Queer Talk gets issues on air

NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 13:00 31/05/2014
spencer sharp
ALDEN WILLIAMS/ Fairfax NZ
Spencer Sharp is a volunteer at Q Youth and one of the hosts of Fresh FM's new Queer Talk show.
ruby sullivan
NAOMI ARNOLD/ Fairfax NZ
HOST: Ruby O'Sullivan, one of the hosts of Fresh FM's new show Queer Talk.
abi stephens
NAOMI ARNOLD/ Fairfax NZ
ON AIR: Abi Stephens, one of the hosts of Fresh FM's new show Queer Talk.

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A new radio show is part of Nelson Q-Youth's efforts to inform people on queer issues and try to reduce the stigma that young queer people face. Naomi Arnold spends a night at the station.

Abi Stephens would just like to make one thing very clear to all you folk out there: She is not a pen. Nor is she any other object, so please don't call her 'it'.

It's May 9, the first episode of Queer Talk, and the hosts behind Fresh FM's new show are ripping through their version of Queer 101.

Stephens, Spencer Sharpe, and Ruby O'Sullivan, all members of Q-Youth, like to drop a few fun facts about the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer community (LGBTQ) into their hour-long digest of news, conversation, politics, pop culture, and music. But here's a hint: They're not fun at all.

First, they tell their listeners, queer youth kill themselves way more often than heterosexual youth, and statistics are even worse for trans youth. Secondly, did you know that homosexuality is illegal in at least 82 countries and in Brunei a law has been passed allowing homosexuals to be stoned to death?

"You'd think they could at least come up with a more humane way to execute people," Stephens adds, heaving a sigh.

Then they launch into an edifying lesson on how to refer to people who are neither masculine nor feminine, and this is where the pen comes in. Because here's another fun fact for the listeners at home: There are more than two genders, and some people feel the pronouns "he" or "she" don't fit them. So it's polite to ask what people prefer, regardless of their biological sex. (Reminder: Not "he-she" or "it"). There are more generous words out there, including "they/them/theirs" and "ze/hir/hirs". Sharpe and O'Sullivan go by the "they" set, whereas "she" is fine for Stephens.

Using these pronouns is second nature to them and gaining traction internationally, but it's new to most. Strident, well-informed, and quick-witted, the three friends are obviously enjoying their first chance to play teacher to the world. Two weeks later, when I visit Fresh FM in Founders Heritage Park on a cold Friday night, they're fizzing ahead of their third show.

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Sharpe, 20, is spinning on a chair, indignant over a piece of international news. O'Sullivan, 20, is chomping a carrot while updating the Facebook page. A composed Stephens, 19, is shuffling papers.

They hustle me out of the studio. The red light goes on, and the show begins. Stephens reports on dastardly Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who has proposed dedicating A$245m (NZ$266m) in the latest Budget to pay for sending anti-gay chaplains into schools to preach against homosexuality. They will also weed out queer teenagers, monitoring for signs of LGBT behaviour.

"Because, you know, people can act gay," Stephens adds, archly.

"That is so disgusting and so backwards," O'Sullivan says.

"Not saying anything we could get sued for, but something about him gives me the douche-tingles," Sharpe says, who has a gift for a memorable phrase.

Later, in response to an item about musicians Camila Grey and Leisha Hailey, who were once kicked off a plane for kissing, Sharpe will growl: "It's going to corrupt our youth; I can't believe lesbian couples ruined our crops and burned down our churches." While discussing online communities: "If it weren't for the internet I would probably still be trying to be a girl. And that wasn't fun for me." Signing off: "See you next week, gaydies and gentlequeers."

They talk about music, books, film, media, religion, mental health, and more. In the past, Stephens has suffered depression and anxiety and spent two months unable to talk. "It's a fear that hovers on the edge of your mind that people will attack you," she says. Being on the radio is a huge step for her.

After the show, the trio, together with O'Sullivan's partner Kitty, lounge around in Fresh FM and talk about school, growing up, finding a community, and other things in their world. Just typical late-teen stuff, you know. Like how a group of boys in a car once tried to run over their friend for being gay.

"Didn't that happen, like, twice?" Stephens asks.

But for all the negative statistics, they caution against media representations of queer people as gloomy, bullied, confused, and suicidal. Sharpe, a writer and a QYouth volunteer, is genderqueer, identifying as neither male nor female, and says being queer is one of the best parts of their life. "It's like having this family around me."

Sharpe attended Nelson College for Girls before swapping it for Nayland College in their final year. The girls' school, Sharpe says, "was sh... because I was masculine".

"[At Nayland] I could dress how I wanted, talk how I wanted, be friends with who I wanted.

"I cut my hair short when I was nine and that started people assuming I was a dude and I wasn't fussed about it. I didn't understand why everyone made a big fuss about being ‘Sorry! Sorry!' when they found out my birth name."

Sharpe, walking the supermarket aisles with mum, would watch family friends apologise after mistaking them for their brother. "Mum would be like: ‘Actually no, that's my daughter', and I was really uncomfortable with it."

