Courage and queerness: On learning bravery from each other
By: Jac Tomlins
I am sitting at a dinner table with a group of friends. They’re the people who got me through lockdown. They’re the queers and allies with whom I laughed, cried and ranted about everything from unwashed dishes to the endless damaging political debates of the day.
We’re all much closer than we might have been, had we not found ourselves constrained by four walls and in need of a conversation with people not related to us.
Among them is my friend Elizabeth, an old dyke from way back. Elizabeth grew up in a time and place where there were few choices: you were straight, you got married… and that was about it. Over Zoom and Teams, and now in real-life, Elizabeth and I have shared a dozen stories of coming out, of trauma, of survival, and of the many ways our lives have changed over the decades.
While the rest of our table is talking excitedly, Elizabeth leans across and looks right at me.
“When we’re old… well, older,” she laughs, “and this time is long forgotten, I’ll remember one thing.”
I look her in the eye and wonder what’s coming. We are two glasses of sparkly down.
“That one thing is this,” she says, laying her hand across her heart. “There was a hole here. You filled it with courage and that has changed everything.”
My hand goes to my heart, and I feel it flip a little. I pause, breathe, take a moment, and refill the sparkly.
Image: Rémi Walle
I think about the word courage – from the Latin cor, meaning heart – and its simple, understated definition: strength in the face of pain or grief. I think about how much I see that in the queer community, and how often I have seen it over my lifetime.
I think about the fact that I came out almost 40 years ago – in a different place and at a very different time. Bearing witness to the courage of queer folk has been a constant and abiding feature of my life.
In that moment, when Elizabeth tells me that I’ve given her courage, I understand something. I understand that courage is circular. We give it and we receive it; we put it out and it comes back; it goes around and comes around. If I have given someone courage, it’s because someone has given it to me.
Recently, I came out as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I posted a blog on social media and wrote an article for this magazine. A lot of people said I was courageous – first to engage in a difficult healing process, and to then share that experience publicly with others.
As a writer and advocate of 30 years experience, I’ve written about a lot of different things – many of them deeply personal – but I’d never referenced the abuse. So yes, the decision to go public was not easy. I pressed the send button with enormous trepidation. Was that strength in the face of pain or grief ? Maybe. Probably. Yes.
But if it was, that courage was nurtured by the myriad small, brave steps I’ve watched so many other queer folk take over a lifetime: the ordinary everyday I’m-going-to-take-a-deep-breath-and-tell-the-world step. The I’m-not-going-to-let-you-do-that-to-me-anymore step. The f**k-them!-I’m-going-to-be-who-I-am step.
Those small steps are courage, and that courage is how we keep ourselves safe. Those steps are how we make the world better for the next person.
Courage is the baby dyke in Year 9 hovering at her teacher’s door, taking that first brave step to whisper: “Miss, can I talk to you about something?”
Courage is the older gay man who attends 30+ funerals – for friends, lovers, colleagues and still more as a volunteer.
Courage is the corporate lawyer who risks her livelihood and career to come out publicly, because no one else will.
Courage is the trans girl who gets dressed every day in the blazer and tie that denies her very existence, but goes to school anyway.
Courage is the lesbian therapist who sits with her own pain, and holds the pain of others so they can recover and heal.
Courage is the two gay dads who ignore the quiet disapproval and raise a beautiful baby girl who is confident and proud.
Courage is the young trans boy who tells his story to the world, making it a little better for the kids who follow him.
Courage is what our community pays forward.
But I can’t really say all that right then to Elizabeth at the dinner table. So I just leave my hand on my heart and say, “thank you, Elizabeth.”
And later, I write this, to say thank you to everyone else.
Jac Tomlins is a writer, trainer, speaker and advocate with more than 30 years’ experience working in the LGBTIQ space. Over the years, Jac has written features and op-eds; a series of guides for rainbow families; and two non-fiction titles. Most recently she published The Curse of Grandma Maple, a mystery adventure for the upper-primary aged group that might just be the first Australian kids’ novel to feature a rainbow family.
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