In early 2007, my gorgeous, talented, curly-haired younger brother Stuart took his own life, a month after his 40th birthday.
My husband and I raced over after Stuart was found near his inner city apartment. We helped deal with the police, the devastated boyfriend, the friends turning up in shock, the suicide note left on his phone, and the truly awful phone calls to my mother and others. Then I had to tell my children their beloved uncle was dead.
Stuart was a well-known documentary film maker and environmental activist, under the name Pip Starr, so his funeral was large, peopled with confused colleagues mingling in a beautiful park, with equally bewildered family and friends. Nobody knows what to say to the family of a suicide victim, just as those within the family don’t know what to say to themselves, or each other. The guilt and regret has never left, and still spills over in ready tears, often when I least expect it.
Did Stuart take his own life because he was gay? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times since his death. And it has never been adequately answered, except to say with conviction – it didn’t help.
Of course, being gay cannot, in and of itself, cause a person to have more of a propensity to depression or suicide. Yet the way gay people are still judged and pigeonholed in Australia must contribute to the more fragile psychological state some experience during part or all of their lives.
It was common knowledge in our community that Stuart found it difficult to be gay. He was bullied constantly right through school, with who knows how much psychological damage as a result. He found it hard to form stable relationships as a young adult, largely because of the barriers to equality consistently put in his way. It’s hard enough for anyone to grow up and form relationships and establish jobs, friends and homes – how much harder must it be when everything you are isn’t considered “normal” by a significant percentage of the population?
Stuart was so worried about himself and his sexuality – and this still makes me cry – that he firmly believed his family would disown him after he came out on Christmas Day when he was 23. He took a deep breath and did it anyway, and was thrilled when we told him we already knew and didn’t care. But what must the build-up to that moment have been like? How must he have agonised over choosing between seeing his family or being true to himself? Are there any experiences close to this that straight people are required to endure on the rocky road to adulthood?
Don’t just take my word for what people like Stuart struggle with – the research is clear on the higher depression and suicide rates of LGBTIQ people. How could it be otherwise? In Australia, the most basic human right – the right to love who they want and express it in the same way straight people do – are political bargaining tools. As if the rest of us somehow have the right to decide whether gay people are fully human enough to live as the rest of us do.
That’s why the coming plebiscite on same-sex marriage is so unconscionable. Take Lyle Shelton, head of the Australian Christian Lobby, who claimed recently that same-sex marriage should remain illegal because it may make people think his own marriage is gay. He got away with making such an abhorrent claim – yet imagine if he’d used the same argument in a slightly different way? If he’d said he didn’t think inter-racial marriage should be legal, because people may think he was married to a woman of colour? He would never be permitted to say such a thing – his entire organisation would be in jeopardy from the uproar. Yet saying what amounts to the same thing about gay people is still – inexplicably – acceptable to him, and many like him.
Leading up to the plebiscite, these kinds of arguments are only going to get more disgusting. Just yesterday, the same Australian Christian Lobby has asked for anti-discrimination laws to be suspended before the vote, because those who want to make appalling judgements about gay people (in order to increase the “no” vote) should be able to do so with impunity.
Malcolm Turnbull proved he doesn’t get it, either, in his Valentine’s Day tribute to his wife Lucy. While nobody begrudges them their happy marriage, to crow about his relationship while simultaneously presiding over the denial (or at least the long-protracted bickering) of granting those rights to others is disingenuous at best, and utterly cruel at worst.
That any politician would use my brother’s sexuality to appease their colleagues or score political points rather than doing what’s right is … well, I’ve run out of negative adjectives. Yet clearly, to continue to play games with these rights is to ensure more families will endure the deaths and mental illness of their gay brothers and sisters.
Those in charge – and those who agree with them – are responsible for safeguarding those lives. Yet they appear to have no compunction in ignoring the pain and mess they are creating. That the plebiscite has no binding power and several Liberal politicians have already said they will try to block a change to the law no matter which way the plebiscite is decided only adds further insult to the injuries already mounting up.
This isn’t an abstract argument – there are LGTBIQ people in Australia today with worsening mental health because of this issue. And perhaps more of them this week than last, since they have again had to endure the pain of again hearing our politicians steadfastly deny them their reality, and make them out to be “other”.
My brother will always be a member of a stark statistical group – gay people who have committed suicide. But he wasn’t a statistic to me. He was a living, breathing, human man, who was a loving son, brother and uncle, a dedicated nurse, an amazing artist, and an outstanding humanitarian and environmentalist. Had he not been treated as a lesser person than the rest of us for nothing more than who he chose to love, he might yet be gracing us all with his extraordinary talents and gifts.
In 2016 Australia, men and women like Stuart are still legal fringe dwellers whose right to be fully human will only be decided this year by the legal manoeuvring of others.
That is our collective great shame.
For the sake of so many young Australians, there must be no plebiscite.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Callback Service (Ph:1300 659 467) a free service for people who are suicidal, caring for someone who is suicidal, bereaved by suicide or are health professionals supporting people affected by suicide.
If you are under 25 years of age and need someone to talk to, you can call Headspace (Ph: 1800 650 890) A online, in person and phone counselling service specifically for young people aged between 12 and 25.
Reachout has a list of state based support services for the LGTBIQ community