Sharpe remembers questioning their sexuality at age 12. Thirteen brought their first girlfriend and coming out as bisexual. "I kept coming out over and over again in different ways. For a while I was so butch I thought I must be a lesbian, and I, like, pushed myself into being the butch lesbian. But I'm butch and genderqueer, I'm not a lesbian."

Sharpe explains it thus: "Dudes: Awesome. Ladies: Amazing. Nonbinary people: Perfect."

Stephens, 19, who describes herself as gender-fluid, was a fellow student at NCG and plans to study sociology at the University of North Carolina, her home state. Stephens says single-sex schools are particularly prone to gender policing. "I think I was about 13 when I started questioning my sexuality," she says. "I was always a bit of a tomboy in certain ways - I didn't like pink very much and rejected it as being stereotypical. Around 13 all my friends started getting interested in boys and I just really wasn't. I think now that was because I hadn't gone through puberty yet - I was a bit late - but I think that's what made me start questioning it."

When she was 16 she first kissed a boy, and a few weeks later she kissed a girl, and so she identified as bisexual for a while. A friend took her along to Q-Youth, and since then she's identified as pansexual - attracted to all genders - and genderqueer.

O'Sullivan, 20, attended Marlborough Girls' College and is now a music student at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. Their mum used to say they never "fitted into the box". "And it wasn't until a little while ago that I realised it was the gender box," O'Sullivan says.

All of them began with a broader definition of themselves - lesbian, bi - and, as they learned more, slowly narrowed it to an identity where they felt most comfortable.

Stephens quotes Michaelangelo, who said: "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

"That's kind of how it feels to me," she says. "You start out with a really rough idea of who you are and then you cut further in until you think you're at how you identify."

"But have you seen how Michaelangelo sculpted women?" Sharpe jumps in. "Just pecs with two lumpy oranges stuck on the top!"

Stephens may use Michaelangelo to describe how she feels, but Sharpe lets rip a string of pop culture references.

"It's like - have you watched The Mighty Boosh?" No, I say, apologetic.

"You know Noel Fielding?"

Um, no.

Sharpe stares, disbelieving, then rolls their eyes and heaves an exasperated sigh. Apparently I have been living under a rock. In fact, the talented Mr Fielding plays androgynous, ambiguously bisexual Vince Noir on the UK TV show. He describes himself as "The Great Confuser" in one scene and Sharpe quotes: "‘Is it a man? Is it a woman? I don't think I mind!' That's pretty much how I feel about my gender."

Another quote, this time from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz. "You know how vampires have no reflections in the mirror?

"If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves."

And then the TV series spawned by George RR Martin: "You have to watch Game of Thrones?"

I do, I am relieved to say. "OK. Look at Brienne of Tarth!" Things would have been different for Sharpe if Brienne, a tall, powerful, androgynous knight, had been on TV a decade ago.

"I'm big. I've got broad shoulders, I'm tall. Physically, I'm built kind of like a dude. If Game of Thrones had been on TV when I was that age I would have seen Brienne of Tarth and been like: ‘Oh my Garrrd! This is incredible!' And I wouldn't have felt so frigging ugly.

"Same with Arya," Sharpe continues, mentioning the show's revenge-fuelled highborn child warrior. "Cos she's a little genderqueer neurotypical wolf baby. I love Arya."

So to go from feeling alone and weird to finding a community within Q-Youth was a revelation for all of them. "You feel like you belong somewhere," O'Sullivan says.

"Because I was struggling with mutism at the time, I could sit there and not talk and it was OK," Stephens says.

Sharpe: "It's a lot safer and easier to hang out with people like us. I don't have to constantly confine myself to what people think. If I'm hanging out mostly with straight cisgendered people [where identity matches biology and birth gender], I have to either choose to be a butch lesbian or a trans man, and I'm neither of those. I'm in the middle. When I'm at Q-Youth or hanging out with my queer friends I'm allowed to just be who I actually am."

The trio have a few messages for parents of questioning teens, and they reel them off quick-fire.

"Support them," Stephens says.

"Tell them you love them no matter what," O'Sullivan says.

"And learn," Sharpe says. "Educate yourself. Just because you're older it doesn't mean you know more about this."

"Don't make them tell you everything themselves - look up stuff."

"Don't tell them it's a phase."

"Don't tell them that you've known them as one way for so long that you can't change your ways, because that's not true."

"If you love someone enough you'll respect them."

"Don't make it about yourself."

Stephens says the main goal the three friends have for Queer Talk is to bring visibility to queer issues, and get people to watch and read "some really cool stories".

She also warns they're not this brave all the time. "We're just everyday people going through everyday stuff and just because we manage to function on the radio doesn't mean we're functioning the rest of the time. It's a really big thing for us to get up there and try and change the world for people like us."

"Educating straight people is all well and good," Sharpe says.

"It's helpful. But the main reason we wanted to do this was to let other queer youth know they're not alone and they're not crazy and there's nothing wrong with them. "Ninety per cent of my existence is just wanting to help make the world better for my past self."

- The Nelson Mail

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