Bright Lights, No City is a project dedicated to documenting the stories of LGBTQIA+ youth from country WA. We thank Community Arts Network for funding this project.
The Centre for Stories collected a number of written and oral stories. Each participant’s story has been thoughtfully crafted with the help of Oral Storytelling Trainer, Sisonke Msimang, and Writing Expert, Susan Midalia. This project was funded by Community Arts Network (CAN). CAN manages the Catalyst Community Arts fund on behalf of the State of Western Australia through the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.
In this story, Holden Sheppard worked alongside Sisonke Msimang to craft and perfect his story.
About Holden: G’day! I’m Holden Sheppard, an award-winning Young Adult author based in Perth. I was born in the regional town of Geraldton, where I grew up in a big Sicilian-Australian family, went to Catholic school, and worked odd jobs as a storeman and labourer. When I realised I was attracted to blokes, I found it impossibly out of sync with every aspect of my identity as a man. To call this time in my life traumatic is an understatement. To say that I hated myself is an even bigger one. But now, in my late 20s, I’m ready to share my story.
Copyright © 2018 Holden Sheppard
These stories have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of these stories, please contact the Centre for Stories.
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When I was growing up, I didn’t want to let myself exist. I was about 14 when I realised that I was really different from other boys. I remember watching a footy game with my dad and my brothers and my uncles and my cousin, and everyone is shouting, “What a mark! What a goal!” and all I could think of how hot all these footy players were. And I knew, obviously, at the time, that that was a really weird thing. I knew it wasn’t normal for teenage boys to want to root their footy heroes. So this troubled me, and I – I freaked out a bit. And being a bookish kind of kid, I thought, well, I’m going to do some research and find out what this is about.
So I found a really, really old, dated book on my parents’ bookshelf, which was about puberty, and I think it was written in, probably, the 70s. And it told me that during puberty, when you’re about, you know, 13, 14, you might experience hormonal surges that might confuse you and they might make you briefly think that you’re attracted to the same sex. So I thought, okay, well, that’s not too bad. Maybe it’s just a brief hormonal surge and maybe it’s a – you know, a phase or something like that. And I don’t really know if I ever believed it. But I was more than happy to go along with it. And I think the reason I was happy to go with it was because everything I’d ever seen or heard about being gay was not good.
So I grew up in a – a working class kind of background where being gay was “un-masculine”, you weren’t tough, you were a faggot; and being Catholic, it was a sin, and it was evil. And I remember a teacher at school saying that it made her sick to her stomach to think of homosexuals. And being in a small country town, I don’t think I’d ever met anyone that I knew was gay. I didn’t really know it was a thing. It was a – it was like fiction. It was something you saw on American TV shows as a joke. And I was half Sicilian as well, so I – I knew that being gay meant you were a finocchio, which was incredibly shameful and kind of meant you’d be rejected from the family and from everyone you know. You would just be, kind of, cast out.
So being gay sounded like a bad life choice. And because of this input, I was quite happy to go along with the idea that this was a phase. After a couple of years – so by the time I was about 16 – I realised that these feelings weren’t going away. I was attracted to men, and the – the “right” hormones that were meant to kick in that made me like girls, that hadn’t happened. And that actually – that didn’t feel like a gay boy coming to terms with being gay. It felt like a straight boy who was being betrayed by his brain chemistry and his hormones. So that started to get really traumatic. And as much as I wanted to experiment and do stuff and, you know – and try being gay, being in a small, regional town in the mid-west, it didn’t feel like that was a safe option partly because I didn’t know how to or who to find it – you know, how to find gay men and partly because if anyone found out, I felt like I would die because I didn’t want to be a gay guy.
What happened was a huge amount of guilt and shame and self-loathing. Like, I really hated myself for actually doing this thing that I thought was really sick and evil
So the risk – at the risk of, you know, becoming a story that went around town – you know, “Oh, there’s that gay boy” – I chose instead to find out what I could online. And so, I would experiment online with grown men, a lot of guys in their 30s and 40s and 50s, lots of Americans and British men and Aussie guys from over east. And that was the safest way I could find to – to experiment with who I was and how I felt. And as I say it now, it sounds fucked up in a number of ways, but that’s what worked. So moving forward a little bit, that got me through a couple of years till I was 18. And then when I was 18, I was kind of bursting at the seams to – to actually, you know, try doing this for real. So I turned 18, and the week after, I took all my life savings from working at a supermarket, and I flew to Europe for four months just to escape and experiment and see if this, maybe, was me.
