Return to site

When Men Were Men...

... and 'Pansy' was the name of a flower.

When I was 19, I hopped a plane to Paris. I'd just finished filming a 6-part mini-series in New Zealand, and I was flush with funds and a sense of my future in bloom.

My host was Herbie, a moustachioed French drag queen – black, fat, and hilariously funny and floridly playful.

From Herbie's barely habitable hovel closet apartment in Montmartre, littered with broken lipsticks, spent eye-liner, laddered and torn fishnet stockings, arrays of garish shoes and handbags, and ruined corsets, we ventured out to clubs like Les Bains Douches (the Studio 54 of Paris), where Herbie had instant brand-recognition along with David Bowie.

We swept in like a demi-monde couple, Herbie full of squawking high humour, and me the complete blond Ingénue child.

Until then, post-school, I had been living in what was then a firmly working-class beachside suburb of Bondi with a posse of gay Frenchmen who were busy acquiring from the spas and bars of Sydney the HIV/AIDS that would slowly kill so many of them.

They were a warm, effusive bunch of men who embraced me with affection and respect. Though flirtatious, I was never harassed by my avuncular companions.

The Les Bains Douches crowd of my generation...

Well, almost. My first stop in Paris had been Pierre, who was one of their crowd, but I quickly vacated Pierre's apartment when I woke one night with his thumb (I presume), working its way between my butt cheeks.

It was a very reasonable excursion given his sexuality, my proximity and innocence, and my status as his guest, but I was persuaded that it was best to leave Pierre's hospitality the next day. At Herbie's invitation, I took up digs.

I'd met Herbie through a former Australian ambassador to UNESCO, who had partied hard with the gay, trans, drag crowd of Paris.

Herbie had been an off-and-on lover of His Excellency, and Herbie in turn introduced me to a very dislocated Vietnamese aristocrat who drove me around Paris, introduced to me to some of the most beautiful women I've ever seen, and (of all things) sculpted me in clay coiled around the equally naked body of one of his beauties.

I remember wistfully many exotic moments in that first long Parisienne summer and autumn – hours in Shakespeare & Company, huge fat crêpes filled with thick slabs of ham and slathered in mustard from street vendors at 4am, long lazy walks through Paris and picnics in the countryside, and visiting the tombs of my intellectual and artistic fermentors (Zola, Signoret, Wilde, Piaf, Maupassant, Chopin, Morrison – Genet was unfortunately buried in Morocco, Fanon in Algiers).

Inquiry was a serious business then...

Mostly, though I recall an ongoing impression I'd had since my early teens, which was generally that, when apposed to classically male Australians, the gay community were far more interesting, evolved, nuanced, humorous, self-deprecating, and outright funny than my straight brothers.

The giant 20k-person house parties of Sydney in the 80's and 90's, fuelled by the emergence of a now legally-protected gay cultural efflorescence, were testament to a new generation in which identity was danced and banished into narcotic oblivion (raise your hand if you encountered The Trough Man).

I also thought that in those stigmatised days, gay people were often steeped in courage, since 'coming out' for a man or a woman almost always involved a deep shock within families, and sometimes irreparable ostracism. These were strong people.

Herbie was no pansy. One evening we were cornered by a motley crew of three youths who appeared to relish the idea of pulping one fey Australian blond "with disaster in his face" and one black faggot, innocently munching on their ham crêpes at the end of some raucous night spent somewhere. I ineptly boxed at school and rumbled afterwards, so I wasn't a complete slouch with my fists. While I took on one lout with kicks and swings, Herbie took on two, before coming in to back me.

Rosa Kleb never looked as good as Herbie did that night, marauding and ravaging with stilettos bared like shivs, shrieking with banshee pitch and clawing like a thresher in a sequined gown until the louts just gave up and slunk away. It was over in ten seconds.

One day at around 15, my unreconstructed father had schooled my teenaged sexuality with a memorably pithy adage: "If you ever tell me that you are homosexual, I will kill you." Delivered with a clipped Eastern European English accent that dripped with sanguineous forewarning, his Abrahamic counsel left a powerful impression, the opposite of what my father had calculated.

If only he/she/they/them would declare...

Instead of foreboding, it aroused disdain.

I merely wondered why the hell anybody would concern themselves with the private lives of others, let alone that love and acceptance should be contingent on the quality of love or lust that one human being displayed towards another.

I was not, unfortunately, inclined to the gay life, to my regret.

Riddled with my age's explosive incipient testosterone that hovered above me like a Satanic sommelier, always urging me to taste! taste! taste!, being bi-sexual made mathematical sense to me: it would have doubled or perhaps quadrupled the pickings, and reduced by orders of magnitude my longings.

