"I left Tumut at the first possible moment I could leave. Twenty-one years ago I was on this highway, in the opposite direction, and couldn't get out of there fast enough."
Ivan Hinton left his hometown in the NSW Riverina the day he finished high school. He's never been back. He now lives in Canberra with his husband Chris. But after decades of carrying around the burden of a traumatic childhood, he decided to face his fears and return. "I’m coming back today because I don’t want my history to dictate my future."
Ivan was bullied from the time he was five years old. "I would wake up and wouldn’t want to be awake. I wouldn’t want to go to school. Because the works that they'd been using ever since I was five - fag, poofter, homo - I realised at the age of nine that what I was, was something bad... I just didn't fit in. I didn't have a rugby team. I didn't want to play team sports. I knew I was different to everybody else, I just didn't understand why".
Ivan has long associated his childhood victimisation with one particular girl, Sam. He decided that in order to face his demons, he needed to face Sam. "Today I’m going to be knocking on the door of a girl from school. For so long now Sam has represented all of schoolkids that I struggled with."
"I would wake up and wouldn’t want to be awake. I wouldn’t want to go to school." - Ivan
Sam still lives in Tumut, and has two children, Rory and Ruben. They don't have any of the negative associatons with homosexuality of earlier generations. On hearing that Ivan married Chris during the brief period that same-sex marriage was legal in the ACT, Rory said "I think that's good. I'm not feeling anything bad about it".
Sam expresses guilt over her role in Ivan's alienation. "I feel really sorry for my part. I feel like I'm in that movie, 'Mean Girls', and so sorry I wasn't accepting of him in high school... one of the most important things to me is to teach our boys to be accepting of everyone. I think Tumut has changed for the better. I think it's still got a long way to go."
Naylen McDonnell from Wagga Wagga, the Riverina's regional centre, agrees. “Even to this day there are still people in this community who will stand up and say homophobic, discriminative things, and think they have a right to, and nobody’s going to stop them."
Naylen loves country life, and is determined not to let homophobia drive him out. “My dream is to be married. Preferably two to three kids, the clichéd family. I’d love a little bit of land, somewhere small and regional. I like the country, it’s a beautiful place to grow up."
Despite his love of his home town, his journey has not been less traumatic than Ivan's. "There are many people struggling to be honest and open about and honest about their sexuality in regional communities. Some run off to the city and never actually tell their family why. When my first boyfriend came out as gay to his family, they were mortified. They had no idea what to do. They were disgusted. In the end, Cameron took his own life".
"There are many people struggling to be honest and open about and honest about their sexuality in regional communities. Some run off to the city and never actually tell their family why." - Naylen
"Cameron’s death symbolizes the tragedy of growing up gay in a country area. And it also symbolizes that change is needed on a national scale.”
Ivan also struggled with suicide in his youth. "The thing that made me hold on was the love of my mum and my dad. I couldn’t imagine leaving them. I couldn’t imagine the burdern that they would have for the rest of their lives. So I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill myself. I really wanted to."
Wagga Wagga's LGBTQI community has become more visible over time. Ray Goodlass, a prominent gay activist in Wagga Wagga, has a weekly column in the Daily Advertiser. "I think I was offered the role to help promote diversity in the paper. In a community as large and as vibrant, growing and diverse as Wagga Wagga is, it's important that as many different voices are heard as possible."
He does not deny the homophobic past of the paper. Michael McCormack, who is now the federal member for the Riverina, was once the editor of the Daily Advertiser. He used the platform to write a violently hateful piece against the gay people in the community.
“A week never goes by anymore where homosexuals and their sordid behavior don’t become further entrenched in society," he wrote. “Unfortunately gays are here and, if the disease their unnatural act helps spread doesn’t wipe out humanity, theu’re here to stay.” While he made a vague apology in another editorial, McCormack continues to stand against marriage equality.
"I think there’s a big link between the lack of marriage equality and schoolyard bullying. Unless we have marriage equality people who can’t marry are seen as different. And bullies like nothing like bulling someone who is different," says Goodlass.
"Unless we have marriage equality people who can’t marry are seen as different." - Ray
The progressive attitudes displayed by Sam's children provde that things are changing for the better. Ivan said goodbye to both them and Sam with a warm hug. "Today has been really worthwhile, because it was incredibly confronting more confronting than expected. Now I don’t feel like I have anywhere near as much burden as what I did only hours ago."
Ivan has overcome the trauma of his past to build a happy life. "Life for me now is fantastic. I couldn’t ask for anything more. Chris and I have been together for twelve years now. It’s beyond my wildest dreams, it’s beyond my expectations."