Andrew, in his own words:“What does being gay mean to me? It’s something unique, a little rare, and rather beautiful. I’m grateful I can be open every day about something so central to who I am.
I came out just over five years ago, a great time to be a gay man: stark stereotypes were, and still are, crumbling, welcoming loudly a vivid spectrum of queerness, and things generally are a little easier. But I also consider myself lucky to have grown up outside of this, outside the relatively comfortable bubble that big city life provides. I think that makes me love the uniqueness of being a gay man a little more, and all it brings.
As a teenager growing up in regional Australia, I hadn’t drawn the connection between attraction and identity. Or, in other words, I spent more than a few afternoons in my later teens trawling the dial-up web for a scantily clad male jpeg or two (and then forensically destroying the browsing history), but if you were to question whether it meant anything, I wouldn’t entertain the thought outside very private – and probably very confused – moments. And why would I? I had no idea of what being gay could be, beyond the flamboyant Jack from Will and Grace, and the boys at school that sounded even a little camp, and subsequently were subjected to years of taunts and torture. Both didn’t fit with who I was, and made denying and hiding that part of me feel like a more appealing option.
But don’t get me wrong – my high school years were pretty good by any measure. I did fine academically, had close friends, and had a very loving family. In Year 10, I completed a 90-kilometre jungle trek that gave me a kick up the bum (my teenage “less-than-quarter-life” crisis), I joined the School Representative Council, and was School Captain in my graduating year.
It’s just none of that was about being gay. Because I didn’t really know what that was. For me, at least.
I believe being a positive role model in life is one of the most important things we can give (especially as gay men to our younger brothers) and it was a dear friend, a few years older than me, being herself that flicked the switch for me. It was the end of my second year of university, my second year living away from home, and the end of a period of dating girls, enjoying their company, but realising that something wasn’t quite there. Sitting on my friend’s lounge, she shared with me something very personal about her own identity, and in an instant became a role model for my journey.
“You’re bi?” I responded. “I think I am too.”
While I later worked out that that wasn’t quite the spot on the spectrum for me, that conversation, those few words shared, was the turning point that allowed me to join the great big party that is being out and owning my own skin. I’d found what being gay was for me.
If I could go back and share a few words with my younger self, I think it would be to take a few more risks. The greatest successes in my life have come from trusting my gut, and pushing past other stresses and opinions. Switching cities for an unpaid job, venturing off a career path, moving states for love. Perhaps I could have trusted the gut a little more I guess? Then again, I do love to procrastinate…
Do I wish I had come out earlier though? Probably not, because I made the decision when it felt right – again, when the gut check came up with a yes. And I’m forever grateful that I had that choice. My heart just cracks in two when I hear stories of teens who don’t, who are forced out, and for whom it all becomes too much. Thank fuck for the internet, for YouTube, and for organisations that go into small towns and cities and share the love. That gives just one kid hope. Because that’s one more beautiful person in this world.
My greatest challenge was keeping my sexuality from someone very dear to me, for fear of acceptance. My grandmother turned 90 yesterday, and I only came out to her in the last six months. I probably put it off a little too long, but I wanted to do it when I could tell her that I was in a relationship, to dispel her fears of me being forever alone! It came up in a phone call, when the topic of marriage was broached. I told her I had met someone, and that someone just happened to be a man. Without skipping a beat, she responded ‘As long as you’re happy Andrew, I’m happy.’ A couple of months later, she met Gus over lunch, and I don’t think I’ve seen her that happy, and proud, in a long time. We’ve always been very close, and we’ve grown even closer since. When we spoke last night for her birthday, she insisted that I give Gus a hug, and made sure that I made it clear it had come from her, and not me!
