If things had gone as I intended on that bleak afternoon in my early teens, when I sat slumped on the bathroom floor, I wouldn’t have lived past 14.
After yet another horrific day in the never-ending hell that was my adolescence, which saw me mercilessly tormented by the kids at my footy mad all-boys school, in a tiny town in regional Queensland at the end of the 1990s, I’d reached breaking point.
Someone had penned a graphic love letter to the school’s NRL star, signed my name, and passed it around the room. The teacher read it out loud, word for word, then pointed to me.
What was left of my miserable world crumbled in that moment. And so, once home, in total hysterics, knowing things would get much worse if I ever went back to that school, I decided to kill myself.
Fate intervened and I survived, thank God.
I’ve thought about that painful day from time to time in the years since, but these past few weeks, I’ve had to confront my dark past head-on every single day.
A stage production has been made about that horrid moment and the year it sat within – my 14th year of life.
And so, each night, a couple of hundred people file into the Queensland Performing Arts Center to watch a brilliant young actor named Conor Leach, who bears an eerie resemblance to teenage me, play out that afternoon.
It’s so starling to me how familiar it all feels, even after all this time.
The purple hue of dusk filling the bathroom. The choking howl slipping from Conor’s throat. The tears streaming down his young face from him.
Fourteen, playing as part of Brisbane Festival, is adapted from the book of the same name I wrote in 2020.
I thought I’d worked through most of the trauma of my upbringing after writing it all down, I spoke endlessly about that chapter of my life at festivals, book clubs, meet-and-meets, and in interviews.
But seeing my 80,000-odd words leap from the page and be brought to life in such detail has been a fairly confronting experience.
Seeing that scared, confused and utterly defeated boy looking back at me, crying out in desperation as he comes perilously close to end it all… well, if a picture paints a thousand words, this play screams about a million of them.
A glowing review of the show last week described it as a ‘period piece’… and after nursing the bruise to my aging ego, I realized that the writer is correct.
So much time has passed since the 90s and so much progress has been made. We’re a more tolerant and inclusive society and gay people like me finally have freedoms that queer people could’ve only once dreamt of.
We’ve come so far… haven’t we?
I’ve spoken at plenty of schools about my book and the kids are mostly horrified about what they hear of my experience, unable to imagine it today.
But then, we know from statistics that gay, lesbian and bisexual young people are still six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
For trans kids, it’s almost double that number.
School remains an unwelcoming and unsafe place for many kids – whoever they are, really – and if that data is anything to go by, too many are unsupported and go to dark and dangerous places.
I’m reminded of the tragic story of Tyronne Unsworth, a 13-year-old boy from Brisbane who endured a similar kind of bullying hell to me.
Help was nowhere to be found, despite alarming warning signs and instances of violence that were ignored. He took his own life from him at the end of 2016.
The regions and outer suburbs are hotbeds of intolerance and misunderstanding, where being anything other than the norm is dangerous.
And yet anti-bullying programs designed to help are weaponized by political ideologues until they’re eventually scrapped. Safe Schools, anyone?
A young guy I follow on Instagram was bashed last week by a group of thugs while walking down Oxford Street – the gayest street in Australia, and one which should be the safest.
It happens all the time – I can think of half a dozen instances in the past year or so – but we just don’t really hear about it anymore.
We’ve come so far, we tell ourselves. The fight is over – same-sex couples can marry and start families, so what’s left? Queer or not, the world is anyone’s oyster now.
Except, that is, for the 69 countries where it’s illegal to be homosexual – and the 11 that punish those caught in same-sex relationships with execution.
And sure, many are the kind of nations one might expect to have such a law, like Somalia or Afghanistan.
But in a few months, the FIFA World Cup will be hosted in Qatar, where men like me can be jailed, tortured, and executed. And yet a world sport that regularly slaps a rainbow on its branding is happy to stage its multi-billion-dollar event there.
When my family and I hop on a plane to Europe, we have to choose a service that avoids stopovers in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, where homosexuality is also illegal, but where Qantas – whose boss is a proud gay man – is happy to do business .
Perhaps the fear and uncertainty still felt by so many young people, which pushes them to dark places, isn’t solely about the schools they go to or the towns they live, but about the dangers they see in the world.
The horrid debates in parliaments around the country. The nasty words said and written by commentators. The atrocities carried out globally. The push to overturn marriage equality in America. The violence still perpetrated here at home.
It’s RU OK Day today, and this is an important initiative to reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues, to encourage people to speak up when they need to, and their peers and loved ones to make it safe for them to do so.
It’s great and has an impact, no doubt, but alongside days like these I think we need to pause and reflect on how far we’ve really come.
And we need to think about how far we still have to go, together, as one community, united, no matter who we are, so that everyone feels valued, included, and safe.
I am living proof that things get better and that the darkest day, week, month, or year, in my case, doesn’t last forever.
The play about my life is an illustration of how a bit of love and a bit of kindness can instill hope in struggling young people, encouraging them to push on and keep fighting.
But at the end of it, when they do survive and thrive, we should work together to make the world they emerge into a better place.
Shannon Molloy is a journalist and the best-selling author of the memoir Fourteen. A stage production of Fourteen is now playing at Queensland Performing Arts Center as part of Brisbane Festival. Tickets are available at qpac.com.au