Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories 2020, beautiful stories by LGBTQI+ people living in so-called Australia, written and recorded in the lockdown months of 2020.
This week’s episodes are about belonging. Earlier in this season, we had an episode with stories about home, and these are also about that, in a way, but they focus less on place, and more on that feeling of home you get with the people you love.
First up, Valerie Berry is a Filipino Australian actor, performance maker, theatre educator and emerging director based on Kaurna country in South Australia. She has presented work with countless festivals and theatre companies, both mainstage and independent, and she is one of the mentors and facilitators for CuriousWorks Beyond Refuge emerging makers program.
It’s 5 am. Cold. Crisp. Pitch black.
I am in southern Kaurna land. The household still in mid dream. Even Chunky, our 13 year old Staffy, who always scours for food at this hour, is still snoring. The new fridge softly purring. A welcome change to the heavy clanking sound of the old one.
I am transported back to another time and place. Cebu City, Philippines.
I am 8.
At 5am the house is silent too but outside the pet rooster has been warming it’s throat.
I always thought they called out, ‘tuk tu ga ook’ rather than the ‘cock a doodle doo’ we read in English children’s books.
The sun is now peeking. I walk out of my room, still not fully awake.
Santa, not Father Christmas, is already doing chores. She is our older cousin who helps Nanay (Mum) and Tatay (Father) around the house as an exchange for board and lodging while she is studying.
I observe her for a moment. Something feels different today. She is not softly humming her usual morning tune. She is oblivious to my presence, until she almost steps on me and screams.
‘Ay, abi nakug’ multo ka!’
She thinks I am a ghost.
She has a little giggle, calms down and looks at me. There is sadness in her smile. She opens her mouth as if to say something. Nothing comes out. Instead, she cries. Then she is sobbing, uncontrollably. She hugs me tightly. I am pinned down and stand there, confused.
This is awkward.
Santa composes herself and finally manages to tell me,
‘Inday, your Tatay is gone. May he Rest In Peace now’.
How do I describe grieving?
Time stands still.
You think back to the last time you said goodbye but not in that final way. Just a ‘see you later, ‘Tay’. ‘I’ll show you my homework tomorrow ‘Tay’. ‘I’ll pluck the greys in your hair next time ‘Tay’.
Time stands still.
You are at the very centre of a time lapse. Everyone and everything around you is moving at a speed you can’t keep up. So you stand still, rooted to the same spot as the sun rises and sets and rises again. It goes on like this for days after Tatay’s death.
Nine days later, our LoLo, Mum’s father also passes away. She is only 35.
We are in a loop. Existing like zombies. Occasionally coming up for air and food. Daily prayers sounds like persistent blow flies and black clothing becomes a uniform.
Next time I wake up it’s years later and I feel heavy for no reason, as if the grey clouds hanging outside has managed to squeeze itself into my chest. It rolls like this through the years and now, I take comfort every time I feel it surging.
I am 10.
Today I feel happy and free.
Our Tita Jane, Mum’s half sister, is looking after my siblings and I for a few days. She’s the Fun-ta, the fun Tita. Young, cheeky and has a bad habit of bringing her boyfriend over and behave inappropriately. She loves horror films. One time she takes us to see Halloween in the cinemas. I’m not sure how she manages to sneak four underage kids in. I have nightmares for days. She calls it life lessons. She’s fun.
I hop out of bed, quick breakfast and go straight out to play with friends in the neighbourhood. A handful of the gang is already playing Jolen, a marble game where you put small marbles into holes lined up on the ground, trying to hit your opponents marbles out of the way.
I’m killing it, collecting marble winnings. Stashing them in my pyjama pants pockets.
I notice two of the boys whispering to each other. They are looking at my direction, pointing and giggling. I pretend to know what they are laughing about and join in the laughter. As I look to where they are pointing, I realise there is a hole on the crotch of my pyjama pants. I’m not wearing knickers.
I stand frozen for a moment, feeling the heat rise up to my face.
I am angry.
Without thinking, I walk to one of the giggling boys, stand in front of him and yell right at his face.
‘Ka bastos ninyong duha!’ You shouldn’t even be looking.
I push him so hard, he fell on his back and cried.
I ran home. Hail of tears thudding to the ground. Grieving innocence lost.
Tita Jane is putting her best Mum voice:
‘Inday, you are turning into a young woman now. Boys will notice everything about you. Always go out with your best face.’
Does she actually mean, best pants?
Fun Tita doesn’t see the tomboy in me.
I am 6 and a half.
Nanay and Tatay have gone out for the day. We are being looked after by our neighbour’s teenage son.
Lee, being 15, is curious about many things. Today, it’s cigarettes.
