Gary Paramanathan: The Skin We Live In
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and welcome to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQI+ storytelling night I host and programme. Queerstories events happen regularly in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, and I’m also now hosting them in regional towns. If you enjoy these stories, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast, and consider buying a copy of the Queerstories book: A collection of 26 of the stories edited by me and published by Hachette. I’m really proud of this collection and I hope you enjoy it too.
This week – Gary Paramanathan works at the intersection of arts, culture and community. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia, Gary has written and directed a number of short films, including for ABC iView. He has written feature essays and recounted personal narratives, but this was his first attempt at telling a story to a live audience. Gary Paramarathan.
I want to take you back in time. It was 2002, I was a teenager. I won’t tell you exactly how old I was because I’m a basic gay man trying to protect his age.
I was a teenager living in the Western suburbs of Sydney. Kelly Clarkson had been crowned the winner of the first ever American Idol; anyone remembers that? And R Kelly had just been convicted of sex with minors, and, if I recall correctly, peeing on some young woman. This was is a pleasure I was yet to understand or experience. Not sex with minors, just being peed on by grown men.
It’s all right.
*Audience continues laughing, and claps*
I was blasting Hot in Here by Nelly on my stereo. Does anyone remember that? And I was dancing to Work It on the tele by Missy Elliot; that’s an amazing music video. And, yes, I was making mix tapes on my Sony Discman. I was young, just as cute, but probably not as loved. You see we now live in these amazing times. Well, kind of fucked up times still, but remember we had John Howard back then. That’s how you lose a teenage erection. You think of good ole Jonny.
So we had John Howard back then. And back then, we had no identity politics. I mean, sure, people like me existed – people of colour, queer – but we didn’t have the voice that is granted now. PoCs, pronouns, and… Well, I don’t have a third P, though it could be Presidents being peed on by Prussian sex workers. Right? That’s a thing now.
Back to my story: I was a piece of shit, in colour and in attraction. In fact, I was described as just that by not one but two people during that year. They said I looked like a piece of shit because I was brown. And because I ate curry, I was clearly seeping curry through my pores, and so I must smell like it too.
I was on ICQ and MSN Messenger. Now, who here knows what that is?
Hands up. Right? The good ole days. I am getting old. Who here has used it? Hands up. There you go. And now who here has used the gay chat groups on those programs? Anyone?
*Groups of audience members chuckle*
Filthy animals, all of you. I was one of you.
I was on those chat groups, searching, yearning for a connection, far away, locked up in my suburban homes in the rims of Parramatta – yes, I said “rim.” One of my first and most memorable experiences of ICQ was chatting to a guy, who had sent me a highly pixelated photo, when that was a thing. I was too awkward and closeted to share one. I refused to send one back. He was nice enough to continue.
The words NPNC hadn’t been coined yet, as in, “No pic, no chat.” The Grindr users here know what I’m talking about. I’d like to think I am funny now, but I certainly believed I was funny back then.
You need some skills. I kept up most of the banter on ICQ and MSN Messenger with my humour, and managed to charm this guy like most of the people I spoke to. He asked me, “So, where’s your family from, Sydney or somewhere else?” I usually hide my ethnicity because I was literally the only Sri Lankan who was gay in Sydney at that time.
Truly. I was one in three-point-something-million. Speaking of which, is there any Sri Lankans who are gay? Oh, my God. There you go! Things are changing, clearly.
This time, I thought I should be honest, so I said, “I’m Sri Lankan, but I grew up here.” To that he said… Well, he said nothing… at all. Silence. I said, “Hey, are you there?” Still nothing. I asked again, “All good on your end?” Nothing whatsoever. He had disappeared. Before the word “ghosting” was coined, I was being haunted every night.
*Audience member Awws sympathetically*
I know. I’m doing well now, I have a great boyfriend. He’s over there.
*Audience whoops and applauds*
Remember, I was not just a horny teenager. I was looking for love because I’m brown and sometimes we get caught up in these dramatic love kind of things. I was looking for a connection, and this idea that the colour of my skin, my ethnicity could rule me out of love, that was a really shitty thing to take as a young teenager. I’m not here to play the victim, to racialise my experience, to compartmentalise my place in the queer community, to shatter your white fragility.
No. I don’t want to upset any white people tonight. I am here to share another story, much more complex and something that haunts me to date. One day, I chatted to this guy. I actually can’t remember his name or if it was on ICQ or MSN Messenger, or even this one thing called Gaydar, which some of you might remember.
Let’s call him Brendon. That’s a pretty gay name, right? Brendon and I had chatted online a couple of times and he was super intelligent. He responded to my humour – validation – and, by all accounts, very cute. I really liked him and I even felt comfortable enough to give him my phone number. We began to text, and then we would even talk on the phone once in a while. I was young, low on credit. Yes, you remember that. When you could just text and nothing else. He was a few years older and he had ample credit, or so he said.
