“They don’t give a f*ck what you look like, just who you are and if you have a good heart…Out here I think the desert is so isolating so people are just themselves, and all the pretence of the city drops away…”
“They” are the Indigenous people in remote Central Australia communities. And “Amber” certainly knows what she is talking about. As a transgender “lady…I call myself a ‘lady’, not a woman…”, Amber has been working with success for some time in communities that are closer to Alice Springs than anywhere else.
Stories like Amber’s and other thriving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) folk in regional, rural and remote Australia explode the myths that so many have of life in the bush. When I set out on a 266-consecutive-day Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ Tour that reached most nooks and crannies of this nation, most expected it would end badly. It didn’t.
Good news: LGBT people, young and old, are thriving in all parts of regional, rural and remote Australia.
Bad news: whether an LGBT individual thrives or barely survives in country towns small, medium or large is more dependent on them winning the genetic and/or social lottery than their environment.
Time and again we hear that LGBT people’s quality of life “depends”. One lesbian commentator explained it:
“It depends on if you are a white male professional in [the city] versus an Aboriginal lesbian in [rural community]…It becomes the haves and the have nots…In an [inner city gay-friendly suburb] you can be as gay as you like…”
Thus LGBT people, young and old, can experience even the same place as relatively safe and supportive or unwelcoming and hostile. Yes, even those apparent LGBT havens like Broome, Byron Bay and Daylesford.
So on what exactly does LGBT quality of life “depend”?
Being female: Without factoring in race and religion generally, nor Aboriginal young women, regional, rural and remote communities are clear that men and women have very different experiences. As one female rural youth counselor said:
“The guys find it harder, mental health-wise, because they probably get bullied more for being gay…Gay guys cop it worse than lesbians…”
Age: There are clear differences observed across LGBT cohorts. For example, young LGBT people tend to fare worst in non-metropolitan Australia. Said one male rural youth counselor:
“They are faring worse, because if you look at the data they are still overrepresented…Mental health, self-harming behaviours, sexual health…”
From their mid-30s, LGBT people often come into their own in regional, rural and remote communities, predominantly because this signals other factors of success such as job and financial security, lack of dependence and being in a stable relationship. Just don’t mention class.
Being ‘Discreetly Open’: Most admit “you can be gay but…” But? You must be “discreetly open”.
A rural adult lesbian explains the first:
“There are a lot of people who are out…[But] they’re discreetly open…[They] don’t say anything…”
A rural teacher reflected:
“It’s alright just as long as you don’t say it, speak it, stand up…It’s country towns…It’s like in the US military, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’…”
Palatable Contribution: A pattern that repeated itself across all parts of Australia was that LGBT-ness can be forgiven, yes “forgiven”, if LGBT individuals contributed. Just make sure that it’s a palatable contribution. One rural youth worker explained:
“[It’s] harsh here if you step outside of what’s acceptable…”
One older woman in a small rural town talked about a doctor and his partner making a difference:
“Usually doctors and their wives come to town and they’ll separate themselves…This couple came to town and they got involved…”
Passing: A great deal of homophobia is avoided in communities due to an LGBT individual’s ability to ‘pass’ as heterosexual. Explained one young rural gay man:
“I haven’t experienced [homophobia] mainly because of my ability to pass…I’ve done fine because I pass, but people who don’t pass wouldn’t…”
Other factors: Although not essential to thriving in regional, rural and remote Australia, having a connection to local LGBT organisations, projects and groups – if available, inclusive and active – can make a significant difference to an LGBT individual’s quality of life. So too those LGBT people who have lived for a time in metropolitan Australia. It seems this time can be spent refining their ability to cope with and challenge homophobia away from their community’s scrutiny. This might involve “suffering” homophobic fools (i.e. enduring the ignorance of others).
What hasn’t changed in the past decade is that whether an LGBT individual thrives or barely survives depends largely on them, their ability to cope and their skilful navigation of often hostile and unwelcoming environments.
Fortunately there is one thing that has changed during the past decade that negates LGBT individuals having to shoulder the homophobic load alone: an increase in the number of active, vocal and visible supportive people.
Having people around them who support, and care for, them often negates many other negative contributing factors to LGBT people’s lives. Too often LGBT people speak of supportive people being a case of good luck or accident.
As one young rural gay man put it:
“I don’t know…If I’d had bad reactions from [friends and family], then I probably would have moved…”
For this reason the Beyond ‘That’s So Gay’ Tour and its efforts beyond have focused on giving teachers, health professionals and homophobia-curious others the skills and resources to make the biggest difference they can: by being supportive.
Being supportive is vital if communities are going to stem the loss, exodus and pain of LGBT people, particularly the young. Partly, this involves recognising that LGBT people experience country life differently. Rather than seeing everything outside the cities as black and white it would be more accurate to see it as closer to 50 Shades of Grey, or Rainbow even.
How bright or dull that rainbow is depends on every one of us; LGBT or not.