JOANNE McCARTHY: Truth sets you free

ONE of the saddest inquests I’ve ever witnessed was years ago after the suicide of a teenage male.

The only people in the court were the coroner, several court staff, a police officer, a police prosecutor, the teenager’s parents, and me. My memory is that he was 17.

The teenager had a sibling who was a gifted sportsperson. The teenager had told his parents he was gay in the period before his death. The father, who appeared to be a decent man, had not taken the news well.

Courts are clinical places at the best of times. But an almost empty court is a dreadful place to witness a man fall apart in front of strangers; to hear the gasps as he tried to maintain control before abandoning everything to grief.

It was an awful thing to see and hear, and there was absolutely nothing we could do to help him. His son was dead. The inquest, mercifully, did not explore the detail of how the teenager told his parents, or how his father responded.

The coroner formally recorded the cause of death. The parents left. The paperwork was filed under a number. A young life gone.

In the Newcastle Herald on Saturday, Cessnock councillor Cordelia Burcham put on the record that she was a gay woman, after some people threatened to ‘‘go to the media’’ in the period before the September local government election.

Burcham, a Liberal councillor, has four children. She is a strong voice in her community – a point Labor’s Cessnock MP Clayton Barr was happy to confirm – and she is particularly concerned about young people.

Both Burcham and Barr, a former high school teacher, have had contact with young people struggling with their sexuality, which was why Barr spoke strongly about the need for people like Burcham to speak out or, as Burcham put it, be honest rather than live a ‘‘shadow life’’.

The response to Saturday’s article was overwhelmingly supportive.

During an interview Burcham showed me social media messages from two young people.

One was a feisty ‘‘Up yours’’ to the world, or at least the ‘‘heartless, judgmental f---s’’ who were asked to ‘‘think about how cruel you are before opening your mouths’’ because ‘‘gays and lesbians have as much right to be here as you do’’.

The second was more controlled, from someone who’d been ‘‘told all my life by the people closest to me that I’m a disappointment and a failure’’.

‘‘You’d think this would be detrimental, and I suppose it is. Or at least was. Now I feel as though it’s rather liberating,’’ the message said.

‘‘I’m a disappointment? I’m a failure? I know I am, to you. So consider yourself detached from my future endeavours, and let it be known that anything I attempt from this point on has nothing to do with you. If I succeed, I achieve success on my own accord.’’

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott ran into strife in 2010 for saying he felt ‘‘threatened’’ by homosexuality.

In later interviews he said homosexuality ‘‘challenges orthodox notions of the right order of things’’, and when that was howled down he conceded he’d used a ‘‘poor choice of words’’.

Those comments  illustrate the problems here, and what people like Cordelia Burcham, and young, gay people in the Hunter can sometimes be up against. Abbott is certainly  not alone in his views.

The ‘‘right order of things’’ is one person’s view of the world based on their personality, upbringing and life experiences.

It’s a predictable comment about keeping things, even views on sexuality,  fixed in aspic because that leaves white, Christian males – often married – at the top of the tree.

It’s a problem for gay people because it lacks insight. The person arguing for the ‘‘right order of things’’ believes it’s an immutable truth, rather than a personal perspective imposed on others.

And they try to pull the gay person back into line, or push them back into the shadows to live a life that’s not true to themselves. And sometimes when it’s too late, the person making those demands realises, dreadfully and finally, that they were wrong.   

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