Funded by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, Healthway, Act-Belong-Commit, the City of Mandurah and the City of Bayswater, Backstories was a one day multi-sited storytelling festival located in the suburbs of Western Australia held on March 14 2020.
“When I realised I was attracted to blokes, I found it impossibly out of sync with every aspect of my identity as a man.”
Award-winning YA author Holden Sheppard shares his poignant and personal story about learning to accept, and love, who he really is.
Copyright © 2020 Holden Sheppard.
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Holden Sheppard. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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When I was growing up, I did not want to let myself exist. I was fourteen years old when I first realised that I was really different to others boys. So, we were at home in my lounge room with Dad, and my brothers and my uncles and cousins, and we were watching the footy. And that’s what we all did. It was a blokey thing to do, all the guys in the family did it, and I loved that. And everyone is doing you know the usual stuff.
“What a mark! What a goal!”
And, I was like, that was a really good mark and yes, it was a great goal, I’m glad we got a goal… these footy players are fucking hot! And obviously being a fourteen-year-old boy, I knew that was not like a normal reaction to have. So, I know it is not normal to want to root your footy hero, right? So, I immediately went, something is wrong, and I don’t feel okay about this. And being a bookish kind of kid, I was like, I am going to go and find the answers to this weird thing in a book.
And as it so happened, I already had the book. And some of you have probably seen this kind of book before. It is the kind of book that when you are fourteen years old just appears on your pillow. And no one knows where it comes from. And your parents have never seen it before. You have never seen it before. No one would ever talk about it, ever. So, this book was about puberty. And because I have a lot of older siblings, it was bought for them and they grew up in the 80s. So, this book was a little dated. But I remember reading something. So, I quickly went back to this book and went, hang on, there is something in this book about what I am feeling right now. There was a passage homosexuality. It said:
“When you are going through puberty you might experience surges of hormones. And they may briefly make you feel confused and make you feel like you are attracted to the same sex. But don’t worry, it’s just a phase. These hormones will pass in time and you will get back to normal and recalibrate. So, don’t stress about this brief phase or your experience.”
So, I was like, Oh, okay cool, that sounds great.
I don’t really know if I ever believed that it was just a phase, but I was really content to believe that it was just a phase. It’s because of four things that I probably need to, kind of, double back and tell you.
So, number one: I grew up in Geraldton. Anyone know Gerro? Yeah, we understand where this is going. So, a small country town, or it was a regional town. And I love Gerro, but I felt like the only gay in the village. So, I had never seen gay people that I knew of. I think there was one parliamentarian who got absolutely called names behind his back in town. They would call him the horse’s hoof, they would call him all kinds of things. I remember thinking, like if that’s someone really senior and someone powerful and that’s how they are treated because they are gay, what the hell hope does a fourteen-year-old boy have? So, I knew this was not an okay thing in a small town. I didn’t see any people around who were like me.
Number two: really working class. So, Dad is in the earth moving. My uncles are brickies. I was a labourer for Dad, so I used to operate dump trucks and mini excavators and whackers, and on the shovel and that kind of thing. And if you didn’t turn around and check out a chick as she walked past, there was something wrong with you. So that was the vibe I was growing up in there.
Number three: I am Italian, yeah. Someone’s like oh, they already get it. So, my grandparents came from Sicily in the 1930s and they brought with them the 1930s. So, all the social norms of that time were imposed on the kind of the family and the generations below. It is a typical migrant thing, I believe. I was expected to marry a good Italian girl. And if you were different you were called finocchio, which actually means fennel, like the anise bulb is what finocchio is, but the translation is actually faggot. So, it’s a slur.
And, oh sorry, I forgot number four the kicker: strict Roman Catholic. I don’t need to go into that probably too much, to be honest. I think everyone understands the intersection between Catholicism and homosexuality. Suffice it to say, I thought I was evil and sick and terrible and what a terrible and immoral thing to be gay. So that’s the kind of messaging I already had about homosexuality. So, when I thought it could just be a phase, I thought, yes let’s just make it a phase and I will move on. So, for a little while, I was actually okay. From the age of fourteen to like sixteen I was fine. And then I remember distinctly being sixteen and going, oh two years ago I read that thing about hormones, and the straight ones haven’t kicked in yet. And I was trying to make them kick in. So, I was trying to have a high school girlfriend. I was trying to watch straight porn, and you know, boobs are great but it just wasn’t doing it for me.
So, I started to get actually really depressed and started to really loathe myself. And I felt a lot of shame and I felt a lot of guilt. And I thought, why can’t I be normal? And I tried to be normal really hard. No matter what I did, I couldn’t make it fit. I couldn’t stop being attracted to men. So that was uniquely traumatising. I think when I tell this story to an audience they go, “Oh you were a gay boy coming to terms with being a gay. Duh.” And it didn’t feel like that at that time. I felt like a straight boy, and I felt like my brain chemistry and my hormones have let me down. I have been totally betrayed by my own body and it sucks. I was furious and upset. It didn’t feel like a natural process of this is how it’s meant to be. I hated it and resisted it.
And probably if I was in a city, I would have done something like going and experiment. Alright? That’s what teenagers do. But being from a country town, you can’t do that. First, I didn’t know where to start. Secondly, where would I find other people like me? And thirdly, if you do meet someone in a small town, heads up – they know someone you know. So, if I was to experiment with anyone it would go round the town like wildfire. I know this because I have lived in that town for so long.
