By Mike Cullen
Dear Prime Minister,
I wasn’t sure how to address your government’s latest announcement yesterday. The age old belief that announcing unpopular moves late on Friday no longer has the same power it did in the years before social media. Social media now means an unpopular announcement now trends on Twitter within minutes of the announcement and, if it’s on a Friday, that announcement has the weekend to fester and build momentum.
When I read about your government’s decision to not only make substantial changes to the Safe Schools programme, but to cease its funding I was initially enraged. I wasn’t very coherent, but then again neither were a lot of people who took to social media in shock at the Government’s decision.
I know you have a social media team, frankly I felt sorry for them yesterday, who manage your Twitter account. They would have been first hand witnesses to your mentions exploding as people attempted to reach out and express their distress. I have to give them credit where it’s due, unlike most of your front bench they don’t block people who disagree with you. You might want to have one of your social media team explain to the social media teams of your Ministers that blocking dissenting voices doesn’t mean the people themselves are silenced, but I digress.
In September 2015 the Liberal Party voted to remove then Prime Minister Tony Abbott from a position he was obviously never capable of fulfilling. They chose to replace him with yourself. The popular, man of the people with a penchant for leather jackets and taking selfies while using public transport.
For a moment there was a collective sigh of relief. No longer would Australia have to endure a man determined to make himself a wartime leader. No longer would every media conference be a series of three word slogans. No longer would people watching the media conferences have to count the number of Australian flags before Tony Abbott appeared, to ascertain whether this particular media conference was about stopping the boats, axing the tax, or an imminent invasion of ISIS on our shores.
The man, who had regularly led the preferred Prime Minister polls since the time of the Julia Gillard Government, was finally in place. The man who was a fierce supporter of Climate Change, who publicly spoke against his own party when it came to Marriage Equality and the wastefulness of the Plebiscite. The man who publicly supported a referendum on Australia’s independence from having the Queen of England as our Head of State.
This man, the one who regularly took selfies of himself with “the people”, who took the train or ferry at every given media opportunity, the one with principals that both Liberal and Labor supporters alike supported, had rolled the government on it’s head. In your press conference after securing the Prime Ministership the country thought “well, there’s that done. The darkest period in Australian political history is done and dusted“.
Dyed-in-the-wool Labor voters threw a collective fit as they saw their best chance at winning the next election relegated to the back bench. All but the far right wing nut jobs of the Liberal voters cheered, as they saw a return to the golden days of Menzies and Howard with an intelligent and successful Liberal Leader back in power, one the Labor party wasn’t going to be able to beat.
That was in September 2015. It wasn’t long before those who don’t vote Liberal simply because their families have for generations, began to wonder what you’d promised your party for votes. The Government Minister who publicly declared the Marriage Equality plebiscite to be a ridiculous idea, as Parliament had the power to make the change themselves, suddenly was all for supporting the costly and divisive public poll. No date, just some time in the future.
The Prime Minister who, when ousted as Opposition Leader, wrote a scathing attack on Tony Abbott’s climate change blindness suddenly reversing his position. It even appears that public letter you posted on your blog was removed.
It became obvious very quickly, you were not the man you had led us to believe. Your government is stuck in inertia. It hasn’t moved on from the policies that brought about the end of Tony Abbott. It’s still pushing ahead with policies that will, ultimately, split the country down the middle.
You talk a good game of innovation and exciting times, but you’re not showing any innovation through your actions.
Senate Voting Reform, initially a Labor idea that was met with howls of “stacking the deck”, has just passed under your watch. I fail to see how it is now considered innovative reform, designed to put the power back in the voters hands when it was stacking the deck when suggested by Labor.
You do realise without the Liberal Party preference deals, your own Minister for Employment and Minister for Women wouldn’t have won her Senate place, scoring a smaller number of votes than Ricky Muir did.
I don’t say all of this to offend you. I say it as someone who refused to vote for Tony Abbott in 2013 but, publicly stated he would have voted for you had you been the opposition leader at the 2013 election. I say it as someone who made the mistake of trusting that you were the man of principles you claimed to be, despite knowing people who have known you most of their lives who told me you were nothing like the public image, that you were ruthless, power hungry and would sell your soul to win another election.
