WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: you are on holiday somewhere foreign and are handed a
WANTED poster of a man who harms children
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: say thank you
You see two people kissing when you are on holiday in Italy with your parents and siblings. You see two people kissing when you are on holiday in Italy and you remember it because you live in a country where people do not kiss in public. You live in a country where kisses are censored out of films and people you know go to the movies to kiss in the dark and make up for what’s missing. The people kissing in Italy are (1) punks and (2) androgynous––that’s all you remember about the way they look. They are leaning on some metal railing and smiling and gazing way too deeply into each other’s eyes. This particular memory has been marinating for sixteen years and its fibres have broken down. Tenderised to something without sinews, something that falls apart the moment you pick it up. You are six years old and strict with yourself so your glimpse doesn’t last more than two seconds. You are nervous that looking will bring attention not to yourself but to the couple. Your mum will look at you looking at them. Then she will look at them too, then she will be inside this secret moment, a moment that you are working so hard to keep your own.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: other people’s sexuality
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: keep your mouth shut. You can’t let this
happen to anyone but you
You see things you shouldn’t have seen and your response is always, keep this to yourself. Whatever you see is meant for only you. It was given to you, so take it and say thank you and don’t think about the way it makes you feel.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: you are eleven and given a big, industrial sex shop on
the drive from the airport to your hotel
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: say thank you
You had a fat stack of photo albums in the living room of your two-bedroom apartment; you kept them on the walk-in bookshelf, or maybe under the TV. The photos started in the 80s, when your parents had respective lives that hadn’t yet converged. When you weren’t feeling narcissistic, you instead felt nosy. Always by yourself, you would sneak into the lives your parents had before you and before each other.
You sit with your legs crossed on your living room carpet when you accidentally look at a photo taken by your dad. SEX SHOP, a store-front sign, red and white, and not much else in frame. You can’t remember whether you look at the photo for half a second or forever but either way, you don’t spend a normal amount of time with it. You are embarrassed and guilty. You have invaded privacy. Sex and the body happens to other people as well—you learn this and immediately think, maybe I shouldn’t’ve.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: your dad’s sexuality
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: keep your mouth shut. This isn’t supposed to
happen to you
You are in the kitchen by yourself and you feel like you should feel guilty about it. You say to yourself, I have the freedom to eat straight salt out of my hand, and so you climb onto the marble bench, pour a small mound of straight salt into your hand, and you eat it. You spit it out and gag into the kitchen sink and hear mum come home with her friend and her friend’s daughter. Afterwards, you are disgusted because the salt is gross but also because only bad things can spawn from freedom and you were too stupid to realise.
Every time you come to Melbourne, you go to Target. You stock up on clothes because Australia is a season ahead of the fashion. It’s August and you’re buying a pair of brown boots for the cold. You’re walking through the aisle by yourself and see someone from two aisles down in a long black coat; stilettos; 20 denier stockings; lipstick; a white wig, curled and cropped like Jean Harlow’s. The person is tall, mid-fifties, angled, broad. You knee-jerk look at the floor. Thank god I’m here alone. Thank god my parents are looking for underwear and shirts. You stop and try not to be seen. You look back up again and the person is gone and you are relieved and then you are devastated at an opportunity lost. You walk back and forth looking for them. You look for your parents at the same time, wanting to find everyone but not wanting them to interact. Any two things can never actually touch. In order for two particles to touch, they would have to merge. You can’t let that happen.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: someone else’s gender
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: keep your mouth shut. This moment is all
yours, and whenever mum asks for a bite of
your ice-cream she eats the whole thing,
You feel things you shouldn’t have and your response is always, keep this to yourself. Whatever you feel is meant for only you. Don’t think about why you feel it.
In year ten you spend the night at school. It is part of a charity bike-a-thon where you set up two exercise bikes and keep the pedals moving for twenty-four hours. It’s midnight and you’re sitting in a circle on the AstroTurf pitch. You’re talking about sex. Your teachers are within earshot and you don’t know whether they’re listening and you don’t know whether you mind.
You button up your shirt, get to the top, and realise you’d skipped a button right at the bottom. Your shirt isn’t in sync––something so small isn’t quite right and because of it, everything that follows is just marginally off. You decide to wear the shirt as-is, because you can’t think of a reason not to.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: your shirt gets buttoned up wrong
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: nothing
You are sitting on the blue cushioned seats at reception with two girls from the year above. Christine turns her laptop around so that you can see the photo on the screen. Do you think she’s sexy? And you freeze because what the hell is the correct answer, so you laugh and come up with, I dunno I mean yeah I guess, and then she shows you another photo and says, It’s a man! He won [an award exclusively for female models], and you are relieved because the person you found attractive is a man but scared because, for a second, it wasn’t.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: someone else’s gender
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: think about your own sexuality
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: your own sexuality
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: think about your own gender
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: your own gender
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: nothing. Nobody has ever seen it
happen and nobody was ever supposed to.
You forget it happened at all
You are wearing a t-shirt but somehow you manage to button it up wrong. Actually, maybe you’re wearing it inside out. Maybe the tag is still on. Maybe it is a Men’s XXL and you are five feet, fourteen, and afab. Gender happens to you in public and, for the first time, you are not alone. You are stuck in clothes you don’t mind all that much in a place where others do.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: gender. Everyone’s. All at once
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: remember being nine years old and wearing
your cousin’s trunks to the water park.
Remember the fight with your mum
and auntie before going? Remember what that
small win felt like? It was pride. It was guilt
Other people’s lives happen to you until you’re ready to deal with your own. Don’t talk about it like it’s just their sex or their bodies or their gender. Talk about it like the time you stood on a train on a Wednesday and cried on behalf of the white-haired man as he held a bouquet of irises and almost missed his stop.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: someone else’s grief. He is one hundred per cent on his
way to a funeral oh god his daughter died oh god was it
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: wipe your tears and interject with, excuse me
the doors are going to open on the other side of
the carriage this time
Talk about it like the time you cried on behalf of the man who sat alone and drank a bottle of wine. The man who put a single dumpling on a spoon, covered it in plain white rice, and ate it.
WHAT HAPPENS TO YOU: someone else’s dumpling
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: cry in front of new friends
It happens to you. You put out your hand, swallow it, and say thank you and eventually you realise you’ve taken too much. You sit in public places sick and bloated with so much of this bile salt that (1) keeps getting handed to you and (2) you keep ingesting. You spit it at other people and call it a shared experience.
You are living in the States for a year and almost everyone you befriend is queer and you have no idea why, why now? What changed? They hurl their experiences right into your stomach to paralyse your diaphragm and because you are too winded to speak, all you can make out is a breathy thank you. It’s Christmas and you’re at a potluck house party and everyone has known each other since private-Catholic-Louisiana high school. They won’t stop talking about the old days, the majority of which are super queer and kind of steamy and eventually everyone goes to the table at the back of the room to serve themselves composites of everyone’s offerings. Someone has made tabouli but it is definitely not tabouli. You start saying, there’s too much bulgur, and/or, the parsley’s not cut fine enough, and then you realise that even though this smorgasbord is being held out and prodded at your face like, take it please take it, it’s not yours.