Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. Ellen Van Neerven is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator of Mununjali (Yugambeh) and Dutch heritage, with strong ancestral ties to South-East Queensland. They performed this story at Bleach Festival on the Gold Coast, Yugambeh land. They write fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and play football on unceded Turrbal and Jagera land. Ellen’s books Heat and Light, Comfort Food, and, most recently, Throat have won countless awards. This is the third time Ellen has featured on the Queerstories podcast, so make sure you work your way back through the archives to listen to their other work.
My story starts when I’m walking away from my 30th birthday and I just feel like something might be wrong. Just have a bit of a weird feeling. And the breeze coming off the river is just not enough to sooth me. I’m like, oh, something’s happened. And my suspicions are confirmed when I come home to a text from my friend. And, yeah, she was like, “Why did you leave your birthday party early?” And I was like, “Oh, um, I left like four hours after it started.” I kind of feel that’s a pretty normal time. And, you know, like, COVID. Like, I was already a bit socially anxious, didn’t have that much stamina. So, yeah, for me that’s totally normal, and it’s my birthday party, so I can do what I want.
But, yeah, she was like… That started an interesting conversation with her because a lot of things had sort of led up to that day, and I wasn’t really feeling my best. And one thing that was happening was that my friend, Katrina, she kept misgendering me in front of her friends that I hadn’t met before and were new to me. She was like… It felt deliberate because it was a lot, excessive. So, I’m gender kweer, with a ‘k-w’ because fuck the Commonwealth.
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I don’t ID as either a woman or a man, and I’d… My friend knew this, and I had been friends with her a long time, and she’d known this for several years, so, yeah, normally I would probably be okay with it but there was just something that was kind of digging at me that day. So, I was like, “All right, this is… maybe this is an education moment.” I really know things like… language is hard. Maybe I should just say something, and so I sent a really polite text to my friend just explaining what happened from my perspective and my feelings about it. Like I said, this is a person I had known really, really well. And, no, this is not a revenge story but it is…
Yeah, this feeling that was compounding that I was breaking up with my friend, and that we would be going in separate directions, and this had been coming for a while. It wasn’t out of the blue. My friend had been making comments quite consistently, so I was like, “Okay, send that text.” And then I got a reply, which was really defensive and really… just accusing me of things, and just saying that I was being too sensitive. I just want to let that sink in ‘cause that’s not a thing. If someone says that to you, that’s a red flag. So, I felt like my feelings… Yeah, I was just like, “Okay, all right. Just feels like we can’t resolve this at this moment, and I’m just gonna be me and you’re gonna be you, and I’m gonna continue to hang out with people that make me feel good about myself.” But it was tough.
At the same time, I was feeling upset and lonely but I kind of thought I’d rather have one good friend that gets me, understands me than 100 that don’t. People that really see me for who I am. I mentioned before that I wasn’t feeling great, and that’s because I had sort of been supporting a friend that’s through a really hard time.
So, they live in a country where it’s really dangerous to identify as LGBTIQ, one of many countries across the world where, yeah, it’s just very dangerous. This person, my friend Norm, receives daily death threats, abuse. It’s just become very unstable for them to live in this place and they’re crying out for help, like, they’re messaging me. We talk every day, and not only is their safety threatened by the government and by the people that live there but also, you know, COVID has added something else, and their housing has been flooded recently. So, yeah, they’re really just crying out for help.
They’ll say to me that they’re feeling suicidal, and I just feel… I just text back and I say, “Just keep yourself safe for me. Can you promise you’ll keep yourself safe for me tonight?” And they say, “I’ll try.” And that’s how we live every night. I go to bed and just wake up in the morning and hope they’re okay.
I first met this friend… We were in the Philippines together on cultural exchange there. I remember the first time, the first night we were there, there was a big group of us. We were the youngest in the group. We were both like 25 at the time, both queer, both First Nations, both gender diverse, and we just bonded straight away. And there was this big Mardi Gras happening in a city in the north of the Philippines. We were like, “What is this Asian queer oasis?” It was beautiful, just a really… I don’t know. Probably just an outsider’s view but I was like, “Wow, this feels like a country that’s really acceptive and inclusive.” We had a great time that night.