Those longings, alas, remained entrenched with women of every possible variety and temperament I could obtain, a gender which, in my experience of sexuality, tended to choose their wines with fair modicums of deliberation, unlike their more Bacchanalian brothers, of whom the gay community were exemplars of over-indulgence.

19, innocent, and in a rooftop garden chair in Paris.

It stunned me that in the period between Paris and thirty years later, matters of sexual choice should have remained debatable in Australia, in any form.

While I was in Bosnia in the 90s, Tasmania was only just getting around to decriminalising homosexuality.

And gay marriage?

Was it really possible that in 2017, in one of the wealthiest, most heterogenous, and most peaceful countries in the world, that an issue of personal relationship should remain a matter of public contention, and political interference?

But human nature, if measured by the dominant standards of today, is often galling and distressing just a stone's throw back. From the Wannseekonferenz table, to the invention of The Bomb, to the recognition of Aboriginal Australians as human beings with full rights in just 1967, to our slow awakening to the destruction we have wreaked on every other living creature on earth, and on our inanimate environment, how can we not despair of our own natures?

In the end, Australian's voted in favour of legalised gay marriage at 62 per cent. The most resounding 'no' votes were, notably, in immigrant communities, reflecting the same social conservatism that my own immigrant father still bore, a half century after arriving in Australia.

But then there is the matter of transgenderism.

I regard all of life as lived on a spectrum. Our various genetic factors, and the role luck plays in our chances at marriage, wealth, health and happiness, with well-balanced children of our own, are spread over a rainbow of possibilities.

The vast majority of us fall into the majoritarian centre, born relatively healthy and with lives that most likely will achieve some, but not all of the principal outcomes ascribed to a 'successful' life.

The same is true for our sexualities.

Whether it is our sex drive, or peccadillos, or homosexual tendencies, or whether we have a drive at all, or the timing of our early experimentation or delayed first encounters, we exist along a spectrum, with most occupying the 'normal' centre for a majority of factors, a majority of the time.

All of life is lived on a shifting spectrum...

But that's about as predictive as it gets.

Just who ends up where, and with which characteristics in what proportion of their life, for how long and at what strength, is anybody's guess. Life is a crapshoot, and I imagine that most of us at some point in our lives encounter aspects of ourselves that we hadn't anticipated, the strength (or weakness) of which surprise us.

Then, just how we deal with our internal contradictions, the denial of which might lead to pathological neuroses (as we deny the coexistence of our contradictions – "how is it possible to feel two diametrically opposed things at once!"), is a marker of our wisdom. And that's before we place luck at the appropriate centre of our lives as the deus ex machina of existence.

The same spectrum view is true for societies at large. So why should sexual crossover or confusion seem at all strange? The strange thing is that any society should deny that grey areas riddle our existences, and defy full explanation let alone categorical definition.

The strange thing has been our long-standing fear, denial, and primitive ignorance for which there has never been an adequate excuse. Even Judaism recognises six genders. So why was this simple social manifestation, this rather beautiful and captivating tribute to the mystery of the human spirit, ever thought worth crushing?

Hijras in Mumbai - India's third gender.

Now our social rigidity has led to a backlash, in which a fairly ordinary progressive social corrective – progressive like the recognition of full gay rights – has been subsumed by a more corrosive tendency, which is the zealotry of a violent, unforgiving, rigid, lynch-mob infused, self-purified and self-appointed posse of Puritans who shriek and howl like Herbie in full battle mode when anybody dares question the increasingly imposed orthodoxy of their views.

Like all ideologies, it is a short step from theory, to brassbound orthodoxy, to a newly empowered elite who view any deviation from their unbending views, or dissent, as a betrayal of the revolution that must be immediately and violently extinguished and, of course, an implicit threat to their positions. No student of fascism, of totalitarianism, of Shakespearean descriptors of lust for power, is blind to this.

Ideologues, or intellectual and physical fascists, must be called out. If the Trump era has reminded us of anything, it is that there are never enough adults in a room to restrain a tyrant – a man, or a tyrannous collective.

This documentary illustrates that gender confusion, or conscious transition, is a very real thing for a small percentage of people, and can sometimes be identified as early as a child is capable of choosing a toy, colours, friends, and media, and articulating their desires (do NOT miss that documentary).

I have known many fluid people, and I have friends who are still making the choice to transition, even into their 50s. I am grateful I live in a time when as the full spectrum and marvel of human behaviour unfolds in its own time, people are allowed to simply be who they are.

Happy indeed to preen each other, oh! for a life upon the sea!...

"Shakespeare's Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant... the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency. He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning."

from Stephen Greenblatt's Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

All Posts
×

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly