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Memoir

The L-word

AS I WALKED through the school gate, its posts stencilled with turtles and goannas, towards the classroom where I take Drama Group, I heard someone call out, 'Hey, Hairy Hayley!'

I turned in the direction of the voice. Katia, a Year 6 Aboriginal girl with fair hair and watery blue eyes, stood beside a wooden lunch table under the wispy silky oak trees, hands on her hips, chin tilted up. She was staring at me, as were nine other Aboriginal kids, all different ages, boys and girls.

At Drama Group we play a memory game where you introduce your name with an action and an adjective beginning with the same sound as the beginning of your name. Now all the kids at this small rural school, not just those who come to Drama Group, call me 'Hairy Hayley'.

'Hi, Cool Katia,' I said, smiling.

'Come over 'ere,' Katia said, gesturing to me.

I walked over to her table.

'How you doing?' I asked, sitting on the bench beside her.

'Have you got a boyfriend?' Katia said.

I wasn't prepared for this question. It's a left-field question when you're a volunteer running a lunchtime drama group at the local public school in a rural area. It's a loaded question when you're a lesbian.

The options flashed before me. I could say: 'No, I've got a girlfriend.' But that didn't seem appropriate for the primary school playground. I could say: 'It's none of your business.' But my reason for volunteering is to connect with these kids, and to do it truthfully.

'No,' I said. It wasn't really a lie. I was just answering the question I'd been asked.

Katia said, 'Tallie says you've got a girlfriend.'

Tallie is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in the same rural area as I do. My partner, Jen, and I see her most Friday nights at the local community hall. She's hung out with us at the annual cricket match, helped us draw witches and spiders to decorate the hall for the fire brigade fundraiser, and last year we gave her brother a job helping us pull out fireweed and stuffing it into old feed bags.

I was rattled. Katia and the nine other kids were staring at me. I wouldn't lie – I couldn't lie.

'That's right,' I said to Katia. 'I do.'

'So does that mean you're a les-be-n?' Katia asked, letting her lips and tongue linger over each syllable.

'Yes,' I said. 'I'm a lesbian.'

My heart was hammering. What's school policy on discussing this kind of thing? Would the teacher on playground duty march over and order me off the school grounds for saying the L-word? Would the headmistress summon me to her office and say, 'Thank you for your time but we'll no longer be requiring your assistance with Drama Group'?

Being a lesbian's not illegal. Even the federal government now recognises lesbian relationships for the purposes of social security and tax. And I've never had second thoughts about coming out – not on the stage at Darling Harbour when I encouraged Australian and international judges to appreciate the injustice of laws that deny our relationships, not on the stage at New South Wales Parliament House when I spoke as an out lesbian about the options for law reform, not in law classrooms, not at legal conferences.

But as the branches of the silky oak swayed above me, and a blond-haired child with caramel skin and a posse of friends stared at me, I realised I didn't know what was appropriate at a primary school. My fingers reddened as I clutched my bottle of water; my palms sweated. I didn't know how to handle this situation. Around me the sounds of chatter faded, everything telescoping onto my interaction with Katia. How long was it since someone had spoken? Should I have said something else? The children were all watching me, waiting.

'True?' Katia said. Her mouth widened into a sideshow-alley laugh, and suddenly I was one of the kids in the playground and she was pointing her finger, shaming me.

At last Katia looked away. I considered getting up and running to the safety of the classroom. But Katia wasn't finished. She turned to the crowd of kids.

'Ask 'er,' she said. 'Come on, ask 'er.'

From the other side of the table, a boy of about ten years said, 'Are you a les-be-n?'

'Yes,' I said. 'I am.'

And then another young girl asked me, and another young boy; every single child at that table asked me if I was a 'les-be-n'; each one let their lips and tongue linger over each syllable.

None of the non-Aboriginal kids came over to join in the questioning. It was just these ten kids. And they all had to hear it from my mouth. I wondered how long they'd been planning this inquisition. I imagined their conversations on the school bus, in the playground, at the morning line-up, as rumour of my sexuality had spread. Like smug hunters with traps set, they'd been waiting for me to turn up for Thursday's Drama Group.

 

BULLYING. TO HURT, intimidate, or persecute. To use strength or influence to harm or intimidate others who are weaker.

Element one satisfied: Katia had strength and influence in her milieu. Every Aboriginal child did her bidding; they watched me; they asked if I was a 'les-be-n'.

Element two: did she harm and intimidate me? The Australian National Centre Against Bullying defines five kinds of bullying: physical, verbal, psychological, cyber-bullying and social bullying. Perhaps Katia's treatment of me was social bullying – 'Lying, spreading rumours, playing a nasty joke. Repeatedly mimicking someone and deliberately excluding someone.' Word had swept through the school about my sexuality. By outing me, Katia was playing a nasty joke on me. By making fun of me and showing her disapproval of my sexual orientation she was deliberately trying to isolate me. Element two proven.

But what of the final element: was I, the white, educated, middle-class adult, weaker than twelve-year-old, Aboriginal Katia?

 

AS I ANSWERED 'Yes,' and then 'Yes' again to each of those children's questions, I started to wonder if this would seal the fate of Drama Group. Each week I'd been delighted that the kids came back – after all, it was their lunch hour; there were no marks or gold stars for attendance. Maybe now none of them would want to come: they wouldn't want to play with the 'les-be-n'. As I looked into the laughing faces I was certain they'd want nothing more to do with me. And if the school rumour mill worked swiftly, then it wouldn't be long before the whole school knew I was a lesbian.

Drama Group was finished. Kaput. I could see myself putting the CD in the player, readying the track, pushing the tables and chairs to the side to clear a space, then waiting, reading and rereading the nouns, adjectives, adverbs printed on orange cardboard. Maybe the kids would ask the teacher if 'les-be-n' was a noun or an adjective.

I imagined spending the forty minutes waiting for participants, alone, with kids' laughter and voices outside and then, as the bell rang, I'd reclaim my CD, push the tables back in place and scurry, shamed, to my car.

As ridiculous as this seems, perhaps element three was proven: I was weaker than Katia in this situation. She had the power to affect something I wanted: I really wanted the Drama Group to work. And maybe because I, the South African-raised girl, am ever conscious of racism, I was reluctant to exclude or reprimand an Aboriginal girl. My do-gooder, politically correct self gave Katia yet more power.

Then it occurred to me that if Drama Group had just been canned by Katia outing me, there wasn't much to lose. The disaster had already happened. And as I sat on the wooden bench, mentally staging future events, Katia and company were gazing at me with real interest. It struck me that these kids wanted to know who I was. This might be the first time they'd met a real, live, out lesbian.

So I said to Katia, 'You know, I'm not ashamed to be a lesbian.'

She laughed, her spittle spraying my cheeks. Then she turned to the others and they too laughed on command. They were almost sneering at me.

I had to stay on this bench; I had to turn this inquisition into a conversation.

'How old are you, Katia?' I asked.

'Twelve.'

I said, 'I've been with my partner for twelve years. That means we've been together almost as long as you've been on this earth.'

She looked at me and then, wide-eyed, she said to the crowd, 'She's been a les-be-n for twelve years.'

'Oh, no,' I said. 'Longer than that. I've been with Jen for that long. I've been a lesbian for more than twenty years.'

Katia stared at me; she was silent. She looked stricken. Was she shocked that I was that old? Or because I'd admitted to the affliction of long-term lesbianism? Perhaps such lasting deviance showed I was beyond redemption.

But Katia was smart; she'd claimed the name 'Cool Katia' for good reason. She recovered herself and asked, 'So her name's Jen?'

'Yes.' I paused. 'You know everyone round here knows we're together. We're similar to the other adult couples you know, like your mum and dad and aunties and uncles. We're just another couple who're in love and in a relationship.'

Oops – I'd used another L-word.

'You in love?' Cool Katia was giggling now. So was the rest of the audience.

'Yes,' I said.

'Next week, you bring in a photograph of her. I want to see what she looks like.'

'Haven't you met a lesbian before?' I said to the assembled group. I was going to have to own my freak-show status.

Katia and a few others shook their heads.

'No way,' Katia said. And then, taking the upper hand again, she said, 'So do you have s-e-x?'

I couldn't answer that question. That would surely be considered a breach by the headmistress. And the next question would probably be 'how do you do it' and as a rule I never answer that question. I felt my back straighten and I shook my head. I might want to relate truthfully to these kids but this was rude, not just cheeky.

I looked at my watch and said, 'Drama Group starts in five minutes.'

As I slipped Angelique Kidjo into the CD player I chewed the side of my mouth. What had just happened? I'd been bullied and mocked by a bunch of children. I swallowed. I scanned my class plan. Just focus on the activities, think about what just happened later. Would anyone come play this week? I consoled myself with the thought that it had been an interesting experiment. Twenty-five students came the first week. Chaos. After that it settled down to twelve to fifteen students from Kindergarten to Year 6, mainly girls, but both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids. And although there was a different group each week, there were always the same five regulars who looked at me with wide eyes and did the exercises even when others refused.

Before I started this group I'd told a performer friend about my plan. He'd leaned back in his chair, arms laced behind his head, and said, 'You're nuts. It's a drama teacher's nightmare. You'll just wind up running a glorified form of childcare.'

I'd decided it was worth a go. Improvisation and creative play are fun; they build confidence and insight and ignite creativity. Over years, when I've played with my friends' kids, they've all delighted in theatre games and play-acting. I imagined the students at our local school would too.

They did. Some Thursdays, we'd walk across hot coals or sink knee-deep in soft sand; sometimes we were frogs; sometimes we'd build the Harbour Bridge or a sailing ship with our bodies, or watch a soccer match or a horror film. Sometimes they'd role-play scenarios. Mostly we laughed. And week after week the students came back.

As I stood in that empty classroom I thought of how I'd tell my friend Drama Group died when I was outed by a twelve-year-old girl. I remembered how Katia had come to Drama Group for the first three weeks. When I'd played Christine Anu at peak volume and we'd danced in a circle, moving first our eyes, then adding ears, then tongues until our whole bodies were dancing with the drums, Katia had elbowed a smaller girl out of her way. I remembered how when the sound system wouldn't read my CD, Katia had taken over and played her CD, how she'd answered for the younger Aboriginal students before they'd had a chance. I'd watched others step aside, wilt under her glare, get out of her way. I hadn't been sorry when she stopped coming. That's when I realised: Katia was the school bully.

Nothing unusual about this story, really. There are bullies in most Australian schools. More than a quarter of Australian Year 4 students said they had suffered bullying, according to a 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study produced by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which surveyed schools in nearly forty countries. The study found that, despite strict anti-bullying programs in schools, Australian primary school students suffer bullying at a rate of almost 50 per cent above the international average. Only Kuwait, Qatar, Taiwan and New Zealand fared worse. Michael Carr-Gregg, a child psychologist and adviser on school bullying to the Queensland Government, believes the problem is getting worse: in 1998 one in six young people were bullied in schools, in 2006 it was one in five, and in June 2009 it was one in four.

Just as I was ready to pack up my books and CD, Katia strode into the classroom, six other Aboriginal students in tow, and then five regulars slunk in, wide-eyed at the new batch of participants.

As we played piano, then guitar, then flute, then saxophone with our fingers and mouths to the sound of Angelique, I felt Katia's eyes on me, everyone's eyes on me. Were they thinking, Is this how a lesbian moves?

I swallowed hard and told everyone, 'Play drums now,' and kept my gaze away from Katia.

When we played the name game and it came round to Louise, who was still in Kindergarten, I held my breath. Would Katia intervene and say, 'Call 'er Lesbian Louise'?

She didn't. Someone suggested 'Lovely Louise' and my shoulders slumped with relief.

When we sat in the circle to play the birthday present game I read the rules from my book. Under Katia's gaze I couldn't trust my memory. While the game moved around the circle I worked on my light and cool persona; I made sure I treated everyone the same. Even if Katia was testing me, even if she was here to play 'let's watch the freak more closely', she wouldn't be able to fault me.

That day, I gave my greatest performance – and then I bolted for my car.

 

I'M AN ADULT. I had a get-away car. Supposedly I was running the class. And I felt ruffled, sick, uneasy, disturbed. No surprise, then, that in Lismore bullying by fellow students played a 'significant' role in fourteen-year-old Alex Wildman's decision to take his own life in 2008. No surprise, either, that a thirty-year-old victim of schoolyard bullying was recently awarded almost half a million dollars in damages because the bullying had led to behavioural problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and symptoms of depression. No wonder the former Family Court chief justice Alastair Nicholson, the chair of the National Centre Against Bullying, has called for a law making bullying a crime.

Bullying is allegedly not tolerated in New South Wales public schools. Every public school has its own School Discipline Policy, which includes codes of conduct to ensure students are free from bullying and intimidation, and an Anti-Bullying Plan. But despite anti-bullying programs, bullying is still a major public health problem. Recently a regional New South Wales school advised a Year 4 boy who suffered bullying to take out an AVO against his tormenter, a ten-year-old.

 

WHEN I GOT home I bush-bashed across the paddock after the tractor. I had to tell Jen what had happened, immediately.

I was baffled. Not by Katia's questions. I admired her guts, admired her for asking. I was baffled by my fear that by telling the kids I was a lesbian I was doing something wrong, that I'd get into trouble, that there was something naughty, bad, corrupting about telling them. Why? Something about their being young? It didn't worry me when I taught at university. When students walked out of my classes on gay relationships I'd laughed it off as part of my job as an educator. But at the primary school I was waiting to be called up to the head and reprimanded. Was it because, regardless of my own views, sexuality is usually regarded as a subject inappropriate for discussion with children under twelve? Was it because of the suspicion that hovers over gay men because of paedophilia? But that's not usually pinned on lesbians, is it?