So, the analogy for what happens next– I use food. And I want you to use your own imaginations for this part of the story. So just think of your favourite meal. For me, it is spaghetti meatballs. So, the way I describe this kind of four-year period was that imagine you have been working the whole day and you skip breakfast in the morning, and you didn’t have time for a lunch break. You finally get home and it’s late at night. Your partner has cooked you your favourite meal. You can smell it as soon as you open the door.
So, is everyone smelling their favourite meal? Yeah, okay, good. Sorry, I hope I am not making you hungry. So, for me, spaghetti and meatballs. You are smelling tomato puree and bay leaf, red wine, beef… you are smelling all the things you like. I love spaghetti meatballs.
And for me that was the process from age fourteen to eighteen. I could smell my favourite meal. I could see it right there and I was starving. I was so hungry, but I couldn’t eat it. It was not safe to eat it. I was not allowed to eat it. So, I couldn’t. And if you imagine that feeling of disappointment of smelling and seeing but not tasting, of wanting but never having, then you can understand. If you did that every single day for four years, from the age of fourteen to eighteen, how you might be feeling a little bit desperate. And you can appreciate that when I finally turned eighteen and a week later jumped on a plane and flew to London, how horny I was. Right, okay? Like I hadn’t taste spaghetti and meatballs all this time. So, I am not going into the details about that part of the story, especially not with young people around.
The short version is I ended up in a place called Covent Garden which is where the homos of London congregate. But I ended up in a place called the bath house, which again, I am not going into the detail. I guess metaphorically, I finally had my spaghetti and meatballs. Such a bad metaphor. And that was delicious, okay. So, I had a really good time but what I thought would happen after was like what you see in TV shows like, oh I have found myself, and I have come to terms with who I am, and I feel better now. I am proud.
I didn’t feel proud.
I ran down Tottenham Court Road in London with my Discman blaring, because this is 2006, we didn’t have iPods, I didn’t have an iPod, and I was just terrified. I was just running with music pounding in my ears thinking, what the hell have I done? And I felt so ashamed and guilty, and I just kept doing this whole way through the Europe trip essentially. Wanting something, doing it, and then going, this is wrong, this is wrong, I shouldn’t be doing this.
So, I come to the end of this trip and I arrive back in Australia. I remember walking through Perth Airport, and Perth Airport is big and airy, it has a lot of windows I think – I don’t know, maybe I am misremembering – but I remember being wide and airy. But then it was all kind of leading and narrowing down to the arrival gate. So, when you actually walk through and the doors slide open, you can finally see all your family waiting for you. And I remember feeling my whole body squishing back into itself. Even though it had been a really weird few months in Europe, I had done things and gone back and forth about it, I had been myself. I had been able to do the stuff I wanted to do. And walking back through that gate, I realised I had to squash myself back into who I used to be. So, there was no pride, there was no happy moment at this point. It was, I am going to be a straight boy again. So, I walk back through those doors, doors part, my family is there and there is me: straight Holden back in the closet.
So, I went back and for about a year, I went between Gerro and Perth. My job at the time, as I said, was as a labourer for Dad. So, I’d dig trenches. And I just think it is really interesting that my job was literally to dig stuff up, do something, and then bury it, over and over and over. And that’s exactly what I was doing in Europe. And that’s exactly what I did when I left Geraldton and moved to Perth and was experimenting – you dig, you do, and you bury. It was an ongoing process. Doing that enough makes you hate yourself and so I went from the self-loathing and the depression into not wanting to be on the planet anymore. I didn’t want to be me anymore and I didn’t want to live anymore.
The job I had at that time was the worst job you can have if you are suicidal. It was a night filler. Have you ever spent six hours every night sitting with your own thoughts? Not fun. So, I would drive home from that job every night at about 1am and it was through the back of Wanneroo. There were no suburbs back there. It was just Pinjarra Road and bush. Every night I would think, Maybe that tree, maybe that tree. And I thought if I can just get the courage to veer off now, you know, I won’t have to deal with this anymore.
And thankfully, every night I would get home and log onto my computer, and I would just desperately look for someone to talk to. And at the time the thing we used to talk was called MSN Messenger – I am old. And I would log on, and there was this guy from Uni on MSN. We were just kind of acquaintances and eventually, at some point we were chatting. And you know, we would chat, then nothing. Eventually, he said he was gay. And I was like, “Yeah man, that’s cool, whatever. You do you, as long as you don’t like me, ‘cos I am straight.” That was my line.
But eventually, we kept talking and one day I got drunk enough to say, “Well, I think I might be gay too.” And that was actually the moment I had to really front up because I had done a lot of things anonymously. I had done it and I buried it. But I had never known someone who knew this part of me. I had never known someone who knew that secret part that I didn’t share. And once I did, I had to face up.
And all I could think once I actually knew this gay guy who knew me, I remember thinking, he is gay, and I don’t hate him. In fact, I really like him. So, what if I stop fighting and denying and burying and just let myself exist the way that this guy does? And I realised that when I thought that, it actually felt really, really nice to just let myself exist. So, from that day I started, and here I am in front of you guys today. I exist.