And it’s kind of comical when I think about it because I – I was barely off the plane, and I got to a hostel in Hyde Park, dumped my bags and, kind of, sprinted to the gay areas in London as fast as I could. And I tried everything. I finally got to try being gay. So I went to, you know, the – the gay cafes and bookshops and bars and clubs and the gay sauna. And I finally had a chance to be gay and – and to be with men. And as much as I wanted it, what came next was not a feeling of acceptance or a feeling that I’d finally found myself. What happened was a huge amount of guilt and shame and self-loathing. Like, I really hated myself for actually doing this thing that I thought was really sick and evil and – and “un-masculine”.
Anyone who was there that day would have seen this skinny 18-year-old boy with a – a moppish Beatles haircut, springing down Tottenham Court Road, with his discman plugged into his ears and like he was running away from death because that’s how it felt. And so, for the next few months, I experimented, and I repeated this same cycle of wanting to do something, doing something, being gay, and then, kind of, self-flagellating, hating myself, beating myself up, getting super depressed. So it was a really up and down kind of time. And eventually, my money ran out. And so, I came back. I came back to Australia.
And I remember really vividly walking through Perth Airport, and there’s this big, light, airy space, and I was walking down from the big part of the airport to this tiny, narrow, little section where I had to fit through the gate. And I remember feeling, in that moment, myself squishing back into my body and forcing myself to be the person I was before I left. And so, I walked back through the gate as a “normal”, straight guy again. And for some people, maybe this would be the time where they came out, and they went home and told mum and dad how they felt. But for me, it was a time of total and profound denial of myself. So I went back home to Geraldton.
I worked with my dad as a labourer. And my job was to dig trenches every day, so essentially, I was in this really hyper-masculine environment. I felt like, okay, maybe I can fit in; maybe I can just be a straight, “normal” kind of guy. And my job at the time was to dig a trench, lay a pipe, bury it again. And when I finally moved back to Perth, I had a very similar cycle of experimenting with men again and doing the same kind of thing. I would experiment, open myself up as gay briefly, and then once I was done, I would bury it again, just like the trench. And after enough time, the self-loathing and the depression turned more to a feeling that I didn’t really want to be me anymore and I didn’t want to be on the planet anymore.
So I remember, at the time, I was working after hours as a night filler from about 7 at night to about 1 in the morning. And so, I’d drive home from that job in the middle of the night, and there’s no cars on the road; and I’d drive on Pinjar Road up in – near Wanneroo, and it was just completely open, and it was just bush; and I was just myself, driving. And every night for weeks and months, I would think maybe this is the night and maybe that’s the tree; and maybe if I just veer off now, this would be over, and I don’t have to think about it or deal with it or deal with me anymore. Fortunately, at the same time, when I got home each of those nights, I would log on to my computer, and I would desperately look for someone to talk to.
And I found one guy who was someone I knew from university. And I’d actually got his details by signing up to the same group assignment as him because I thought he was kind of hot. One day, he eventually revealed that he was gay. And one night, I made the stupid mistake of getting drunk, and I told him that I thought I might be gay too. And the next morning, that was actually a really horrible experience for me because I realised that this was a very real thing now. I had told someone in real life. They knew me, and they knew that I felt like I was gay. This wasn’t an anonymous hook-up. This wasn’t a guy in America. This was someone who knew me and knew my name. And what frightened me about that moment was that I now had to really deal with whether or not I was going to be okay with this.
And then looking at this guy, I thought, well, he’s gay, and I don’t hate him. So I started to think about how it might feel if I let myself exist as well. And when I thought about that, I realised it actually felt really nice to stop fighting or denying or deleting, and it felt good to just let myself exist. And so, from that day, I began to exist. And here I am.