But Norm and I, we held back a little bit. I think that’s part of our personality, you know. We’ve been through a lot. We know the world is not potentially safe for people like us, and so we stay back. But, yeah, I miss my friend. I miss the time that we sat and ate pizza in Vegan. I miss going in the car from city to city ‘cause we travelled a lot, and listening to Mariah Carey, Carey’s Touch My Body, which Norm is… It’s just a classic. I was like, “Well, there is a whole back catalogue. I don’t know how we can compare the newer stuff but, yeah, okay. All right. It’s a modern Mariah classic. It’s, like, third-decade Mariah, but yeah. It’s great.”
Yeah, I wish I could hug my friend. I often say that to them. I just wish this world was a better place, and I can only sort of understand what they’re going through, just a little bit, because their experience is so different to mine. But, for example, when I was like, “Listening to Mariah. Thinking of you.” They were like, “I miss listening to Mariah.” They live in a place where pop culture is banned and social media cuts out all the time, and I just can’t quite imagine living like that.
I’ve been going to the library every day, looking at ways to help my friend who’s in a really precarious situation, in a really dangerous situation, finding out that their story is not unique and there are ways of helping, but also feeling so out of my depth. Just Googling stuff and not really knowing, and just feeling… I don’t know, a lot of pressure, I guess. Yeah, just really thinking about the well-being of my friend.
But I decide to reach out and I find out there’s another friend. At the time, I was like, “I’m the only one that’s there for Norm. Who else is going to be there?” So many of their friends have abandoned them. But I find another friend that’s also been looking up the same sort of stuff, and we’re able to connect and compare notes.
I leave the library and I call Norm’s other friend, and we start comparing notes about lawyers and some of the stuff they’ve been looking at, some of the stuff I’ve been looking at, also to be able to shape more of a sense to the story because Norm tells me this traumatic stuff that’s happened to them, and they don’t want to go… They don’t want to tell the story over and over again, so we’re able to consolidate that information.
I did tell Norm, I said, “You know, I’ve lost a few friends. A few friends have rejected me because I’m gender queer.” Norm’s just responded and just said, “I love you, Ellen.” I was like… Norm’s like that friend, that one in a hundred friend, and I’m so grateful to have met them, so much.
And so, I’m on the phone and I’m talking to Norm’s friend about ways that potentially we can get them out of this dangerous situation, and I find myself outside Uniqlo. I just have walked the whole length of the Queen Street Mall, and I just really can’t wait for the phone conversation to be over so that I can go into Uniqlo.
And so, the phone call ends and I’m straight into that store. And I know it’s such a contradiction because fashion industry is like modern-day slavery, and Uniqlo’s not really the best in this sort of stuff, even though they kind of make out that they are. But, yeah, they’re complicit in the interment of so many groups of people, and that kind of mass production obviously is not good for country, not good for the people, but it’s just so colourful. For me, it’s like an androgynous colourful heaven. I know that there’s a men and women’s section but all the clothes look the same.
I’m just going fluidly from one section to the other, doing my little meditation, like, 20 minutes through the store. Don’t even need to buy anything, just be around all that colour and just sort of let my worries go because I realise that there’s a huge weight off my shoulder, knowing that I’m not the only one looking out for Norm. But at the same time, you know, there’s no easy way to help them, there’s no easy fix to the problems of this world. You know, no amount of CBT is going to change that this world is racist, and homophobic, and transphobic and misogynist. It’s not going to help but I just do my bit. And Norm doesn’t have a safe place to go. Their house is not safe, outside their house is not safe. I don’t necessarily feel like I have a safe place to go sometimes. I mean, there’s Uniqlo, but no.
It’s just all about… This year is just all about cultivating that safe place inside through meditation, through visualisation, just connecting to that place inside you, and I encourage people, other people who are going through these sorts of things, globally, but also in Australia. Like, Australia’s not this paradise, like, there are still a lot of people on this continent that are… they’re totally struggling, either because of their gender identity or because of their sexuality. I did want to acknowledge that as well and just say that there will never be queer and trans joy unless there is queer and trans liberation. Thank you.
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