The recent homophobic attack on Newtown resident Isaac Keatinge, 25, sent shock-waves through the famously diverse inner-western Sydney hub.
On his way home from a friend’s party last month, Keatinge was allegedly singled out by his group of attackers for no reason other than wearing a fab dress and make-up – outraging locals and sparking Reclaim the Street’s hugely successful “Keep Newtown Weird” rally.
Our goal was to give the story a much needed positive twist, proving once and for all that not only are the gender binaries of clothing completely outdated and f–ked up, but there is a true strength in expressing your best self unashamedly.
WHATEVER that means to you.
“Of course dressing is a means of expression, but not everyone has the means to dress the way they feel. It’s interesting, because when I was younger I didn’t have any exposure to alternative fashion. It’s been a really new thing for me,” Isaac tells Heaps Gay over a jug of beer just outside Newtown.
“Growing up in an isolated rural area as I did, really allows one to exercise the imagination. At the same time it’s easy to become hyper aware of oneself. The biggest impact practically speaking is a lack of shared cultural knowledge and references. I often feel that I’m experiencing a late adolescence, yet perhaps this is why I connect more easily with grown ups.”
While being raised in a small country town had its obvious drawbacks, Isaac still reflects fondly on some of the community benefits.
“The other thing about growing up regionally is that you come to know and appreciate the community around you. We depend on each other, especially during bush fires, prolonged blackouts and flooding, all of which can enforce isolation. Other kinds of trauma or grief are similarly dealt with in a community-wide response.”
Isaac says that while he’s cherished a new-found expressive and creative freedom since moving to Sydney, he’s also been met with a greater sense of hostility than he’d experienced elsewhere.
“I spent the first nineteen years of my life deep in the mountains, whereas I’ve only been living around Newtown and the inner city for less then four years. One can imagine how isolating and anonymous the city feels, with its built environments and lack of accountability,” he says.
“It’s hard to learn how to reach out to people and it’s important to acknowledge one’s own barriers. The most obvious difference physically is the grime of the city. It’s pretty gross living among all these rats and roaches (looking at you Slurry Hills). Socially I’m starting to feel a support network and community around me, particularly with the response to The Incident.”
Sitting with Isaac in his favourite inner-west pub (an old converted stripper joint, serving up killer neon lights and french fries), it’s clear that he’s a man with important things to say.
While he was the victim of a gross targeted assault, he isn’t self-victimising by nature.
Basically, he knows what’s up and he’s pushing to change it.
“There has been a massive outpouring of support since the attack. However, while Australia continues to be ruled by rich white people, and continues to ignore its violent history/present of oppression and dispossession, it’s hard to have faith in the extended, arbitrary and very imagined community we call Australia," he tells me.
"There is so much strength in diversity, and so much wealth unlocked by progressive legislation. Yet I feel surrounded by a wilful and violent ignorance. I do hope that social media allows individuals to connect and build communities across Asia/Australia, as persecuted people continue to stand up to the status quo.
"I suppose I have a sense of faith within our diverse community, and hope that wider society, including Australia, will one day follow suit.”
Thankfully, on the subject of self-expression through fashion, Isaac and his mates aren’t about to change their tune.
(The LGBTI community celebrate their diversity at Mardi Gras. Post continues after video...)
“The rules of gender are so heavily enforced, and I think certain groups of people have an institutionalised idea of reinforcing those norms. It’s almost like there’s a vested interest in the pecking order. But the future is so bright! I work as a design assistant for a small fashion label, House of Cannon, and continue my own design practice when I can.”
“I’m finally feeling settled in Sydney town, I’m ready to live for a while in Asia, maybe Europe, and continue to deepen connections across the globe.”
Well, Isaac, we reckon you’re f--king phenomenal. You keep doing you, because it’s something special.