He decides to buy a pack from the Sari Sari store, a convenient shop, mostly ran from people’s homes. He lights a cigarette and gives all of us a quick puff.
It tastes horrible and we all have little spasms from the after taste. Lee is enjoying this new discovery and like sheeps, we follow him and go in for seconds.
Nanay and Tatay gets home and as I go out to greet them, Tatay storms off to the kitchen. A few seconds later,
‘Rosel, Intoy, Ling Ling, Aliboy!’
The four of us scurry to the kitchen.
Tatay’s voice, normally soft and calm, is firm and thunderous. The volcano is about to erupt.
‘So, you like cigarettes?’, he looks at each one of us, angry fire glinting in his eyes.
Rosel, the eldest, is silent. We have fear in our eyes.
Tatay orders us to place our hands behind our backs and keep it there. He lights four cigarettes and places them on our mouths. He tells us to inhale the smoke and keep smoking until the cigarette is finished. After 3 puffs, my siblings and I start crying. I’m coughing, trying not to vomit.
Nanay is nowhere to be found. Discipline is Tatay’s domain.
The water works has turned into a burst dam.
Tatay orders us to spit the cigarettes into the bucket and makes us swear to never smoke again.
That day, I wanted to click my heels and disappear to another world.
I am 16.
We live in Ceduna, South Australia. Mum is now married to Dad, our Aussie stepfather, Clarrie.
I am riding my push bike. An old bicycle with a foot brake. Dad picked it up from the tip. He spray painted the body neon blue and the mud guard neon orange. We are in the mid eighties.
I’m proud of this bike, my independence. At 16, I have no interest in driving. Mum took 5 go’s before she got her license and cried each time she failed. I’m not going through that shit.
As I’m cycling, bees are buzzing in my head, busy planning where to go. Today I’m running away from home. Like a lone cyclist passing through the Nullarbor. No back packs. Just me and my neon bike.
The why is questionable.
Early in the day, I switch on the manual switch for the solar heating so we can have hot water for the shower. I forget to turn it off. When Dad discovers it’s been on for many hours, he sounds mad, explaining to Mum that the panels might have overheated and cracked. It is a very expensive system. Something we have been told many times before.
I overhear their conversation and feel guilty. I decide to take the problem out. Me.
So here I am, riding my bike, nowhere to go, no plans, not knowing who to call.
My best friend?
Our Filipino family friends?
Not a lot to choose from.
Two hours pass, cycling from one side of town to the other and back again.
Riding around, there’s not much to see, only dry land and beaches full of seaweeds.
It’s so freaking hot.
I still don’t know where to go. What to do.
When I finally stop, I find myself across the playground from my house.
Did anyone even notice I’ve been gone?
It takes me another half hour to make a decision.
I park my bike next to the rain water tank just outside the house, ready for a quick get away.
I walk in. No one bats an eyelid.
Nanay and Dad are watching a footy match on the ‘idiot box’. They look at me as I enter the lounge.
Dad switches the game off. I start crying. Buckets. I apologise for my irresponsible behaviour. How much damage my neglect could have cost.
I look at Dad through the tears. His face is gentle.
‘No worries. It’s all good’, he says and gives me a smile.
Mum hugs me, proud of my ‘grown up’ move.
Today, I shed a little, that Catholic girl who keeps thinking Hell is never far away and little devils spy, recording every sin I make.
It’s now 6am, back in Kaurna country. The loud swish of the doggy door brings me back to my room. Chunky is going out for his morning ritual.
I just turned 50, finally got my L’s and COVID has stopped my plan of an all year celebration on its tracks.
A busy working year is now non existent. Grey clouds hang around some days. A couple of small quick response grants and a performers royalty kept me above ground the first few weeks. Then nothing. But as we approach Spring, things start to brighten up.
Since social distancing began, I’ve only socialised with my two housemates and a handful of friends. The first time more than five people were allowed again in one room, we crack open a Grange. I don’t like reds. But who says no to a nice drop?
Within minutes we forget COVID distancing rules of over an arms length from each other.
The table is bountiful. A feast of dishes, reflecting our diverse cultures and individual personal favourites, are arranged meticulously like a jigsaw puzzle.
We toast, grateful for friendship. Drunk from the excitement of the first gathering, no one seems to care how fine this wine is. My housemate gives me a wink. The moment isn’t lost on her.
I haven’t seen my family in the flesh for 3 months. Divided by three States. I miss my siblings. My sister’s laughter that fills a room. My brother in law’s nagging. My older brother’s random dance moves. My younger brother’s cheekiness. My nephews’ dry take on everything. Most of all, I miss their warm hugs.
Touch. I miss touch.