Brendon had a beautiful voice too. He was, I am embarrassed to say, masculine. Yes, I was a basic bitch back then. I went to an all boys school; I have an excuse. And the little girl in me had been knocked for six in all the sporting banter I had to participate in just to get through high school. Brendon was masculine, he had a nice voice, and he sounded kind of like my usual host of oppressors: White, very Aussie, and kind of hot. So I decided to finally meet Brendon.
We met outside a train station near where he lived. From memory, I can’t quite remember but I think it’s Canterbury or Berala; one of those suburbs. When I saw him from afar, I was relieved. He was cute. And all of you who have gone on dates from the internet, you know how that feels, right? There should be some law that prevents you from sending bad photos, or too-good photos.
He looked cute, though I felt something wasn’t quite right about him. Brendon looked like as if he’d been sunburnt and rushed out of the house with way too much moisturiser on his skin. He didn’t really want to hang out in public either. He looked very uncomfortable. He invited me over to his place, and I guess I should have known this was going to happen, because I did, after all, turn up to the train station that he lives at, right?
We walked and made small talk. I was excited to finally meet him, and I liked the way he walked. He pretty much looked as he described but, I don’t know, something was a little bit odd. We walked into his place, it was a small one bedroom apartment, sparsely furnished, and not very fancy. Maybe he didn’t have that much credit after all.
He offered me Coke or water. I took the Coke. No, not the coke that you’re all thinking about. Just good ole Coca Cola. I sat down on his couch, and he came back with the drinks and sat down. Now sitting there in front of him, I noticed his skin was peeling really badly, all over. I was very nervous and I took a sip of the coke. He leaned over to kiss me and I kissed him. He tasted good. I was aroused. My teenage dick was ready and willing to go. Think of a Tesla rocket ready for launch.
I wanted to touch him, so I brushed his arm and I felt some skin come off. I looked at him and asked, “What’s wrong, is your skin peeling?” Brendon told me he had a skin condition, which rendered his skin super dry and in a constant state of repair. It would dry and peel off, and he had no choice but to wear lots of oily moisturisers to keep it under control. He said he had learnt through practice that it works better to get into a bathtub to have sex because he could oil himself up, and if his skin sheds, he can just wash it off. So, we both stripped naked. He had a huge dick, which was already aroused – validation.
Thank you. Thank you. I was doing well in my life.
He got in the tub and invited me in. We sat down. He rubbed the vaseline on himself and rubbed himself onto me. I was both petrified and horny, and some of you know how that feels. I liked the sliding movements, the feeling of the oil between our skin. I liked the way he touched my dick. I liked how big his was, how it felt sliding in and out between my legs, my hands. I liked that he was circumcised, which was a novelty for me at the time. I came… Hard, and he did too. He patted himself down, and put a towel around himself. We kissed, and then I washed myself in the tub. As he disappeared, I put my clothes on.
When I walked out to the lounge, he was standing there looking at me. It was kind of an awkward look; a yearning for affection, yet a sudden feeling of distance, that post-cum awkwardness.
I said, “I better go.” I walked out to the front door, I kissed him and I left. He smiled and said, “Bye.”
He messaged me within minutes of me leaving. He said, “It was so nice to finally meet you. We should see each other again.” I looked at the message and put my phone away. I was on the train. He sent me another message a few minutes later, “I hope you got on the train all right.” I saw that too. I was looking out the window, wondering what to say.
I got off at Granville and waited for my connecting train. It had maybe been half an hour when trains were far and few between back then. I finally wrote back to him. I said, “Hey, nice seeing you but I think you live a bit too far for me to visit.” He wrote back soon after, “I can come meet you closer to yours if it’s easier.” I said, “Oh, it’s okay. I’m a bit busy in the next few days.” He wrote back saying, “I’m sorry about my skin.”
He messaged me a couple of times after that, and like the MacBook Pro update where it says, “Would you like to install now?” I kept putting it off: “Remind me tomorrow.” I eventually just stopped messaging.
I moved on to other hook-ups, but every so often I think, “Was I a piece of shit after all?” I was no different to the men who rejected me online all evening for the colour of my skin. I had just rejected someone for the nature of their skin. This haunts me because I am used to fighting the pervasive discrimination that us People of Colour face, but I myself had become the the perpetrator, this judge-y “I’ve got standards. Fuck off,” kind of gross, cis, white gay man. I didn’t feel very good at all. I felt like a piece of shit. Quoting a song that came out the same year, I asked myself, “Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”
“Life’s like this… And you fall, and you crawl, and you break… And you take what you get.”