I grew up in Victoria’s wheatbelt. A dry and dusty corner of rural Victoria where scorching heat and years of drought brought hardship for everyone. For me, the battle of growing up in this ruthless environment was far less visible.
I have been hesitant to write about growing up closeted in regional Victoria, concerned that those who knew me might feel misrepresented. I want to stress that despite my feelings of isolation and separation from this community, for those on the inside it was a welcoming and positive environment. Locals looked out for one another and friendships were forged on the common grounds this remote farming community shared.
In my case, however, I was not a farmer’s son and as I and the three generations before me were not born in the region, I wasn’t a local. And I never would be. Despite living and working there for over 10 years, I was and always would be a ‘blow-in’. It was implied by this label that my family and I would ‘blow-out’, and eventually, we did.
As is commonplace in rural Victoria, the local Aussie Rules competition was the heart of the community. It was here friendships were made and support was offered. Playing footy was just the done thing, and a ticket to becoming ‘one of them’. So it didn’t help that I have the sporting prowess of a sloth and more interest in the colour schemes of football jerseys than the game itself.
“So where are you playing on the field next season?”
“Ahh, I don’t actually play football.”
This was a conversation I had in varying forms throughout my years growing up; in a region which has developed a sense of belonging around a shared experience I wasn’t a part of and I wasn’t interested in, as much as I envied those who were.
My aversion to sports, introverted persona and even the clothes I wore aroused suspicion about my sexuality. Simply rocking skinny jeans and long hair in my one-street town raised eyebrows and sideways glances.
There were just four students in my year level, and less than 70 in the whole school. So standing next to the other boys, the tanned footy players and farmer’s sons, in their shorts and singlets and short hair, it was impossible to blend in. It’s ironic when what makes you comfortable, also makes you stand out.
This isn't to suggest I wasn’t incredibly fortunate to learn in such an environment, because I was. There is great benefit in the improved learning outcomes of smaller class sizes. But, in terms of fashioning out an identity for myself which was true and honest to who I really am, well, that wasn’t easy.
An unspoken ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy developed out of the casual everyday homophobia, masquerading as humour. Whether being gay was ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ was never really an explicit conversation between my peers and I feel that for one reason or another the topic was avoided, but it was clear to me that coming out in that environment wouldn’t be the best idea. It would have taken a level of courage and self-assurance that I, as a closeted teen growing up in the country, didn’t have. And perhaps a level of acceptance that not all of those around me were ready to give.
The internet was a saviour for me. Being exposed to different ideals through this medium, which normalised homosexuality and offered support, gave me so much hope. It replaced silence with reassurance and lamented the message that I knew to be true, there is nothing wrong with being gay.
I pushed myself to become more vocal in my support for the LGBTIQA+ community in high school, mindful to shield myself from being outed as gay. It’s a term I spent so many years avoiding that even now I feel a level of unease when it’s associated with me, even when I’m the one saying it. I recently stumbled across an oral presentation I wrote on the topic of cyberbullying. This was my incognito chance to talk about bullying and harassment of LGBTIQA+ teens online. Ever cautious, however, I notice now that I did this without any reference to the word gay. I still remember the fear and trepidation of delivering this mediocre piece.
Without delving too deeply into a grim period of my life, it isn’t healthy to beg to a God that you don’t even believe in to make you straight. To try to will away something you have absolutely no control over, something which is completely and unquestionably normal. As easy and obvious as it is to say that now, it simply isn’t the case when you’re living in fear, largely of yourself, and growing up in an environment where you’re so far removed from the norm. Being a teenager is hard enough. Working out who you are, what you like and dislike, and trying to get a handle on what all of that means. It is a struggle, for those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and those who don’t. We all face challenges, but we all do so in different ways and for members of the queer community, that battle often feels more isolated than it should. It is easy to feel alone when you’re in the closet, because you work so hard to cut yourself off from your own identity. You want support from others, but you’re not even there for yourself. Developing a culture of tolerance is so important. It is the only way to provide support for people who desperately need it, but are too scared to seek it.
This is why support for the Safe Schools Coalition is crucial, if we are to achieve a systemic shift in attitudes. I am grateful that funding for the program has been guaranteed in Victoria and excited that its lessons of tolerance and respect will be taught in country schools, like the one I attended. I am however frustrated that this hasn’t come sooner and that it continues to be so vehemently opposed. In support of the sentiment that has been echoed in recent months, ‘I needed Safe Schools’. Unlike sexuality, homophobia is a choice, a learnt intolerance, and programs like Safe Schools help eradicate it with education.
I should not have had to grapple with an emotional battle so existential in nature that it threatens the mental health of countless people in the queer community. I was a kid. I needed support. Failing to legislate for marriage equality persists as a stain on Australia’s lapsed appreciation of the ‘fair go’, as does opposition to the Safe Schools program. Every time we lose a member of the queer community to violence or bullying, it is a stark reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for equality and acceptance.
It is hard to write this without feeling inadequate. How can I string together the right words to change an archaic system stacked in opposition to who we are? How am I able to do justice to other young people who are closeted, too scared to come out, to be who they are, in fear of the repercussions?
Perhaps it’s best to just say it how it Is. To let go of all of the shame and repression that emanates from a society far too complacent about the already neglected struggles of life in the closet.
I am 22 years old; a son and a brother. I am an International Relations graduate, and I grew up in regional Australia. I really don’t understand football, but St. Kilda has the best colours. I am proud of who I am, and thankful for those who remained close. I’m in love. And I happen to be gay.
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