How Saying Something Then Might Have Made Things Better Now

“What time do you finish Poofter Practise?”

I still remember being asked that back in 2003. I was 19. My friend was referring to my rehearsals for Les Miserables. He didn’t just ask me once, either, because rehearsals for that show, with the Batemans Bay Theatre Players, went for months.

I laughed it off. I was one of the only teenage boys doing amateur theatre in my hometown. My character was Enjolras, and the group of “students” I was trying to inspire into rebellion at the ABC Cafe were mostly played by retirees. It must have looked funny to see a rabble of grandpas in late-19th century French period-costume, with clip-on ponytails, beating their chests about the blood of angry men, only myself and two other boys bringing down the median age of your average Parisian dissident.

It’s not that I was different. I was just different for Batemans Bay. I enjoyed “cultural activities” like drama, theatre, writing, music and art, as well as the swag of things I liked (or pretended to like) to fit in with the local boys’ club. So I accepted “poofter practise”. Even my own high school decorated me with the award for achievement in areas “other than academia and sport” at the end of Year 12. Straight male culture at the coast just didn’t do thespian back then.

It’s not that I was different. I was just different for Batemans Bay

Batemans Bay in the ’90s and early noughties was a footy town. And by footy, I mean rugby league or rugby union. Even when the successful local AFL club, The Seahawks, banded together, wearing their fleecy team tracksuits like varsity American football jocks, they were not immune to heckling from supporters of the rugby codes, most usually in the form of the intellectual powderkeg insult, “Gay-FL”. What hope did a young man have, doing theatre?

As a teenage boy at the Bay, we seemed to do what we could to ensure there were no doubts about our sexuality – out of self-preservation. Even though no one could properly explain why a private thing like sexuality would come with a set of prerequisite behaviours. I wasn’t even 100% sure that I wasn’t gay, I just didn’t know it was a valid option. You had a girlfriend, you surfed or you played footy. You did what you could to fit the tough, dumb, teenage boy persona, often when you didn’t totally agree deep down.

I reluctantly committed my share of hand-brakeys and burnouts to compete in the testosterone pissing contest. Mum accused me of trying to keep up with the other boys. I retaliated with verbal tirades. Probably because she put me in my place, as a rather soft-hearted young man trying to make it in a hard man’s world. She was right. That wasn’t me. Still, at least I had my outlet, “poofter practise,” where I could become more like the man I wanted to be.

I’m told by a member of the south coast theatre community that these days, “poofter practise” is more likely to be known simply as “rehearsals”. While they admit it hasn’t always been the case, there’s now “a plethora of boys interested in theatre” from local high schools. They do plays and musicals and they’re confident and open about their interests and, apparently, represent a good cross-section of the local young male community.

There seemed to still be some familiar stereotypes associated with theatre and other “cultural activities,” however, when I actually checked in with a couple of local high school-aged students. The older of two boys reckoned studying drama or doing theatre “would be considered woosy,” but he admitted no one really brought it up among the kids he knows. He also didn’t know anyone passionate about writing.

I asked whether they hear words like “gay” or “faggot” being thrown around as negatives or put-downs. Apparently it’s still a regular thing. While they all agree no one really calls anyone out for talking like this, they do believe if someone was gay at school, they wouldn’t be the victim of homophobic abuse – or not to their face. “Maybe behind their back,” a girl told me.

She also said there are a few openly gay teenage boys at her high school, something I find heartening, because she’s talking about my old school, and that’s a real, positive change from when I was growing up. My old high school is a Christian one. They don’t do the Safe Schools program, but I am told they have anti-bullying and anti-homophobia campaigns in place. That doesn’t mean the school is now a haven for gay students, but if what the girl has told me is accurate, at least the boys she mentions are now feeling comfortable enough to be open about their sexuality, despite the inbuilt homophobia of Christianity and the entitlement of local high school boys, who publicly identify as straight, and think it’s their right to be casually homophobic.

By the time I was nineteen, it was almost a badge of honour, that I did something that was an affront to my mates

At high school, my main thing “other than academia and sport” was rock music. At the end of Year 7, my covers band belted out Grinspoon’s ‘Champion’ and ‘Pedestrian’. It was the one time I felt like we impressed people. That gig gave me a “muso identity” I carry with me to this day. A follow-up performance in Year 8 was met with disdain by the older footy boys. I remember they sat along the front of the stage at a school social, their backs turned to us. One of them did turn around at one point, but it was only to say, “You’re shit.” I didn’t stop playing, but I remember it being intimidating. “Poofter Practise” didn’t stop me doing theatre, though, and by the time I was nineteen, it was almost a badge of honour, that I did something that was an affront to my mates. The following year, I was away at university, and had a heap of new friends, with diverse sexualities, cultural backgrounds and interests. No more was there a connection between your hobbies and who you like to go to bed with.

I still think about my Batemans Bay days, though, and wonder how many times I let casual homophobia directed at me or my friends go. I wonder if that has any bearing on how young people speak now at the coast. Had it come up, I know I would have jumped to the defence of someone who identified as LGBTIQ and who was suffering a direct tirade of homophobic abuse. I clearly remember times in Year 4 and Year 9 when I called out other Anglo boys for being racist. The time in Year 9 also came with a nasty backlash to me for calling it out. But casual homophobia was so normalised at the coast that I took “poofter practise” on the chin and didn’t see any point trying to change my friend’s vocabulary. It was just a bit of sledging between friends, and while I was confident enough to carry on with theatre, I wasn’t mature enough to say, “Hey, that’s homophobic, and you’re suggesting what I do isn’t manly.”

People suffer because my generation neglected to modify our language and help create social change during our teens

The fact is, though, that people suffer because my generation neglected to modify our language and help create social change during our teens. At university and throughout my twenties, I came to understand that casual homophobia is deeply offensive and wrong, no matter who it’s directed at and who it’s coming from. One of the more harrowing “coming out” stories I was told – incidentally from a prominent gay journalist I was working with – also included a history of the word “faggot”. No, it’s not just “a bundle of sticks,” as someone once uttered at Batemans Bay.

I’m 32, but I still have a connection to south coast youth through my nieces and nephews. Invariably, kids will repeat things they hear at school. A small contribution I can make is to help their parents call out any casual homophobia, explain what the words mean and how they’re hurtful, in the hope they might do the same the next time their mates say the words. Maybe that should go for my old high school mates, too. I wonder what they’d think if I brought it up?

Johnny Barrington was triple j Hack’s first Federal Parliament reporter in Canberra from 2009 to 2012. Since then he’s worked in videography and social media in the university and government sectors (both Australian and foreign), before returning to radio this year. A founding member of politico-punk band Super Best Friends, Johnny also manages bands and contributes to Aussie music news websites. Growing up in Batemans Bay, New South Wales, Johnny has lived in Canberra and Melbourne, and took time out to travel Europe this year with his new wife, also spending a short stint in a busy London newsroom just after Brexit.  

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