My grandmother tells me while washing the dishes by hand (she says she doesn’t trust a waterless dishwasher to do the job properly) that when she was a teenager she had an argument on Twitter about whether or not women were complicit when they were “date-raped”. She says that, though the character limit made it difficult to argue diplomatically, it made sure she got her point across. It wasn’t only male followers who claimed that women led them to rape, but there were some women excusing the behaviour, too, and both blamed alcohol. I laugh because, come on, Twitter? And it’s a foreign concept that people would view rape of any kind as being a sort of tango. My grandmother reminds me that this was a time before the Trevor Ward trial, a time when few, if any sportsmen identified as homosexual.
I’ve asked if she could tell me more about the Trevor Ward trial, as I’ve only ever heard the name in satirical videos about Australian politics, and I’ve started an assignment on it for history at school. I understand that it was important, but don’t know the details.
“It’s strange,” she says, “I thought your generation would instantly blink up any facts you didn’t understand. You carry the world around on your person at all times, and yet you still ask questions.”
“Well, I’m asking you now,” I say.
“I suppose the name ‘Trevor Ward’ must sound to you as abstract as ‘Mabo’ or ‘Rosa Parks’ did to me when I was growing up.” My grandmother kneels forward in her chair to casually check the timeline of her best friend, Simon. It’s embarrassing how much her generation divulges on public forums. “It was a fascinating time to live through for feminists,” she continues. “Same-sex marriage had been legalised which brought upon new bills to put queer history on the curriculum, which were passed a decade later, during which it seemed like every famous non-heterosexual in the Western world came out.”
“’Came out’?” I say. “Isn’t that like telling your parents about your life-companion?”
“What do they teach you in these schools?” she says. “It was a much bigger deal than that. Simon told me that for him it was like confessing to a murder. His parents kicked him out of home and didn’t speak to him until he married.”
“Spleesh, that’s horrible!” I say. “And stupid.”
“Yes,” says my grandmother. “Anyway, because of this world-wide exposure to queers – and in every career and country –”
“You shouldn’t say ‘queer’, Grandma,” I say. “It’s a bit old-fashioned.”
“Well, homosexual and bisexual and transgendered people then, how’s that?”
“I guess that’ll have to do… historical context,” I say.
“Right. So, soon it was no-big-deal to have a football team with several homosexual or bisexual men on it, men who became role-models and spokespersons at schools. It was no longer accepted to use the word ‘gay’ derogatorily, and being a teenager became one big sexual experiment, much like it is today, though we were still fearful of polygamy.”
I laugh at this. “It doesn’t always work,” I say. “What about Trevor Ward?”
She finishes the washing up and we move to the lounge room.
“He was a bisexual man who played for Western Sydney and he was convicted of raping two of his team mates and a woman.”
My grandmother interrupts herself: “OK, let me know if you want kimchi ravioli, I have made too much, see you at seven. Send.”
“The case was controversial,” she continues, “because some old-school social commentators suggested that it was more devastating that he raped a woman than the men – that because they were footballers they would’ve been ‘strong enough’ to fight back.
“Of course, men were in uproar: they reminded us that statistically more men were raped than women because of prisons. Then a government anti-rape campaign focussing on male victims came out, and feminists watched on saying, ‘We said this all along’…
“But what this opened up was a conversation about why men feared other men sexually. Unfortunately, a short-lived wave of homophobia spread through the country again – a Queensland football team fired all its queer players.
“In reaction to all this, organised humanist groups became a thing – mostly funded by either the De Botton Atheist Church or the Dawkins Foundation – which was controversial even still. Religious groups then weighed in on human rights, too, as you could imagine.”
“So the Trevor Ward case just started the ball rolling?” I ask. “There wasn’t anything that special about him?”
“No,” she says. “It did make what was once known as the ‘gay community’ in Australia question its contribution to male objectification and how that was damaging same-sex relationships. It was pretty funny, actually: feminists watched as factions of gay men started telling other gay men to wear less revealing clothing, then other groups said ‘no’ to shaming people for their choice of clothes. The eyes rolled, let me tell you.”
“It’s so cray-cray how feminism was a thing,” I say.
“Gender roles were in a state of flux,” my grandmother says. “It wasn’t until your father was in school that some radical ideas were put into practice.”
“I heard about how he did a test in, what – year eight? – to determine his preferred gender and sexuality.”
“It was a progressive school,” my grandmother chuckles. “That test had been trialled in France a year before. The idea was that if everyone at adolescence essentially ‘came out’ at the same time, kids would grow up together with more tolerance. Of course it left no room for fluidity. Like you.”
“Grandma, silencio!” I say, hooking my hair behind my ears. “I know you can’t help seeing me a certain way, but you’ve got to get over it.”
“I’m sorry, dear,” she says, scratching the tattoo on her left forearm. A single rose, its stem starting along her middle finger.
“Did you hear that in Iran they have those finishing schools for boys to become ‘Diviners’?” I change the subject. I start playing with my EyeContact™, rushing through files to find the article I’d read. “Iran was still really old-fashioned Islamic in your day, wasn’t it?”
“Don’t make me feel old!” she says. “But yes. It’s incredible how that country led the Muslim Renaissance.”
“They say it wasn’t their first Renaissance – apparently the dark ages for Christianity were a golden age in the Arab world.” I say. “Anyway, these boys apply from all over the world to become like spiritual and cultural advisors – it’s like a cult: all these perfect, angelic men graduate and get paid so much money to swan around parliaments and palaces. And there’s something like it for girls, too, a politics school that tries to make them human pillars for the community.”
“Which would you attend?” my grandmother asks.
“Neither. You still have to be a girl or a boy, which totally splags. It’s still so traditional, putting ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ into separate institutions. The idea that people with a certain sexuality gravitate towards certain areas of life is so dated.”
“It’s impossible to grow up driven by biological sexuality alone without being influenced by the societal norms around you,” my grandmother says. “They’ve never been able to isolate what makes someone’s sexuality unique.”
“ – or why it changes,” I say.
I fidget with my power bracelet.
“Are you seeing anyone at the moment?” my grandmother says, pretending to sound casual.
I look at her – I picture fists up behind my eyes. “I don’t have to do that now,” I say.
There’s a long pause.
My grandmother is carefully constructing the next few sentences she is about to say. I feel defensive, and angry, and sad, and I’m judging her. I judge the way she carries around these old ideas of sex and relationships and gender. I judge her for using the words ‘queer’ and ‘marriage’ and how she wants me to declare who I am and what I want. How the school forced my father to be boxed into an identity he later rejected. How his relationship with my mother concluded with me, and how she couldn’t love a man that couldn’t call himself a man.
“Your father,” my grandmother says, finally, “couldn’t call himself a woman. Or transgendered. He tried to live an uncategorised life. That was the ideal. It killed him.”
My tongue plasters itself to the roof of my mouth as I force a swallow.
“Why are people so afraid of it?” I ask.
My grandmother has subconsciously brought up several photos of her son on her ancient tablet, and is studying his face.
“Because people are afraid of the power they lose if they can’t use their sexuality over others. If they don’t know what can corrupt you, you end up with the power.”
“I don’t care about power!” I say.
“I know you don’t,” my grandmother sighs. “And neither did your father. You’re just afraid of how others will use you and hurt you. But we all are.”
The doorbell sounds. The window of the lounge room goes opaque and Simon’s face appears. “I’m outside your apartment,” he says, smiling. She gives him a forced grin and then looks me in the eyes.
“It’s unavoidable, my dear,” she says, buzzing him in.