New anthology Growing up Queer in Australia (edited by Benjamin Law) brings together LGBTIQA+ stories from around Australia, from David Marr and Nayuka Gorrie to Christos Tsiolkas and Holly Throsby. In her essay Radelaide / Sadelaide, writer and academic Gemma Killen reflects on her formative years in the city of churches.
You are born in 1987, on the 14th of June. Your 10pm arrival makes you a Gemini sun with an Aquarius rising. Basically, you are prone to both vacuous chatter and long bouts of pensive staring out windows, certain that the whole world is about to collapse. This could be because of a perfect spewing of planets across the sky at the exact time of your birth, or it could be because the world is large and your nervous tongue is small but ambitious.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital is just over the back fence of your parents’ house and Mum waddles over when she goes into labour. You are delivered into the world a full month earlier than expected – impatience is another key feature of your Gemini-Aquarius complexion – so you spend your first days in a box, carefully monitored, gently regulated. When it is all done, Mum waddles home again, a nurse carrying you all the way to the front door. Dad buys a bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin to celebrate. Mum rolls her eyes.
Depending on who you ask, Adelaide is known as the city of churches or the murder capital of the world. There are certainly a lot of churches – more than 500 built from stone and sand, and countless more unseen, sacella born of loungeroom piety and furtive glances across classrooms. You are never sure exactly how the city got its murderous reputation, but the halfway point between home and school is marked by the house where a man killed his lover and put him in the freezer for safe-keeping. This, too, feels like a kind of prayer. Mum wants you to go to Sunday school. You make a face.
Geminis are fickle and the Aquarian influence makes you susceptible to rebellion. When the powers that be first designed Adelaide, they argued over the exact location of the city in relation to its main harbour. Colonel William Light chose a site 14 km south-east of the port, and planned to run a canal between the two points. It would be the aorta of South Australian trade. However, the route was uphill, and the water refused to flow in the right direction.
In 2001 you decide to become a Goth. This is, in part, a response to your parents’ divorce, which is at once messy and completely silent. One day Dad is there and the next he’s not, banished to the other side of the world. It feels as though the scripture is beginning to reveal itself as nothing more than desperate scrawling. In part, it is because of Izzy.
Adelaide was designed with morality in mind. Good men, definitely white, definitely not convicts, would be sold tiny boxes of land and they would live sensible, straightforward lives with sensible, straightforward wives. The South Australian Colonisation Commissioners drew up plans and bickered about how best to strike lines in the dirt so that the men who walked them would be on the right side of virtue. Never mind what came before, as long as they could control what came after.
You buy a black dress with lace sleeves from the old Brickworks markets, borrow your sister’s battered Doc Martens, strap an upturned cross to your neck and smother your eyes with so much cheap eyeliner you immediately begin to cry. Which helps, because tear-stained is just the kind of dramatic look you’re going for.
Izzy’s legs are hairy and she is so pale you swear you can see the messy knot of blood beneath her skin, thudding in time with your own heart. On days when you feel the teetering of the Earth and the pull of the Moon too strongly, she strokes your back and lets you wear her favourite cat necklace.
Your sister warns you about how obsessive lesbians can be, and you burn with silence in the back of the car. The lights of the western suburbs flash past the window, blinking in code.
The streets of Adelaide are lined with steel-wrapped concrete poles that commune with the edges of the sky. They were designed by James Cyril Stobie from the Adelaide Electric Supply Company when the city was faced with a dwindling timber supply that twisted and crumbled between the teeth of termites. Now, primary schools are given licence to mural their local poles, and some neighbourly folk coat the ones outside their houses with chalkboard paint, inviting passers-by to see the resplendent contents of their minds and the occasional drawing of a penis. These indestructible alien forms were not part of the plan for the city, yet there they now stand, sacred towers adorned with art and dicks.
Izzy holds your hand when you go to see Bridget Jones’s Diary and afterwards, over pancakes, she asks you to be her girlfriend via a tiny note, haphazardly torn from her maths exercise book. You turn the piece of paper over and write yes, push the paper back into her hand. She is an Aquarius, her birthday two days before Valentine’s Day. She jokes that she was born already resisting heteronormative romance narratives. This makes you exceptionally compatible. She is 852 days older and 3cm taller than you. The taste of her lips cannot be quantified, but you learn that it can be drawn out, made to linger in the chasm of your mouth.
The school calls your mum and tells her about your inappropriate relationship with another female student. For all its plans and well-drawn lines of rectitude, Adelaide’s main exports are AFL players and wine. It also leads the country in number of sex shops per capita. The idea was a forgetful utopia, so drunk on middle-class propriety that it could ignore its violent beginnings. The reality is something else.
After you swallow handfuls of pills, Izzy comes to visit you in the hospital, climbs into the bed next to you and puts her head on your shoulder. She brings food too, eager to keep you safe from hospital meals. You can barely eat, having turned yourself inside out in search of God’s plan. She is kind, but her kisses feel like rough penance.
At home, Mum comes into your room and tells you the stories of the babies she lost before you arrived. She outlines the plan she had for each of them, for you: a husband (white, of course), a baby, a house in a suburb just like this one. She gently tucks your hair behind your ear. Sometimes, she says, the best part happens after you lose faith in the design.
Sometimes the planets dance, the rivers run the wrong way and the timber curls. Sometimes, you turn out gay.
This is an edited extract from Growing Up Queer in Australia (Black Inc.), edited by Benjamin Law
Growing Up Queer in Australia is out now