I didn’t believe them then. I still believe that somewhere beneath the veneer of charm there is a real man, who sits back at night and sees the damage he is doing to our country and its people, and worries that he gave away too much to get a job he could be so much better at if he did what he believed, not what he promised backroom power brokers.
I say this to express, in the only way I know how, my utter disappointment and the disappointment of many other Australians.
But, back to the changes your government have announced in regards to the Safe Schools program. I struggled last night to think how I could put this in words. I wanted to be clear, but not rude. I decided to sleep on it. It seems to have been a good idea. Last night I was choking with rage, about all I was good for was inventing new swear words and that wouldn’t have done anyone any good.
An open letter filled with vitriol and abuse would have been ignored. No one who reads this would have gotten beyond the first paragraph, let alone if by some miracle, this link arrives on your iPhone one morning on your commute to your Sydney office.
This morning I thought about addressing this issue with you again and decided I’d tell you a story. For readers of my blog, it’s not a new story. But it is a story about young boy who was different and the pain he experienced growing up. A pain that even today manifests itself in ways he didn’t expect, even though he’s now a 42 year old man.
I was told when I was younger that bullies will never win. That ultimately people see them for what they are; scared, lonely little people who need to tear others down to feel any form of their own power. Yesterday, your government handed the bullies – both in your Government and outside of it – the win they’ve been craving and the public recognition that hate is something to be nurtured.
The story I want to tell you begins in late January 1979. I was five years old and just starting Kindergarten. I can still remember my family telling me how exciting it was to be a big boy, that going to school was going to be a great adventure. It was also the year I learned my family tells lies. School was not a great adventure. It began as it ended, a tortuous place where a small boy was victimised and bullied, daily!
As an only child, I was very lucky I had family and cousins by the truckload. But in my family I was the only child my parents could have. The years before school were filled with fun and games, and lots of love. Going to school I was told, would be the same. It would be where I would learn new things, meet new friends. There’d be friends and games, parties and a whole new world.
The first time I was called a fairy was the second day of Kindergarten. I didn’t know what it meant. The older brother of a classmate and his friends called me that. He told his brother – my classmate – it meant I wanted to have sex with boys, and boys didn’t do that, only evil boys did who wanted to go to hell. And so it began.
Fairy, became pansy. Pansy, became poofter. Poofter became Faggot. Faggot become AIDS carrier (by then it was the early 80’s and HIV was all over the news). AIDS carrier became Dirty Faggot. Dirty Faggot became, well it became a lot of things but I’m sure you get my point by now.
School – remember Prime Minister, we’re still in Primary School here – became a daily war. I was sick all the time. Every single day I tried to stay home. It must have been hell for my parents. The crying, the battles to get me on the bus, to make sure I stayed on the bus and didn’t get off at the next stop and walk home. The vomiting as the bus came around the corner.
We didn’t know it then, and it would take many years for me to find out what it was, but dealing with a child terrorised and filled with anxiety attacks before his age hit double digits must have been hell to deal with for my parents. I know it was for me.
I learned early not to go to the bathroom at school if I could avoid it. The first time I was ever hit, I was washing my hands in the boys room. Two of the school bullies saw me at the sink and hit me because obviously I was there to have sex with people. I was told I wasn’t allowed to use the toilets and if they caught me in there again, they’d beat me up.
For a seven year old boy surrounded by bigger and older kids, who’d already endured two years of psychological abuse, I believed them. So I taught myself to hold on. To endure the pain, and to try and sneak out of class if I could.
By the time I reached high school I was six feet tall and fat as a barn. I ate, because it was all that gave me any form of pleasure. When I got older food was replaced with alcohol, but that’s a story for another day. You would think at that size, I would have been able to defend myself, but you’re wrong.
By the time I reached high school I was broken. Seven years of daily torture, teachers turning a blind eye, physical and emotional attacks if I so much as looked up at someone left me broken. The best a teacher in primary school ever did was tell my parents I needed to toughen up. At the time I was five.
