Mike, in his own words:“Creating identity is the job of a lifetime. We establish a few solid building blocks in our early years, and then spend the rest of our lives cultivating our personal interests, tastes, preferences and desires. Being gay was a building block I didn’t want, nor something I wanted as part of my identity.
Given that I felt negatively toward it for so many years, it gives me comfort that being gay isn’t something I obsess over today. This is not a pernicious statement, it’s just a reflection of the person I am in this moment – a confident man, dedicated to his family and friends, who is at ease with himself. It’s taken a long time to get here, and I’m happy that I no longer see my sexuality as something I have to reveal to people. I just am.
Being printed in Hello Mr magazine will always be a very special moment for me. I had harbored a secret desire to be a writer for a long time, but it wasn’t until Ryan encouraged me to submit, that I really pursued it as something I could actually do. I’m not ashamed to say that seeing my words in print for the first time brought tears to my eyes.
A couple of months after the magazine was released, I received a message from a reader who said my piece had resonated with him. He told me his story of growing up gay, and how he had spent a lot of his childhood feeling alone and ostracized. He explained that my piece, and the entire magazine, had made him feel less isolated, and that for the first time in his life he truly felt as though he’d found his community. The experience of receiving this message changed my notion of success completely. From that moment on, I knew that if something I had written had a positive impact on even just one person, then I had produced something of value. That is what success means to me today.
I didn’t think I was up for the challenge of being a gay man. As a teenager I would lie in bed at night and pray to god to change me, to take away the feelings I had for other guys. I blamed those feelings for being picked on at school; the single difference that the other guys sniffed out and targeted me because of. By age 17 I knew that the feelings were not going away, and so the prayers changed. I no longer asked for god to take the feelings away, I simply said, ‘if I am gay, don’t let me wake up in the morning’.
When I came out at 28, none of the fears I had about being a gay man eventuated. My parents did not disown me, my sisters did not refuse to let me see their children, and my friends did not stop talking to me. I realize that this is not the same for everyone, and that I have been incredibly lucky with the people who have joined me on the journey.
It may sound cliché, but the biggest barrier to my coming out was me. I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I would manage the feelings of others, concocting speeches that would highlight how ‘normal’ I was, despite the fact I was gay. Imagining the negative responses of others always dissuaded me from telling the truth. When I came to the realization that I was only responsible for my own feelings, and in turn my future happiness, I was enabled to speak honestly about myself, and everything else just fell into place.
The gay community in Melbourne is incredibly diverse, with clubs and groups for every type of interest. While I don’t have a great deal to do with the wider community, I’m very fortunate to have a close group of gay friends – they are my community. All of my friends are quite different, and each brings something unique. I love the balance their different qualities provide, a beautiful interplay of strengths that challenge and inspire.
I often wonder; would my younger self heed any advice my older self would give? The scared young man who catalogued his words and movements meticulously so he could eradicate ones that arose suspicion would be unlikely to listen to wisdom that has taken time to cultivate and understand. I think to keep it simple I’d plant a few seed ideas, in the hope that early exposure to them might grow them faster. Here’s what I’d say:
“Be honest, even if it scares you. Know your worth. Ask for help when you need it.”
Mike, in his own words: “Being gay to me means that I’m able to be completely free and comfortable with who I am without feeling any shame, condemnation or judgement.
The greatest success/challenge in my life so far would definitely have to be coming to terms with my sexuality and realising that there was nothing wrong with who I truly was.
I knew I was gay ever since I was 8 or 9, but growing up in a strict conservative Vietnamese family meant that coming out was never an option in my mind. So from very early on, I learned to suppress that side of me and made sure that no one would ever question my sexuality. For years and years I tried to convince myself into thinking that I could live the straight life, fall in love with a girl, get married, have kids and have that house with the white picket fence; but that delusion wouldn’t last for long.
My teenage years were filled with curiosity and experimentation, which meant I had a lot of discreet experiences with other guys. Even through those experiences, I still considered myself to be straight if not bi. My later teenage years would soon get even more confusing due to me discovering the Christian faith. For years I had committed myself to the church and decided to live my life for God, and through that I was taught that living a homosexual life was a big sin. As the years progressed I knew in my heart God loved me no matter what and wasn’t concerned about my sexuality. I felt accepted by him and no one could tell me otherwise.
In my early 20’s I met a great man who would eventually become my first partner. We started out as friends with benefits and the more time I spent with him, the more I grew to like him. He helped me realise so much about myself and the LGBT community and helped me come to terms with my sexuality. For so long I had all these preconceived ideas of what it meant to be gay and after meeting so many of his friends, it showed me that homosexuals weren’t really all that different. They were human, loving, caring and different to how they were being depicted in the media.
I had reached a turning-point in my life and was certain it was time to finally free myself from feeling condemned, trapped and confused. That would mean that I would have to be honest to myself and to the people around me.
Coming out was honestly the most liberating thing I’ve ever had to do. As frightening as it was, the feeling of not having to hide and watch over my shoulder is something that I could never describe.
I think the LGBT community in Melbourne is very large and diverse. We all come from different walks of life and are all just trying to figure out life for ourselves.
The advice I would give to my younger self is to stay true to who you are, love yourself, know that things will work out in good time, and be bold and courageous during the toughest of times.”
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.”