Mostly I was baffled by how the interaction rattled me. When I've copped homophobia before I've confronted it, challenged it. But that's always been in situations with adults. There's been equality. This time, with twelve-year-old Katia, I felt mocked, I felt vulnerable and caged. Was it just because I'd never read the Department of Education's rule book on appropriate behaviour with children on the topic of sexuality?

Or was it because those kids were seeing deep inside me? Was it because
I still have some deep-rooted sense that the way I live is 'wrong', that it damages those around me? Was I still carrying my mother's disappointed response to my announcement that I was a lesbian, my aunt's frown, my sister's rage about how it would destroy our mother?

Jen halted when she saw the car bumping across the paddock. My appearance in this way was unprecedented; I'm not the good farmer's wife who brings sandwiches and a flask of tea out to the paddock. She jumped down from the tractor and took off her earmuffs.

'What's happened?' she asked. 'Are you okay?'

Over the tractor's hum she shook her head as I told her the story and said, 'Bloody kids. They're all the same. Now do you understand what I mean?'

Jen had thought my Drama Group ill-advised. 'Why would you choose to go into a school and teach kids and not even get paid for it?' she'd said.

For two years in the 1970s she'd taught Home Science at a large public school in western Sydney. She was part of a lesbian teachers' group formed when a lesbian maths teacher was advised to resign from a private school after the media printed a photograph of her, complete with '70s afro and feminist slogan T-shirt, being dragged into a police wagon at the first Mardi Gras march.

As I'd driven the half hour home from school, I'd wondered if Jen was right. Maybe Drama Group was a bad idea, maybe kids at a rural primary school are as difficult as tough urban high school students, maybe nothing's changed since the '70s.

As I leaned against the tractor in the strained winter sun, I said, 'It wasn't a total disaster. I mean, Katia and her henchmen came to class. That says something.'

'What does it say? That they want to check out the lezzo?' Jen said.

'Yeah maybe, but maybe they'll see me as cool now – isn't lesbianism the latest thing?'

'For kids out here?' Jen said. 'Doubt it.'

'Maybe there's some subconscious minority-group identification going on. Maybe Katia thinks I'm more acceptable now 'cause I'm from a minority group too? I don't know. All I know is, Katia came to class.'

'Just wait for next week,' Jen said, winking. 'You'll see, they'll chant "Lezzo, lezzo" when you walk in, not "Hairy Hayley".'

The obsolete meaning of 'bully' is sweetheart, darling or good friend. The word (probably from the Middle Dutch boele, 'lover') was originally a term of endearment applied to either sex, later becoming a familiar form of address to a male friend. Was there an element of Katia's behaviour that was consistent with this obsolete meaning?

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEK I turned up for class. Was every single child watching me as I walked through the gates? Should I change my walk? Stride more; wiggle more. What were these children concluding from watching me?

I was relieved when I heard someone call out, 'Hi, Hairy Hayley!'

Saskia and Tina, two of the Aboriginal girls who often came to Drama Group, were sitting apart from the others.

'We're on bench,' Tina said. 'We have to eat lunch here.'

Saskia said, 'What's your partner's name again?'

'Jen.' No doubt the news was all round the school by now.

Tina's jaw dropped; her hands and sandwich froze midair.

'Tina didn't know about you,' Saskia said to me, conspiratorially. 'She wouldn't believe me.'

Tina didn't come to class that day.

But Katia came. She was bossy. She monopolised the sound system. She directed the other kids. She answered for the little ones even when I repeatedly asked her not to. Her gaze silenced and withered a Year 2 boy.

Katia bullied me and most of the kids in Drama Group. Was this just who she was? Or was her behaviour a result of the prevalence of violence in her own community, the pressure she was under to conform? According to Julie Coffin, from the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health in Western Australia, mainstream bullying programs don't work because they don't address Aboriginal culture and a lifetime of oppression that has resulted in parenting and post-traumatic issues. She argues that the word 'bullying' is not even used in Aboriginal communities.

Could this explain Katia's behaviour? She was doing what she knew, what she was used to witnessing. She was taking the upper hand where she could.

Perhaps my inexperience with children and my lack of disciplinary muscle normalised Katia's bullying behaviour. Perhaps by labouring under Katia's power and not evicting her from the class, I failed to model behaviour that refused to tolerate bullying. I don't know.

There's only one thing I'm sure of: during lunch in the back section of the Year 5-6 classroom of a small country school, twelve students, including Katia, the school bully, followed my directions and made their bodies into cups and saucers, into knives and forks; they performed the roles of mothers, teachers, lost dogs. They gave themselves a round of applause at the end of the class. And no one mentioned the L-word. Not even Katia.

The names of the girls in the drama group have been changed for privacy reasons.


From Griffith Review Edition 36: What Is Australia For? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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