew my mother had never seen either of those shows, and therefore she knew this behavior between friends was abnormal, because my mother’s televisual pursuits extend to Midsommer Murders, and damnit, so do mine. I knew my mother knew I had a girlfriend because our conversation had whittled down to her talking about fine bone china, and only a rational person avoiding an awkward conversation would commit to a discussion about the merits of a teacup. My mouth was dry and the world had slowed, and sitting there, in a onesie, on my birthday, I stopped my mother mid-sentence.
While she stood at our kitchen bench and poured me a hot water bottle, I said, ‘Mum. I love you. And I don’t want you to worry, but I have to tell you something, and I want you to know I’m not telling you because I want to upset you. You know Lydia?’ My mother nodded, ‘Yes’, she said. She was giving me this bug-eyed stare that suggested she was expecting me to tell her Lydia was dying of terminal cancer. In this moment I realised my mother had no idea what I was about to tell her. My second thought was, ‘Oh my god, my mum thought we were mutually enjoying a conversation about Wedgewood cups.’
Mum paused with the kettle and an open hot water bottle in her hands. I had a third thought, ‘Note to self, tell others not to come out when their parents are operating heavy machinery, having an argument OR using a kettle to fill a hot water bottle. Where it can be avoided you do not want coming out to end in second degree burns. Somebody needs to write a safety manual to coming out. Oh my god, I could write that safety manual.’
‘Oh no Rosie.’ My mother had interrupted my latest realisation with hers. ‘Oh no.’ She said it as though I could be coaxed into recognising my gayness was a bad idea and I could just change my mind about it, like it was a tattoo I was entertaining getting, or a really, really horrible pair of pants. I cried and she told me not to cry, because I hadn’t told her anything sad.
In searching for concerns, my mother came up with,
‘But Rosie, what if she’s… grooming you?’
To which I replied, ‘For what? Making me more gay?’
This was also followed by:
‘I mean, I look at a woman and I can see she is beautiful, but I’m not attracted to her…’ I explained to mum that there was nothing to worry about, this behavior indicated she was a straight person who was very straight.
And that was pretty much the end of the conversation. We turned on the television, and we sat awkwardly, while we both dimly realised that for the rest of my life my mother would think I was watching movies and cop shows and constantly feeling something in my pants for the female leads. My sisters later told me mum called them, and cried to them down the phone – she grieved the loss of my safe heterosexual life, and every dream she had had for it. But she’s okay now, and I’m okay.
I’m telling you this coming out story because, for now, all openly queer people have at least one, and I think we need to keep telling them as often as possible. We need to keep telling them – to keep coming out – because I’m not the only straight-looking queer kid who didn’t truly realise there were no restrictions to a gay identity until I was oogling Jenny Scheckter macking on with her ladylove. We need to keep unapologetically telling these stories of coming out until coming out isn’t something we do anymore. Or, perhaps oppositely, until everyone – queer, straight, asexual and trans – has to come out in some way equally. We need to tell coming out stories because they remind us of the choice we have to share that beautiful vulnerability each human has.
A few months ago, my old Heartbeat friend and I met up for dinner, and I decided it was time to discern whether I had imagined us both peeing in a toilet and making out to the theme song of a show about policemen set in the 1960’s. I think I was most-nervous about mentioning it to her because she knows I have a girlfriend, and I didn’t want her to worry about whatever it is queer people are worried straight people worry about when queer people come out to them. Like they’re going to remember that time in high school when all the girls on schoolies played spin the bottle, and now one of the girls is gay so everyone needs to go and rub their tongues on towels or something. But my friend smiled. She said she remembered it all, and she was so glad we could both explore our sexualities so comfortably and trustingly and innocently in our strange five-year-old bubble. And I wondered – between our arguments over who would carry our toilet-bowl conception, and the moment we decided to put the game down, and silence it for over a decade – when it was that we had learnt loving who we loved was ever a bad thing at all.
Rosanna Stevens is a researcher and dog-person based in the ACT. She has written for a stack of Australian publications including The Griffith Review, The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, and Sleeper’s Almanac. In 2013 she was shortlisted for the Scribe Prize for Nonfiction and the Yen Magazine Short Fiction Prize.