No More Closets


It was one of those moments that occur in a busy family. We all just happened to come together briefly one Friday evening, my husband was barbecuing dinner and the teenagers were pausing before heading off to their real life with their friends in the outside world.

We were chatting in that way you do when you’ve fallen together briefly and accidentally and pleasantly when my eldest announced in a pleased voice that a friend from her Year 12 cohort (they all graduated last year) had sent a group email to his friends and relations announcing that he was gay.

‘Oh,’ I said, as if she’d just announced he’d won a prize, ‘That’s so nice.’ And I immediately wondered if it was appropriate to send him a congratulatory card you know, something along the lines of: ‘We felt gay when we heard you were!’

Thanks to Sharon Raggett

All of us agreed we were pleased for her friend and the conversation moved on.

Almost 30 years ago, a friend of mine from uni we’d acted together in a couple of riotous Ancient History Revues, him spending most of his nights on stage dressed in briefs and fishnets in best Frank’n Furter style (we were nothing, if not derivative) arrived early for my 21st birthday party.

In great (but furtive) excitement, he dragged me into my bedroom to announce that he was gay. His disappointment when I wasn’t shocked or even surprised was palpable. Being gay was a risky thing in the 1970s, particularly as he was an indentured schoolteacher working out his time in a town in far-west NSW. Worse, he was the son of devout Catholic parents and it was many years before he was able to tell them about his sexuality.

But things were changing, when he did finally come out to them, they immediately pleaded with him to see a Catholic counsellor. Being a loving son, he agreed and went to see the local one who was also a priest. ‘Do you have a problem with being gay?’ asked the priest.

‘No,’ he replied.

‘Then I don’t need to see you,’ replied this enlightened man, ‘I need to see your parents.’ They went and, while they never became reconciled entirely to their son’s sexuality, they did not deny it or ostracise or punish him.

More than 50 years ago, a close relative of mine was also gay. He lived a secret and double life. He spent most of his 20s and 30s living a glamorous life with a rich ‘friend.’ But after World War 2, as a highly decorated member of the armed services, he married and had two children, naming his son after his old ‘friend.’ Indeed, it soon became clear that he maintained his old friendships throughout his marriage, a poorly kept secret that took a huge toll on his wife. She died tragically in her early 40s.

These days, it is easy for those of us who are socially progressive to get depressed about the direction Australia seems to be taking. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But it only takes small moments, like my daughter’s announcement, to show me that all is not lost, and to remind me of how far and how fast we have travelled.

Despite everything, this is the best time in history to be either female or gay at least in the West. And, despite everything, that fact has increased the psychological health of us all. The more macho and female-unfriendly a society, the more deadly it is to all its citizens, male or female. Perhaps that’s another reason why the murder rate in Australia has more than halved in the last five years. And, along with the death of rigid masculinity, of course, has come the dwindling importance of the warrior class.

I love seeing families walking together these days because the father is invariably pushing the stroller. When I went walking with my parents as a small child, my father never pushed the stroller, fathers just didn’t in those days parenting was really women’s work and fathers kept out of it. A man pushing a stroller would have looked peculiar; he would have been ‘unmanned,’ as the strange expression went. Now fatherhood is everywhere and men are clearly getting a huge kick out of it.

Oddly enough, I think this development is directly related not only to feminism but also to our increased acceptance of homosexuality. Men no longer have to be parodies of masculine rectitude to conform to our idea of manhood. They are allowed to cry, to show a softer side, to nurture, to push a stroller a change that was loudly signalled in my own youth by the revolutionary fashion for long hair on men. No wonder that fashion so infuriated the older generation particularly older men they saw clearly that the social construct of masculinity was changing, along with the social construct of femininity.

I saw both changes demonstrated beautifully just a few weeks ago. I was doing some freelance work at an ad agency and a senior male member of staff came to work with his small baby daughter after child care had fallen through. As he worked, he shared her care with his boss, the female Managing Director. What I was watching, taken for granted by almost everyone else there, was nothing short of a (bloodless) revolution.

It has been the death of shame that has liberated so many of us to live more honest, genuine and loving lives. Once, women were taught to be ashamed of their sexuality, their intelligence and, perhaps most of all, their anger and their power. Men were taught to be ashamed of ‘sissyness,’ of anything soft or vulnerable or emotional. The genders were rigidly and cruelly separated, not just physically but psychologically by restricting what emotions and behaviours they were permitted to display.

It is interesting to speculate whether the old fashioned ‘men only’ spaces in pubs, clubs sports grounds were subconsciously designed to prevent women (and female emotion) from literally infecting men. The male gender still suffers more from this rigid socialisation. I always feel so sorry for baby boys already, at birth, unlike their female counterparts, there are colours they cannot wear and toys they cannot play with.

I’m not saying it is easy to be gay the rate of suicide in the gay community clearly indicates it is still hugely problematic or that all problems have been solved for ambitious and ‘difficult’ women, or, indeed, that loving fatherhood comes without a cost. But I do believe it is easier than it has ever been to be genuinely yourself.

And it is the socially progressive who can take pride in this extraordinary achievement.

Those of us on that side of politics must not allow ourselves to be intimidated by the crows of triumph some of the conservative pundits cannot resist indulging in. Despite the pendulum swinging away from our side at the moment, the world is steadily and inexorably changing. Women, gays and fathers are simply not going to get back into their boxes.

The gender revolution the sexual revolution, with all its difficulties and mistakes and problems is the revolution humanity had to have.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.