I think of my girlfriend who lives in another state. We haven’t seen each other in 4 months. Distance is complicated by this pandemic and our responsibilities, loving and caring for little people. Long distance relationship requires strength. There’s no room for doubt.
Resilience is an overused expression but it’s true, just got to keep anchored in.
I dream of rekindling and reigniting the engines of familiarity, love and desire. For when we see each other next.
FaceTime is not a satisfactory substitute to face to face. But will do, for now.
Today I truly recognise, to lose is to gain. I appreciate and reclaim the mantra of my young self, something I repeated at every crossroads:
‘No worries. It’s all good’.
And it is.
This next story also travels a little, and it’s by Nevo Zisin. Nevo is a writer, performer, activist and public speaker. They run workshops in schools and workplaces around transgender identity & language. Author of award-winning Finding Nevo and The Pronoun Lowdown, and a contributor to Kindred: A Queer Australian Young Adult Anthology, they are a mentor for The Pinnacle Foundation, one of Out for Australia’s 30 Under 30 and a member of the Gender Euphoria cast – Australia’s largest all trans & gender diverse show on a main stage.
This story is called To Build A Home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about love in lockdown, the ways that I feel loved, the ways that I love others, and especially what that means when we are so far away from each other. So, I’m going to tell you a love story. But it’s not a love story you’ve seen in movies, or on television. Which, to be fair is likely because queer love that isn’t just a reimagining of heteronormative relationships is sorely lacking in representation. Queer love that isn’t strictly romantic or platonic, that isn’t focused on looking like typical rom-coms but rather queer love that lives in sharehouses, at festivals, in homes that are unowned by the lovers, with pets that they share with others, queer love that lasts not just lifetimes but generations. This is that love story, a love story that traverses continents, ‘just friendship’ and garbage bins.
I am really lucky to have a lot of close people in my life. I have friends from primary school that I am still close to sixteen years later, I have met people through queer meme pages on Facebook, sweaty dance floors, the green room at writers’ festivals where we have bonded over feeling like imposters, over buffet tables on our third plate around, at countless protests against various injustices, through dating apps where we have matched multiple times but never actually had a conversation and the ‘we know each other on the internet but are we IRL friends?’ situation. I have met people who have profoundly influenced me sometimes in the most mundane of circumstances, and ended up carving out important places in my life. There is a moment in one’s life, where you may feel as if you have all of your friends. Or at least, all of your best friends. If you had asked me in 2017 if I had space in my chest for not just another friend, but a best friend, a life partner, a subversion of relationship expectations, I probably would have said, ‘I’m not really in the market right now.’
But then there was Elsa. Elsa has the same kind of chutzpah or Jewish audacity as I do, she will nudge her way into places whether the door is open or not and she quickly and efficiently found a spot right inside the walls of my heart and set up a permanent kind of campsite. I didn’t know it when we met, but I would be stuck with her for a long time to come.
In 2017 a close friend of mine got an artist residency overseas and was taking off for seven months. Thinking that would be far too long to go without them, I decided to follow to the notorious place Melbourne queers go to when they are sick of Melbourne but still want to be somewhere very similar to Melbourne, Berlin. I had recently recovered from top surgery, my book Finding Nevo was out in the world and I was ready for adventure and celebration. What people don’t often tell you, is that overseas travel is actually very stressful. It involves endless planning, spending a lot of money and running so far away from your comfort zone you may barely be able to see it. Regardless of the weight limitations on your suitcase, mental health always finds a way to sneak inside and join.
But I made it to Berlin. First thing I did was get on the wrong train, I had figured since I’d been there 3 years prior for literally a week, I would just recognise everything and know how to get around? I was wrong.
Over my weeks in Berlin I walked the graffitied streets, pretended to appreciate art, rode bikes in an abandoned airport, climbed to the top of an old spy station, went kayaking in a tiny town, danced in lots of different and sometimes confronting nightclubs, tried to pat dogs who were too serious to give me the time of day and learnt what it means to fall in love with a city other than my own. I became non-monogamous in a different kind of way.
As Berlin’s pride parade approached, I was ready to don my rainbow gear and march the streets. Once I exited the U-bahn train station I saw streetlights painted in bisexual colours and rainbow flags saturating the horizon. I caught up with my friend Orlanda who introduced me to her group of friends that had been temporarily living in Berlin, including Elsa. Elsa told me her mum had read my book and was a big fan, we took a photo together which she sent to her and throughout the day we found more and more points of similarity. She was also from Melbourne, grew up in a similar area to me – the Murrumbeena to my Caulfield, we had a couple of mutual friends and she was also queer and Jewish.