High school was a whole new level of torture. I went to an all boys catholic high school. All the catholic schools in the area funnelled their teenage boys into that place. Hundreds of fresh faces, and a hundred or so that I’d been stuck with for seven years. It didn’t take long for me to realise that while there were fresh faces, there was also fresh tormentors.
As the boys all amalgamated into new groups, expanding their social networks word spread.
“See that fat bloke, with the freckles. He’s a f*cking poofter. Don’t go near him or he’ll try and have sex with you.”
Suddenly from a hundred or so tormentors and torturers, it felt like there were thousands of them. Not only in my year, but in every year there were people who hit me, pushed me out of the way, locked me in rooms. I found solace in the library for a time.
Until they found me there, and the librarian told me that I needed to get more sun and exercise and I was banned from the library unless it was Thursday.
Being a teenager is hard enough and by then I knew the torturers were right. I was gay. I realised that the minute my hormones kicked in. I knew by the end of primary school these boys were correct. I was a poofter. I was going to burn in hell. I was going to get AIDS and die, alone, hated by everyone. I knew I deserved the beatings, the abuse. I never raised a hand in my own defence. Why would I? They were right. I was a disgusting, perverted faggot. They’d known all along, thanks to the older brother of a kid I was in Kindergarten with.
When I was in Year 10, I was called to the Principals office. We had a new principal that year. He was younger – by about 50 years – than the old one. He had curly brown hair and thick rimmed black glasses. He told me to sit down in a leather chair that faced his desk, and then he sat on the other side of the desk in his own brown leather chair.
I had no idea what I’d done wrong. I had never been in trouble. I’d never spoken if I could avoid it. Brother Dean looked at me, he rested his chin on steepled fingers.
“Mike,” he began. “It’s been brought to my attention by your teachers that your life here is hell. The teachers have told me about the abuse you receive, and have said you never complain, you never go to them for help. They’re powerless to step in, if they do it will only make it worse.”
I looked at this man, the first teacher in my entire education experience who addressed the issue head on. I’m going to expelled for being gay, I thought to myself. I mean seriously, where else could this be heading?
“Mike, I need for you to defend yourself. You’ve not got much longer here at the school before you leave us and go to another school for your final two years of education. You’re a bright boy, smarter than you let on. I want you to know, that if you need to defend yourself physically there’ll be no punishment. The teachers and I are in agreement. The only way to get out of this alive is to fight back. Pick the loudest voice and knock him flat on his back.”
Can you imagine that Prime Minister? A high school Principal who had the backing of the entire teaching staff, telling me to fight. Telling me he’d stood as witness to the abuse I was receiving and decided I had to be given this power, that no other student ever had. I remember thanking him for his concern and leaving.
I was relieved I wasn’t to be expelled for being a pervert. I never once thought of using the permission I was given in that office that day.
About a week later, the physical abuse ramped up a notch, and I can still feel the brick wall slamming into my back as he student pushed me into it when I think about it. I can still feel his hand as it grabbed hold of my crotch, squeezing until pain and tears came into my eyes. I can still hear him, as he used his own body weight to hold me to the wall while he told me if I wanted to be a girl so much he’d show me how it felt. I can still feel him grabbing my wrist and shoving my hand into his shorts, while he told me I’d enjoy it because I was poof and a dick was a dick.
Funny story, that was the first time I felt another penis, but I digress.
The only reason it stopped was another guy walked around the corner. He never picked on me, but never spoke to me either. I was invisible to all but the ones who made it their mission to torture me. He simply grabbed the other guy by the neck and threw him into a garden bed and told him to f*ck off.
He never looked at me, never even acknowledged I was standing there still pushed against the wall but this time by own weight as I waited in fear of his attack.
The first guy simply snarled at me as he pulled himself from the garden bed and told me he’d kill me. Several years later, he moved into my suburb. I didn’t realise it. I was trying to lose weight at the time and had gone for a late night walk. I heard a foot step scrape on the gravel road, and when I turned around there he was, a whipper snipper chord in his hands. His friends had followed him, and they made sure nothing happened.
I heard a couple of weeks later he’d committed suicide. I couldn’t feel sad about that.
The straw that broke my back completely happened when I was in Year Eleven. I went to the bathroom, it was just on the end of lunch and the quadrangle had been deserted. I assumed I was safe. I wasn’t.
One of the bully packs in the new school – and there were so many to chose from really – was waiting for me just inside the door. I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.
He was holding a dildo, I’m sure you know what they are. He and his friends held me against a wall and told me if they saw me in school again, they’d use it on me. Once they’d delivered their ultimatum I walked out of the school, not just the bathroom but the school. I put my locker key on the desk at reception, and walked out.
I never went back. I walked to the station, got on the train and came home. That day, 18 months from officially finishing my high school career, my school education ended.
Still, for all the abuse I was lucky. You see, I was raised in the time before social media Mr Prime Minister.
I was raised so when I walked into the house, and closed the door behind me I was safe. Today’s kids, be they LGBT or just different to the pack, don’t have that luxury. They walk in the front door and there’s social media: Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter. The victimisation and the bullying continues even when they’re supposedly safe in their homes.
Had I not had that respite I wouldn’t be sitting here, telling you things I’ve never told anyone, writing to you to implore you to do something other than tell your rabid backbench to “behave nicely”.
Even with that respite I almost wasn’t here. The darkness of those days followed me and to a degree they still do.
I read last night on Twitter that children need bullies because it makes them tougher. It was a tweet sent out by someone supporting your government’s Safe Schools decision.
To that, I call bullshit. Children don’t need bullies. It doesn’t make them tougher, it runs the risk of breaking them altogether.
I’m now 42. I’ve been out of school for more than 25 years. In the dark of night I still hear them, the children I went to school with. In the dark of night I still hate myself for my weakness. In the dark of night I still feel the pain I endured. Abuse does not make a child stronger, it takes from them their innocence and worse of all, it takes from their hope and trust.
I hear people talk about their school years with nostalgia, for me even the thought of school still fills me with fear.
Prime Minister, your government made a monstrous decision on Friday. By announcing not only substantial changes to the Safe Schools programme, but also the end of funding in 2017, you have told the most vulnerable students in our country their lives don’t matter.
You have told those children they deserve no respect from their peers. You have taken a program originally released to combat the rising number of teen suicides and thrown it away, all to appease back benchers who will never support you.
Do you believe that Cory Bernardi or George Christensen will now throw rose petals on the ground as you walk past? Do you think they will now be on your side, supporting you in your role as Prime Minister? Of course they won’t.
You effectively gave the bullies your lunch money. They know now they only need to start a campaign for you and your Government to cave in.
I may have been bullied a lot as a child. I may have not spoken much and I may not have had friends. But I never gave the bullies my lunch money even if it could have bought me a week of peace and quiet.
I may have been next to useless in standing up to the bullies around me – something it appears we may have in common – but I never sold anyone else down the river to appease them.
In September 2015, you and Julie Bishop stood beaming at the podium heralding a new age in Australian politics. You made promises to the people of this country to rule in our interests. Since then you have done nothing to turn the growing tide of hate that has infected us since September 2013.
You have ensured your place in Australian history. You are the Prime Minister. No one will ever be able to take that away from you. But whether or not you are good, useless, or the shortest termed Prime Minister in our history is still for you, and the electorate, to decide.
In closing Prime Minister, I hope to impress upon you the importance and consequences of your government’s decision yesterday. It is of no value for you to step forward and blame an independent review when this all goes to hell.
You can not wash the stink of this decision off your hands, no matter how many bottles of expensive after shave you may bathe in. Your government’s announcement yesterday will have two certain effects.
Firstly, vulnerable children will be the ones effected the most, and that will cause more long term damage than you can possibly imagine. Secondly, you have damaged your reputation among LGBT people and their families. No one with an LGBT relative, child, niece, nephew or grandchild can look to you and say “With Malcolm Turnbull in power, my child will be safe“.
All they can say with any assurance is that the man who takes selfies, is interested only in himself.
This letter was originally published on Mike’s blog Writing in Shadows.
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