I always knew I was different. I grew up overseas, and didn’t have a dad that played for or coached the local footy team. I grew up in a family that loved and accepted me; they never cared who I loved as long as I was happy, safe and healthy.

Moving to a small town in rural Victoria was a culture shock. And it continues to be, even now.

Small towns are famous for their quaintness, and maybe a good pub or bakery. But it’s not the location or local attractions that make a town, it’s the people. Each town has its quirks, the local spot where all the kids go to hang out, the local footy ground which makes up the majority of social interaction for the residents, the cafe where the owner knows everyone’s order and asks about your nan and your dog. There’s a lot of other stereotypes that come along with living in a small town, and they aren’t all wrong.

I came out in the middle of year 10, about two years ago now. At that point, I was the only out queer student and that rocked the boat.

I had, and continue to have, an amazing group of friends and teachers who supported me through the ups and downs of coming out. But lurking in the shadows was the microaggressions and hatred that would fill the rest of my time. I was stared at in classes whenever LGBTQ+ topics came up, made to feel less-than in discussions, whispered about behind cupped hands.

Coming out was stressful. I had to make sure all my family in town knew before my peers and teachers because of the interconnectedness of the community. I had to hide my coming out from particular people, some from my daily life, to protect myself mentally and physically. Safety was something I thought about constantly.

Year 11 brought the Debutant ball. Presenting young virgins to society to find their future husband. Extremely old-fashioned and outdated. It’s been phased out in most areas, but country towns hold onto it like a childhood teddy. Tradition is extremely important in country towns, so it goes ahead every year.

Young, queer me thought it was a great idea to go with a girl, and that rocked the boat. Sparing the details, we pulled out after fear for our mental and physical safety in the lead up to, and on the night of, the ball. Our hopes of smashing the glass were quashed.

The fear of the backlash from parents and community members was too much for us to face. It was one of the worst periods of homophobia I have experiences. Accused of ruining the ball for everyone and going against tradition, I was socially isolated. This social isolation continues to occur now. Tradition runs through the veins of those who live here, and if you go against it, then you are out.

I know a lot of people who would not come out until they were as far away from town as possible purely because they knew what would be said – they knew they weren’t safe. Even now, there are places where I would not come out, mostly out of fear of being shunned.

You can’t change the way people think about you. You can’t change who you are. It’s hard to accept that you can’t change yourself or the environment you find yourself in. For a long time, I was angry at who I was because of how the community chose to treat me. When it seems like 99% of the people around you are telling you that you are not worthy or enough, the 1% of people who do who believe in and accept who you are seems even less.

With all the bad, of course, comes the good. The allyship of other students and a handful of teachers has allowed a blossoming LGBTIQ+ community within the school. There are continuous efforts to ensure that students and staff feel welcome.

For a long time, I had to advocate for what felt like was just me. In reality, it wasn’t – it was also for a whole bunch of amazing people who just weren’t ready to come out yet. I found my community, bonded by the fact that we were “different” from everyone else. These people don’t care who I am or who I love, and that is really special.

Less than four months out from graduating, I have been able to reflect on what the past two years in a small town as a queer person has been like. It has honestly been awful at times, but liberating at others. I have spoken to a lot of other queer people who grew up in small towns and they have all told me the same thing: “You are going to thrive when you get out of there, the world is bigger than it seems”. The confines of a traditional and narrow-minded town have stunted my growth. It’s hard to remember that the world is so much bigger and more accepting than what is around you right now; I forget all the time.

The thought that you are seen as less-than and unloved in the place you call home is a hard pill to swallow, but I promise every young queer person reading this right now, you aren’t less-than or unloved. I am rooting for you.

 

About the writer

Claire (she/they) is a Year 12 student from North East Victoria who is passionate about working towards a fair, safe and accessible education system for students living with disabilities, in regional and rural Victoria, the LGBTQI+ community and from culturally diverse backgrounds. Claire served on the 2020-21 VicSRC Student Executive Advisory Committee and has excellent taste in podcasts.