You Don't Need To Be At Mardi Gras To Feel Like You Belong
My message to other young LGBTIQ+ people in rural and regional Australia is simple.
You don’t need to be at Mardi Gras to feel like you belong.
Yes, I’m sure Mardi Gras would be heaps of fun. Yes, growing up in rural and regional Australia can be tough.
But rural and regional Australia can change for the better. Tasmania is proof. Until 1997 homosexuality was criminal in Tasmania, with a maximum punishment of 21 years imprisonment. Now, Tasmania has the best LGBTIQ+ human rights laws in Australia and some of the best in the world.
This has been matched by a transformation in attitudes. When the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality in Tasmania began in the late 1980s support for that reform was the lowest in the country. In the 2017 same-sex marriage postal survey Tasmania’s ‘Yes’ vote was above the national average.
My hometown, Ulverstone, is ground zero for this transformation. Thirty years ago, the town hosted angry, anti-gay rallies and was declared “Australia’s most homophobic town” by Lonely Planet. In June last year, to mark the 30th anniversary of those events, a small but significant ceremony was held in Ulverstone.
And at the annual Out in the Park celebration, the local council acknowledged the damage caused in the past by planting a tree and unveiling a plaque which highlights the importance of LGBTIQ+ inclusion. The bridge spanning the local river has even been lit in rainbow colours, a symbol of the progress my home has made in crossing the bridge from exclusion to acceptance.
I don’t want to give the impression rural and regional Australia is a gay paradise. It’s not. Before I came out I felt alone and isolated. I had no role models to look up to in school or visible support services. I would test the waters of other people’s tolerance by mentioning a queer celebrity or pulling someone up on an offensive comment.
When my friends asked me if I was gay I remember the anxiety I felt. I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I ran to the school bathroom. I remember staring into the mirror saying, “Yes, I’m gay” over and over. When I finally came out I found more support from my family and friends than many LGBTIQ+ people in generations past.
But there are threats to the growing acceptance that I have benefited from. For example, when I was in Grade Nine, just weeks after coming out, the leadership of the Catholic Church distributed a booklet titled Don’t Mess With Marriage through Catholic schools, including the one I attended.
Coming out is tough enough without a booklet telling you you’re second-rate. Luckily, the staff and students at my school were supportive, as was Tasmanian law which prevents anti-LGBTIQ+ discrimination by religious schools or other religious organisations.
Now those protections are under threat from the proposed federal Religious Freedom Bill which could allow unfair treatment in the name of religion. Medical professionals might be able to refuse treatments they have a religious objection to, including hormone therapy for trans people, PrEP to prevent HIV, family planning services for women or stem cell treatment people with disability may need.
Religious schools, hospitals and charities could be able to refuse their services or employment to anyone who doesn’t conform to traditional religious beliefs, which will include women, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disability and members of minority religions.
Rural and regional Australians will suffer the most from the proposed bill because services are fewer in number and harder to access than in the city. Instead, the Government should be increasing access to health, educational and support services for rural and regional Australians, not limiting them by imposing what amounts to a religious test.
The bill could also encourage the kind of prejudiced statements in the workplace and the classroom that rural and regional Australia is moving on from.
Indeed, the Religious Discrimination Bill threatens the progress many rural communities have made, including mine.
A source of hope for the future are the three Out Here documentaries made with support from Screen Australia and Network 10. Belonging, directed by Matt Scholten, illustrates the profound transformation I have already described in Tasmania and the lessons we can learn from that journey to propel positive change into the future. The same hope is highlighted by the other films, The Rainbow Passage and Alone Out Here.
Watching these documentaries reminded me that in all corners of this vast country, from the rolling, green hills of Tasmania to the dusty paddocks of Cowra, there are people, just like me, who belong. In those small communities great things are happening, from Out in the Park in Ulverstone to Busselton Pride in Western Australia and the Broken Heel Festival in NSW.
I won’t be at Mardi Gras this year. It’s my first year of Uni and I’m still settling in. I know I’ll miss the thrill of seeing so many LGBTIQ+ people in one place being proud of who they are. But I also know I don’t need to escape to Mardi Gras to feel like I belong.
I already have that in the place I grew up.
Out Here is a joint initiative between Network 10 and Screen Australia. The documentaries Alone Out Here, The Rainbow Passage and Belonging are all streaming now on 10Play.