At the registration table for Lovelinx, a national conference run by a Christian organisation, an array of educational books and DVDs are on display. Titles include The Battle for Normality, The Courage to Be Chaste, God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door and Healing Homosexuality. Their variety risks being overwhelming, but mums and dads can turn their attention to one clearly targeted book, a practical-sounding volume titled A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality.
Lovelinx is taking place in The Factory, a church in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbs, which used to be a furniture workshop. The two-day conference aims to share the gospel “in the midst of the homosexuality conflict” and comes with the backing of Exodus Global Alliance, an international organisation representing a range of Christian “member ministries”. Exodus claims it is possible for people to free themselves of their homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.
The story goes like this: Ernest Hemingway, master of literary economy, is challenged to write a narrative in 10 words or less. Hemingway, of course, comes up with a heartbreaker in six. “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” It’s also been strongly rumoured, however, that Hemingway isn’t the author at all and that the story came from a theatre production about him instead. Whatever the case, the creator of the six-word slayer clearly knew that the entirety of human existence is catalogued in the print classifieds, from the barely contained joys of birth notices to the sunny Sunday horrors of deceased-estate sales.
The print classifieds are certainly a rich reservoir for the banal and the bizarre. In any given issue of the Trading Post’s Queensland edition, you’ll find the usual: cars and computers, fish tanks and barbecues, puppy litters and board games. But there will also be someone’s toilet going for $60 (or nearest offer), a 4.5-cubic-foot front-loader kiln, beef calves of various breeds and used women’s hot pants selling for three dollars each, with emphasis placed on the “USED”. The “Other Pets” section is almost exclusively – inexplicably – occupied by pythons.
Twenty years ago, just past midnight, the American tank ship Exxon Valdez was slicing through cold black water, cutting a course through the Gulf of Alaska. Anyone who was an adult in the ’80s knows what happened next: a misjudged turn, a grounding on the reef and 258,000 barrels of crude oil spilling into the ocean.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s post-mortem on the incident makes for riveting reading, packed with figures and costs that leave you light-headed: damage to vessel, US$25 million; clean-up operations, US$1.85 billion. Yet a central concern of the report is sleep. The evening of the spill, the third mate on duty, Gregory Cousins, was documented as having returned to work after only four hours’ rest, following an already “stressful, physically demanding day”. Fatigued and under-slept, Cousins’ judgement was deemed impaired; he may even have fallen asleep at the wheel. All that spilt oil, and over lost sleep.
If the huddled group of males gathered outside on the kerbside were teenagers, you’d say they were loitering: hanging out after dark; warming their hands in a circle; talking in low, conspiratorial murmurs. But as it happens, all of the men are in their late fifties and sixties, either already in their senior years or about to collide with them. When I approach them, they acknowledge me with polite smiles at first, until I get closer and they see I’m in my twenties. That’s when the jokes start. “You’re a bit young to be here, aren’t you?” they say. When I make a quip about simply using the right moisturiser, they all start hooting in response, mock-scandalised. “Oh stop,” one man drawls, before shaking his head and lighting a cigarette.
What these men have in common are two things: their age, and the fact that they’re all gay. Tonight, they’re also all waiting for the same thing to begin: a seminar called ‘Getting Ready for Retirement: Age Pension and Your Choice’. Tonight’s talk is one in a year-long series of similar sessions arranged by QAHC – the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities – that specifically caters for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people approaching their retirement years. Upcoming seminars have similarly informative-sounding but vaguely sad titles, such as ‘Wills, Advance Health Directives and Enduring Powers of Attorney’ and ‘Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation’.
In the library of Inglewood State School – a three-hour, sleep-inducing drive west from Brisbane – Jim Lyons discusses Scarlett Johansson with students from years seven and eight. He shows them a laminated newspaper article featuring Johansson’s photograph. The headline is unfortunate: ‘Bush Bashed On Sex’. Jim paraphrases the story for the students: Johansson is outraged that the Bush administration has poured millions of dollars into abstinence education; she argues that it takes women back to the dark ages; she gets tested for HIV regularly; she urges every young woman to do the same.
“What can we learn from this young lady?” Jim asks. “What does this tell you about Scarlett Johansson?” In the back row, a skinny girl with spectacles puts a hand up. “That she’s safe?” she says. Jim raises his eyebrows. “She’s safe?” he asks sceptically. “What else?” To the side, a year-eight boy mumbles something. “She’s sexually active,” Jim repeats, so the rest of the class can hear. “Well, some would say she’s very sexually active.”