My mind went briefly to an early memory. I stood alone in a field on my family’s mango farm in north Queensland, aged maybe four or five. I’d run from the house, although I don’t remember why or the whereabouts of my older siblings or parents. Something had unsettled me. Perhaps it was the stirring of this thought: there in the field, I had a distinct realisation that my future was unknown. I was singular and tiny in the expanse of dirt, the hot smells of dust and ocean in my nostrils. I was terrified and thrilled.
On a stage in Barcelona, this memory came back into focus. As I sang, I discerned the narrowness of my bare shoulders, my band mates metres away on either side. All around me was a giant steel structure and in front a thousand pairs of eyes to tell me how inconsiderable my body was out of its clothing.
Then, maybe after the show, maybe after some gin, a memory of a beautiful scene: a baby-faced person, vogueing to an audience of three. That audience was me and two others, working at a bar in Fitzroy. It was late on a weeknight, when the people who came in often did so alone. We stood at the back of the band room and watched as this person threw their body around to the house music, with an expression, part-smile, part-grimace, as if at once relieved and repulsed by our bearing witness. I sensed that they danced to remember and to document that they were alive.
Not many months later, the dancer was dead. Suicide, I was told. I cried in the keg room.
The week my band started writing our second album, my relationship ended and I was left alone to see out a house-sitting tenancy in northern Melbourne – the large suburban house of a friend of a friend. I’d moved around from sublets to house-sits for eight or nine months, in part because of touring commitments and finances and in part because of the unstable state of my relationship. I couldn’t find my footing.
It was winter and only the living room in the house was properly heated, so I spent most days on the chair next to the iron stove. I looked for my next crash pad; I stared out at the yard. Listening back to beginnings of songs recorded on my phone, I scratched out lyrics.
I read Le Livre Blanc, the novella published anonymously in France in 1928 and later attributed to Jean Cocteau, considered semi-autobiographical. In it, the book’s queer narrator retells a series of relationships and sexual adventures. All are hidden from outside eyes. Each relationship ends in silent abandonment, violence or death.
In one encounter, with a sailor whose tattoo reads “Out of luck”, the narrator senses that the night together is one more intimate than his lover has experienced. Figuring the desperation of “an unlucky boy who could feel a lifebelt coming close to him on the open sea”, the narrator slips out quietly in the morning. “My eyes avoided his,” he writes, “which were full of all the hope which he felt but could not express.”
I revisited Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s claustrophobic novel of 1956, in which a white American man escapes himself by taking a boat to France, only to begin a relationship with an Italian man equally unable to face himself. Recounting his childhood, the American, David, recalls a decision to close himself off after an intimate night with a male friend led to self-destructive drinking and his father’s rejection. David succeeds in not returning to the feelings that frightened him, “by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect, in constant motion”.
Silence and evasion repeat through queer literature – and in real lives, too. In so many stories, queer bodies trip over themselves to avoid standing still, to avoid the presence of their own desires, their own presence in the world. In both these books is something far greater than the characters themselves: the suspicion under which their lives play out. This is the smirk that tells Cocteau’s character his difference is seen and he is unsafe. It’s the disappointment in the voice of David’s father in Giovanni’s Room, the way the characters’ fears turn inward, become a festering quiet. But the characters do find moments of joy, sex, solidarity – small transgressions in the smog of shame; moments of resistance, like wild dancing in a quiet bar.
These ideas were circling my own post-relationship feelings as I wrote lyrics. I documented my evasions and transgressions. I wondered how these related to other things happening in the world. All over, the idea of resistance is being talked about and debated against that of assimilation – assimilation into systems that seek to use our bodies for money-making and then throw them away, or deem certain bodies worthless to their end goals and dispose of them more quickly, put them out of sight, lock them up, murder them. My mind turned to great political resistance, and the smaller, more personal moments of resistance inside these systems, ways to be, and the fight to be, the authors of our own futures.
After the album was recorded, we toured Britain and Europe, a show a day for three weeks, ending at the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. The band had written a set of songs that allowed me to feel out the longing, anger, smart-arsedness and exhilaration I had wanted to write into the lyrics. Playing most of the songs live for the first time on the tour, though, I began to dread having to go onstage. I moved around constantly during the shows, barely facing the audience. I blew my voice out most nights, shouting into the microphone, not knowing how or when to pull back. I looked at the photos of us playing, posted on the internet by European strangers, and I saw a person in pants and a T-shirt performing the role of a man on stage, taking cover in the provisions of the role.
At Primavera Sound, I sat backstage before our midnight set. I took off my jacket and my shirt and went out to play the show. It was an action many singers had taken before me, and as a white cis-male I was under far less threat of violence than others. But on that expansive stage in the Catalonian breeze, singing about silence and defiance, I felt more exposed than I ever had. Insignificant and seen. I arched my shoulders in the light. I stood still and looked out to the front rows of people singing my words back to me. I documented and remembered that I was alive.
Now, I think of another thing I read in those quiet house-sit hours: a Holly Hughes piece titled “Breaking the Fourth Wall”, from the New York performance artist’s 1996 show, Clit Notes. It’s one of the most alive and funny pieces of writing I’ve read. In the first-person story, a teenage girl kisses her mother goodnight, only to be told that she is kissing “all wrong, hon” and that she should open her mouth wider. The narrator goes on: “As I made out with Mom, I heard a small sound. Like a door closing and locking behind me. I knew I would never get back to that place where I imagined I was safe.”
Although Cocteau’s narrator in Le Livre Blanc withdraws entirely from society following the suicides of his lovers and so much abandonment and fear, he comes to a similar conclusion: “I will not agree to be tolerated. This damages my love of love and of liberty.”
I can’t pretend I haven’t retreated on stage again since that night in Barcelona, from anxiety or the exhaustion of exposure, or that I know exactly where to go with these ideas drawn from my own experiences and the experiences of others. Some, if not most, days I still feel like a child in a field, although perhaps now one clutching a fistful of strings, on the ends of which are bulging, bright balloons. What to do with them? Tie them down? Let them go?
All futures are unknown. Maybe we find our way by removing the things that keep us hidden from each other, by exposing the essential parts of ourselves and bearing witness to the essential parts of others. Maybe that’s when we are free.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2017 as "Body politics".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription