Silence = Death: Growing up LGBT in the shadow of AIDS hysteria

Travis Hunter
4 min readApr 1, 2023
Keith Haring (1989) Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death

I was born in the year 1984, a year that George Orwell had already marked as dystopian in our collective consciousness. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, the invisible blood borne death sentence which brought the sexual revolution crashing to an end. That same year, Nena’s synth-pop anthem 99 Luftballons, about some stray children’s balloons which accidentally trigger a global nuclear holocaust, spent 5 weeks at #1 in the ARIA charts. This was the era of New Wave, big hair, and existential dread.

It was not, per se, an excellent time to be born queer, let alone a transgender person. Until 1990, homosexuality was still illegal in my home state of Queensland. That same year I turned 6 years old. I had already realised two things — one, my discomfort with identifying as ‘female’, and two, my attraction to other girls. I first encountered the word, lesbian, being used in the school ground as a weapon against unpopular or gender non-conforming girls. I was 12 when I realised that that term referred to people like me.

By the late 1990s, my high school years, ‘coming out’ was officially a thing. But the idea that HIV/AIDS was God’s punishment for the sin of sexual deviance retained its grip on the culture. Safer sex education, where it was provided, only addressed heterosexual sex. Homosexuality remained unsayable. If any of my teachers was queer, they certainly didn’t speak of it. This was the era long before ‘Safe Schools’, and anti-discrimination legislation. I understood that it was not safe for me to ‘come out’. A chronically honest person, my truth lived so close to the surface it was always on the verge of exploding out of me. I desperately desired to live in the open, but I feared the repercussions that I knew would follow.

My parents were the people whose reactions I feared the most. Lots of people got kicked out of home for coming out. I worried that if I told them I would be homeless and unable to survive, let alone finish school so I could get the heck out of Far North Queensland. It was a situation I wouldn’t wish on any child.

The awkward decade-ish between decriminalisation and anti-discrimination protections produced a generation of LGBTQ Queenslanders just like me. We were spared court and prison but grew up in silence, deeply uncomfortable in our identities, with few adult role models and no safe spaces. Many of us grew up with few close friends, scared of our parents, with little hope for a future where we might be safe and belong. Like so many queer young people who grew up in this era, I wasn’t allowed to discover who I was — to make awkward, fumbling romantic and fashion choices and mistakes at an age when it was appropriate to do so. The effort it took to maintain this false facade robbed me of the opportunity to simply ‘be’. Those lost years would never be regained. All of that desire was locked up inside of me, pressurised until it became twisted and misshapen, the sharp edges of unmet need turned inwards against myself.

Despite my fears, at the age of 16 I became the first kid at my high school to ‘come out’, something I am still proud of my idealistic younger self for doing. It would be about another 10 years until I finally accepted that I was also transgender. Coming out was an act of desperation, borne of fear that I would never live unless I did so. I never thought I would live long enough to grow old, so I never made any long-term plans. In the long-term the wounds manifested in decreased health and wellbeing, increased chronic illness, financial problems, problems with education, long-term mental illness, drug and alcohol problems… the list really does go on (and on).

It took me many years to understand that despite the fact that I was never gay bashed, imprisoned, or correctively raped, what I carried around inside of me was trauma. I often think about what my life might have been like if I was born in the present day. If I’d had access to a safe and supportive environment while growing up, been able to explore my gender identity, had access to gender affirmation at puberty, and met adults who themselves were able to be ‘out’ and open about their own sexual orientation or gender identity. This is the alienated grief that many LGBTQ+ people who are late bloomers like me feel at the realisation that our potential as human beings was unfairly denied by the cruel and arbitrary queerphobia of our society.

These are simply the same things that cisgender and straight young people have access to by default. That is the world that LGBTQ+ have been fighting for for the past decades and it’s the world that religious zealots fought — are still fighitng — desperately to stop. It is this brave and tender new world that we adults — queer and straight — are now responsible for protecting. LGBTQ young people — kids like I was — deserve to grow up knowing who they are, feeling connected to their community, and knowing above all that they are worthy and valid.

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Travis Hunter

Personal essays and writing by a transgender, neuro-diverse author on Wurundjeri land.