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"My own private IDAHO."

Serena Ryan

By SERENA RYAN

May 17 is a really important day for me.

No, it’s not my birthday (but thanks for asking) and no, it’s not the day I won lotto (I wish).

It’s the day that confirmed that I no longer have a disease or am abnormal in some way.

You see, May 17 commemorates the day that homosexuality was removed from the International Classification for Diseases (ICD). This happened in 1990 and it meant that people like me, were no longer considered diseased or disordered.

That probably sounds a bit weird, right? Maybe. But it’s something that we, the gays, have battled for a really long time and in some countries, it remains a battle even today.

So I’d like to explain what this day means to me and so many others but first, let’s back up a bit and set the scene to where it all began for me.

I grew up in a small beach town in WA. It’s now a bustling city but that’s by-the-by. My town was a little pocket of paradise and was very kid’s childhood dream in so many ways, a real family town. This place was a beautiful, sunny stretch of land with pristine beaches and endless sunshine.

I’m the youngest of four kids born to Irish catholic parents who chose a bohemian life when they came to Australia but they also remained very Irish, so religion was always a bit of a burden for me. I knew from an early age that God wouldn’t be my thing and I felt pretty sure I wasn’t going to be God’s thing either so it was a mutual understanding.

I knew I was different from an early age but I couldn’t really put my finger on what that meant. I knew that I wasn’t like my brothers and my sister. I just never felt like I fitted in with them.  For me, it was like I was always on the outside looking in, not belonging. Kids have a remarkable way of being able to sense when someone’s different so I grew up feeling like they didn’t like me at all. I seemed to see the world a bit differently and always felt like I was out of step with everyone around me.

I grew up being told that homosexuality was abnormal so when things started to bubble away homo-wise, I became petrified. I had panic attacks about being gay. I built this invisible shield around me where I excelled at everything. I developed wings of steel just to survive. I developed my comedic side. Ever wondered why most gay people you meet are laugh-out-loud funny? It’s a way of deflection – the frontline weapon in the dance of avoidance.   I would make you laugh so you saw the funny me and not the gay me.  If I could make you laugh, you could overlook my deficits. My bolshiness and bravado always saved me: I was one of those kids who would laugh hollowly at the jokes about ‘poofs’ and ‘lezzos’.

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I played along with all of it.

Why?

Because I was so sure that if I talked about my feelings for girls, I would be crucified.

“Because I was so sure that if I talked about my feelings for girls, I would be crucified.”

On the surface, I was popular, sporty and smart. I had schoolgirl crushes like everybody else only I would fall in love with girls, not boys.

I fell in love silently and privately.

It terrified me.

I did my absolute best hanging out with the girls, talking about boys, snogging boys and getting caught up in the boy thing. I made a pretty good go of it too but on the inside, I was dying. I firmly believed that there was something wrong with me because whilst I could go through the motions with a string of boyfriends, nothing, and nobody, made my heart beat the way a girl did.

I just (for want of a better term), couldn’t see straight and I was so terribly lonely.

Whilst all of this was percolating away in my teenage brain it was reinforced by the scare mongering tactics of the HIV / grim reaper campaign on TV (yes, I’m a child of the 80s) which drew a correlation between being gay and dying of AIDS. It was commonly promoted that being gay was a wire in the blood, a disease or an indication that you were mentally impaired. How could anyone feel okay about being gay if ad campaigns and school curricula endorsed that it was wrong and ultimately, a death sentence?

Looking back, I feel so sad about the impact all this had on me and my mates (turns out I wasn’t the only gay in the village). My journey was littered with self-doubt, panic, the ridiculous influence of a conservative society’s demands and my own crazy inner monologue that if I ignored it long enough, it would just go away.

Thankfully it didn’t go away. I finally got there. I integrated my sense of self with my sexuality and from there, my life changed.

What a frickin relief. I finally realised what made me happy, that I was born this way and I allowed myself to fall in love in a way that I could name and embrace.

And it was beautiful.

But others like me were not so lucky.  Some of my friends went to gay conversation therapy. Some tried to pray the gay away. Others sought therapy and chemical relief. Some committed suicide. Many lost the support of family and friends – this we all have in common sadly.

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When I step back and look at it objectively, it’s crazy to think that the medical profession believed for a really long time that my homosexuality was something to be medicated. I mean, what exactly could a doctor prescribe to eliminate the effects of my same sex-attraction?

Just how do you medicate a desire that you feel so deeply that it’s in your DNA? Let me tell you, Lady Gaga got it so right when she wrote Born this Way – you can’t fix this – it just is.

And it’s awesome.

This is where IDAHO becomes so important. You might think that removing homosexuality from a manual of diseases or disorders is a mere edit but it isn’t. When the World Health Organisation removed this from the ICD it sent a very clear message to the world.

There’s nothing wrong with us.

We’re ok.

We have a right to be here.

To be queer.

To fall in love.

To have a family.

To live happy lives.

To be safe.

To be equal.

“IDAHO reminds us that whilst great strides have been made in the developed world, there’s still a long way to go.”

IDAHO reminds us that whilst great strides have been made in the developed world, there’s still a long way to go. There are still over 70 countries in the world that prosecute people for homosexuality. Some are jailed or put to death. The rates of suicide remain disproportionately high and the psychological casualties continue to escalate. IDAHO draws a sharper focus on these casualties.

IDAHO is the one day a year where we herald the shift in perception about what makes people like me tick and, promotes the importance of tolerance, inclusion and humanity. It’s a day where we can rally people to shout out against homophobia and lead the charge in acceptance of every colour under the rainbow.

It’s May 17. It’s the International Day Against Homophobia and on this day I will ask only one thing of you.

Please honour the principle that underpins this day and, celebrate the contributions that many gay people are making to the world, the road many of us have travelled and take a moment to remember those who were not as lucky as me.

To find out more about IDAHO, click here.

Serena is a radio broadcaster and tv producer. Adores a rambunctious dog called Lola. Loves golf & gin but is a master of neither. A self proclaimed chocolate enthusiast. An Irish Aussie who would never say no to a good ‘ole natter. Twitter: @serenaeryan
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