We marched through the streets and saw pride flags with black and brown stripes pass us by – to honour the crucial activism of Black and Brown LGBTIQA+ people, whose formative resistance set the pathway for where we are now. We danced behind a brightly painted truck whose speakers boomed pop bangers we loved and the moment began etching itself inside me so deeply that I could hold it forever. By the time the dark storm clouds rained their vengeance on the world below, we were so preoccupied with dancing and laughing we barely even noticed. The sky opened up and flushed out all its contents as every thunderous lightning strike was met with a ‘YESSS’ from the crowd. We danced until our feet hurt and it wasn’t until hours later that I would discover the damage heavy rain can cause on a phone and camera hidden only inside the thin layers of a denim backpack.
I rushed to the nearest store and bought a bag of rice, shoved my devices inside of it, and forgot about it again until a bouncer went through my bag as I lined up for a club many hours later and questioned the giant bag of rice I was inexplicably trying to smuggle inside.
When I returned and settled back into life in Australia, I reconnected with Elsa along with her life partner Addison and they taught me about the bounties of dumpster diving, a way of collecting and redistributing fresh food from bins that had been wasted. We discussed intersectional feminism at length and debated back and forth about various discourses we had seen or read on social media. We spoke in deep ways about our connection to Judaism and queerness, what that looks like for us in the depths of our selves and what that looks like for us moving around in the world.
We put bricks down, one by one, and slowly and then all at once, we built a home for ourselves. A home that wouldn’t fall with the wind, like some I had built in high school. A home that had no dress code, no judgements and a place where we could actually rest our heads. When you are queer, or otherwise marginalised, home is not always something easy to come by. Sometimes you simply have to build it for yourself.
Building homes with chosen family is an act of queer resistance. But we are not perfect builders, so sometimes there are cracks or leaks, but we honour our gay culture, go to bunnings, and get the tools to fix them together.
This building something, it felt like falling in love. But it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. Elsa was in a monogamous relationship and I was not interested in her like that. We were just friends. We were just becoming best friends. That’s all it was.
Then I found out the relationship I had thought was monogamous, wasn’t. The imaginations I had been pushing out of what our future together might look like, started creeping back in. Going to Shabbat dinners together, celebrating the high holidays with each others’ families, raising children. These were tendencies I had with most crushes. Before I even knew their surname I had often named our children, fantasised about our holidays in distant lands together. One could say, that despite my many coming-outs and transitions, I am at heart, a U-Haul lesbian.
As we got closer, I could feel a deep naches developing. Naches is a Yiddish word that simply has no English translation. It is a bottomless pride, a familial pride, the feeling of being part of the same tribe ancestrally, of holding the same history in our bodies. I had that with Elsa. We made Jewish jokes that only we understood amongst our non-Jewish friends, and we held moments between us that felt like at any second, we could kiss and it would just be a natural development. I wasn’t sure if Elsa felt the same way, I wasn’t sure if I was reading something that simply wasn’t there. Was this a will-they-won’t-they situation? Or was I projecting?
In true queer fashion, we had a conversation about it, because are you even queer if you don’t over-communicate about everything? We both felt the same way, but we didn’t have any answers. We didn’t want to ruin what was brewing between us. And then one night, Elsa slept over, and before I knew it, we were kissing. And let me tell you… It was totally, completely and holistically, weird. Turns out, sometimes you need to kiss someone to be sure that you don’t actually want to kiss them.
Falling in queer love with Elsa, made me fall out of the rigid lines and boundaries we create around friendships and romantic relationships. We are not ‘just friends’, we are not lovers, we are not boyfriends or girlfriends and we are certainly not goy-friends (that’s extra funny because goy is a word for non-Jews). We are all of those things and none of them and everything in between. My relationship with Elsa is a healing balm to burns that have been inflicted in other dynamics, it is a space where I can be my fullest self, not merely a two-dimensional caricature of transness or diversity, it is a space where I can learn to be better and be pulled up on my crap and then in the same breath be rolling on the floor laughing and speaking in silly voices. Elsa allows me to be a kid again, perhaps even in a way I wasn’t able to when I was younger. She shows me my past, and she builds with me my future.
We recently moved in together, Elsa and I, during the pandemic, out of our Inner queer North and into the east where there are more kookaburras than crop tops. We get to do Shabbat dinners together, celebrate high holidays with our families, teach our friends about Jewish customs, plan ways of taking over the cis-heteropatriarchy through our activism, and sing songs while wearing onesies and animal slippers. Elsa is a love of my life, who I plan to raise my kids with one day and defy all understandings of traditional relationships with. Keep your eyes peeled for these kinds of people in your life – they can catch you by surprise, maybe at work, at your local cafe, at the library, or maybe in a rainy Berlin Pride parade.
Thanks for listening.