I’ve only been in Melbourne for about six months, so I don’t really feel like I know what the gay community is like. I also moved here into a relationship, so probably haven’t explored it as much as I would have had I been flying solo. But generally, Melbourne’s gay scene feels subtler than Sydney’s scene-stealing sashay. I haven’t decided whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
I lived in Australia’s harbour city for four formative years – my early twenties – and Oxford Street’s concentration of queer culture and nightlife, the home of the city’s Mardi Gras, meant, and still does mean, something special to me. When I lived at university two hours away, I used to catch the train into the city, stay out all night, and then wait on the platform to catch the return train at some ungodly hour the following morn, tired as fuck but with a un-erasable smile. Oxford Street was a magical place. A safe place. And heck, I didn’t even go out that much, but it was just a knowing that it was there. I’m not sure Melbourne has that equivalent. It’s the “post-“ vibe. Maybe those dedicated strips aren’t as important to a new generation of gay men, but it’s important to remember that once you leave the confines of the city, safety and wide acceptance is often the exception, not the norm.
As a gay man, I haven’t yet found the best way to contribute and give back to our community yet, and that weighs on me a little. How can I make life a little easier for those that have come after me, kind of thing. I feel like being able to be out, safe and happy is like a giant chocolate cake – a delicious treat – and it’s a bit rude not to share. For that reason, being part of The Gay Men Project feels very special indeed. ‘
Gus, in his own words:“I want to be able to answer this succinctly, to dismiss the notion that my being gay is anymore important than my height or my ability to yell very loudly (my somewhat lame superpower), but my sexuality, our sexuality, is certainly complex and it’s something I’m still trying to work out fully. As a man, rather than thinking about a spectrum of sexuality, and where I fit into it, I like to think of a spectrum of masculinity, of femininity, and of self. How I identify, behave, interact or contribute to the world as a man, period, is more important to me than how I identify as gay man. That being said, until sexuality, and in my case homosexuality, is part of a more open global conversation, more accepted and felt commonplace, then it is important for me to identify as being gay. But it is simply a part of who I am as a man.
I feel very privileged to even have the opportunity in my life to succeed and to fail. That is a true freedom. For many on the planet the notion of success can come down to a fundamental sense of survival. I never let myself forget that.
Up until the age of 31 I played field hockey in Australia to a pretty elite level, and at the same time built a strong career as an Art Director and Creative Director in the advertising industry. On a surface level it might be easy to see some of these accomplishments as the basis of success. But unquestionably the greatest success in my life has been, in recent years, my ability to recognise the things that make me feel vulnerable are not signs of weakness. And by confronting those vulnerabilities, those fears, by owning them, they’ve come to empower me and allowed me to empower others through sharing my story and experiences.
I tend to talk a lot about my more ‘public’ coming out. In 2011 I posted a video to YouTube – ‘Gus Johnston: The reality of homophobia in sport’ – in which I came out to my sport, and shared my thoughts and experiences of being a closeted gay man in the sporting world. But a year before that video, and before I began actively campaigning against homophobia on and off the field, I came out to my parents. My involvement in the sporting world had obviously been a major contributor to my silence about my sexuality, and living a sort of half truth about who I was. But I’d always given myself some kind of imaginary deadline that by the age of 30 I’d be out. So at the age of 29 years and 364 days I came out to my parents. There was little fanfare. It was a simple conversation and life within my immediate family moved forward as though I’d always been out.
Only life was better. It’s often said after coming out that a weight is lifted from one’s shoulders. For me it was probably more akin to a wall crumbling down. The connections I felt to those in my life, those important to me, magnified. And with the dismantling of that wall came the opportunity for people to reach in and connect with me in ways I never imagined.
I think in Melbourne we’re definitely seeing a gradual deterioration of the traditional ‘gay community’. There’s a fragmented and sort of tribalised sub-culture or communities, but I think as gay men strive to be equal citizens with equal rights, particularly with respect to marriage laws in Australia, there is a natural dismantling of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. Not to say there isn’t a need and huge value in providing safe and friendly environments for gay men, particularly for younger gay men. But, globally the internet has obviously exploded those definitions of traditional communities and uncovered new ways for interaction, expression and discovery.
(Advice to my younger self) Stand up straight! Or probably this: In time, that heavy armour you wear each day will form cracks through which a light will shine so bright you’ll scarcely believe you had it in you.”