Today I was in my parents’ home in Beechworth. I had travelled here to spend today with my dad as, after 31 years in Australia he was going to get his Australian citizenship. This might seem like a neat little thing – adult child goes home to celebrate citizenship ceremony with lovely Dad. In fact it was a difficult but beautiful time and it got me thinking around identity in all its forms.
I was registered as an Australian citizen by my mum – herself an Australian living in England at the time shortly after I was born. I still have UK and Australian dual citizen. When I moved to Australia as an 11 yer old, I felt more at home here. We moved to a country area and I lived on a dirt road with country people. School was hard. Everybody seemed to hate me – I had a silly accent, I dressed ‘wrong’ apparently an I had an imperceptible air of weirdness which all the kids picked up on and that I could not rid myself of no matter how hard I tried. While I loved Australia, I hated the isolation of living in the country where I could only escape if a parent drove me somewhere.
At age fifteen, for a variety of reasons I became a teenage socialist, reading Karl Marx on the school bus. I joined the International Socialist Organisation. They told me that everything I had learned about Australia was wrong. Mateship was apparently a toxic myth, we were all part of a racist ‘colonial settler state’ and even our Labor government at the time was complicit in exploitation and victimisation of vulnerable people. School history lessons certainly became interesting!
As a socialist, I hated Australia Day, bush music, the flag and related things. When my parents asked me to buy some Australiana-themed gifts for my English relatives I flatly refused! As years went by I stopped being a socialist and in getting older I have become much less hard-line about things. I will speak out about prejudice and discrimination where I see it, but I don’t blame country people and their doings with all the evils of oppression.
Today is Australia Day – quite a fraught date in our nation. For those outside of Australia, Australia Day marks the European settlement of Australia commencing form 26 January 1788. For a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people this date marks a day of sorrow and anger at the loss – sadly often quite intentional – of their cultures and lands to the settlers. We do have a shameful past – and sadly sometimes a shameful present – in relation to the First Peoples of our nation. I am acutely aware of this.
Today was an event I would never have thought I would enjoy, least of all feel emotional about. There was a ceremony for new citizens – including my Dad. There were speeches by the Mayor and a wonderful Australia Day Ambassador who had migrated here form Malaysia many years ago. He had an even more impressive CV than me!
We sat near the front. There were some entertainers – a lovely young woman singing, a intense-looking folk musician who came by himself and sang beautiful, sad songs and an outgoing fellow singing bush ballads and getting the kids singing and dancing. In the past I would have sat in the audience biting my tongue to keep from complaining about all the nationalists and things and feeling very out of place! Today I participated in the singing – even doing the dance moves for ‘Give me a Home Among the GumTrees.’ I sat between my parents. If you don’t know much about me, my parents were the two people the stood by me through every awful experience and poor choice I committed in my twenties. Their love for me is tangible. While we singing and clapping i was trying hard not to cry from all the things competing for my emotional attention – my dad becoming Australian like my mum, my brother and me, all the people from their town that I know and who were there for my Dad, even coming to terms with my own personal history. For the first time since I became a socialist in 1989 I actually felt Australian. I have never had much of a sense of national identity as English or Australian but today I did. Not the kind of identity that excuses errors by one’s country and its people, but one which enables me to love where I live and hopefully hold it to account if it does something unhelpful – sort of like a friend.
I had another experience of identity today and that was my Autistic identity. I have been quite confident in my own Autistic identity for many years but today got me thinking about Autistic identity as it applies to me and others.
I had morning tea with three women – all mums of Autistic kids here in Beechworth. Two of them came to a presentation I gave in 2015 and the other I hadn’t met before. We got take away coffees and sat in the same park where my Dad became a citizen this evening. One of the women had contacted me and asked to catch up. She asked if we could talk for ten minutes but I thought coffee would be a better idea.The four of us sat on a park bench and talked for two hours. I don’t think I talked as much as I usually do. Like parents everywhere, sharing stories and concerns about their kids is a very important thing, particularly if their kids – and they – might be having a hard time.
We had a great conversation. The woman I sat next to hadn’t come across much that I had done. I often have the extrovert’s folly in these situations and introduce myself loudly and list a bunch of my accomplishments but I’m getting better practiced with my communication with groups so refrained from doing this.The woman asked to see the copy of my mental health book and spent a long time looking – not flicking through it but reading the foreword by Wenn Lawson. I noticed her doing this but didn’t say anything. The she said ‘Wenn says Autism Spectrum Condition. I like that. I’m never keen on disorder. It’s not that. it’s a difference’. We discussed that and she bought the book.
My own identity certainly focusses on my strengths not deficits. I don’t use the term ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’. I don’t feel all that ‘disordered’ – more misunderstood in my difference. I call myself Autistic. I introduce myself to almost everyone as ‘I am Jeanette. I am an Autistic self-advocate….’ It works for me.
Today got me thinking about identity though. Twenty years ago, my identity did not include ‘Autistic’ or ‘Australian’. Today it does. But nobody else can or could bestow upon me an identity. An identity is what we choose for ourself. It is us coming to terms with being who we are. I know some people will correct those who say ‘I am a person with Autism’ – but it is not wrong – it’s how they identify. If it works for them and is how they understand themselves, it is not mine or anyone else’s business. I never told my dad he should become an Australian citizen. His identity as English was presumably that is how he viewed himself. Then he decided to become Australian. Him being English or Australian – like me seeing myself as Autistic – represents our own sense of identity. Unless someone identifies in a way which is damaging to their sense of self or is hurting others, it is their ‘them’.
I am a happy Autistic, Australian, Asexual, author, public speaker, public servant and advocate who has atypical schizophrenia and is human mum to Mr Kitty.
Beechworth’s new citizens – plus a politician or two