South Sudanese-Australian supermodel Aweng Chuol has revealed the devastating toll of vicious homophobic abuse she received after marrying her wife.
Aweng was born in a refugee camp in Kenya after her family fled a civil war. She moved to Australia at age seven.
When Aweng was a teenager, a model scout discovered her while she was working at McDonald’s in western Sydney.
Just a few weeks later, she was in France, walking a runway for Paris fashion label Vetements.
The supermodel, who identifies as pansexual, opened up her life to Courtney Act on ABC’s One Plus One program.
“Where I grew up, [being queer] wasn’t an option. The thought wasn’t an option, so imagine the action. It just wasn’t an option,” she said.
Completely unfamiliar with homosexuality, Aweng said she spent months reading whatever she could to try and understand her own identity.
Later, when she did come out to her family, her friends and family largely dismissed it as just a phase.
“My mother was calm. She said, ‘I don’t understand it.’ She didn’t understand it because no-one spoke about it,” Aweng recalled.
“For my mother’s generation, you can’t even think about it.
“But my mother was like, ‘You’re happy? You’re good? Great. Who do you want to tell to next? I could prepare you for them.’
“She helped me go to my grandparents or go to my aunties or sit down with the uncles and [come out to them].”
Aweng Chuol married wife Alexus last year
However Aweng Chuol recalled it was her marriage last year to wife Alexus Ade-Chuol that sparked the backlash she initially feared. The couple wed last July in New York City.
“I’m shooting a campaign and the internet is going crazy after finding out I married a woman,” she said.
“Sudan found out. Kenya found out. It was a mess. I can’t even repeat most of the comments.
“But I didn’t regret my decision. I didn’t regret being proud, I was just sad. It sent me into the worst mental health space.
“I thought, ‘What did I do wrong? I didn’t hurt you guys, I didn’t say anything to you, I didn’t do anything.'”
Aweng recalled receiving a lot of support from younger Sudanese people. However she felt the homophobic trolls were out to wear her down.
“Articles and conversations from people in my community were very much, ‘They’re going to be done within a few months,'” she said.
“‘She’s going to get exhausted by the harassment, she’s going to say that she’s not into women.’
“But you can’t exhaust myself out of me, that doesn’t work.”
Online abuse ‘wasn’t just harassment, it was another level’
Aweng later appeared in UK’s Elle magazine, and urged them to photograph her kissing her wife for the cover.
However she told Courtney Act the relentless online abuse, coupled with burnout, tragically led to a suicide attempt last year.
“Grown people, 60-year-olds, telling me, ‘Why would you do this? What’s the point of living?’ It wasn’t just harassment, it was another level,” she said.
“I was getting 3,000 messages every hour from people, with not even one positive.
“I spent days scrolling through hate messages, homophobic messages, death threats. ‘Don’t come back home,’ ‘If you enter this country,’ all of these things.
“Then when I stopped, I stopped. I said, ‘I’m never looking at somebody telling me that they don’t like. That’s their business.’
“Your life is worth more than people’s words.”
Aweng, who has previously lived in London, is now back in Sydney.
She told Courtney Act she’s in the middle of studying psychological sciences and criminal law at university.
“When I grew up, there was never conversation about mental health,” she said.
“There was just so many things that I’m learning that we never talked about. It’s swept under the rug in my community. That’s why I’m doing psychology.”
One Plus One hosted by Courtney Act screens on ABC TV and is available to stream on ABC iView.
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