AUSTRALIA is a free country — or is it? Homophobia is alive and well and plenty of gay people can testify to that. Now a youth group, Way Out, has formed to support 12 to 25-year-olds. It aims to raise awareness of the impact of homophobia and celebrate diversity in love. The group will attend a rally in Albury’s QEII Square today.
HOLDING hands with your partner as you walk down the street.
It’s safety, unity and love wrapped up in one intimate gesture.
But it’s also a gesture that can evoke fear, division and hatred when the person you’re holding hands with is of the same sex.
“You do get looks,” Bridie Power said.
“And you think, ‘Are they just looking because we look a bit different and they’re not used to it, or do they dislike you and intend harm on you?’”
BRIDIE sits at a table among a small group in a quiet room at the back of Gateway Community Health in Wodonga.
They’re all here to meet The Border Mail to talk about joining the new Wodonga-based youth group Way Out.
It’s a support network for 12 to 25-year-olds, the only one of its kind on the Border.
A group inclusive of both queer and straight people, it hopes to raise awareness of the impact of homophobia and celebrate diversity.
Today’s Equal Love Rally in QEII Square will be Way Out’s first public appearance.
Discussing the initiative by Gateway and Junction Support Services, the minutes pass and everyone begins to relax.
Slowly, the talk drifts from what Way Out is to why it now exists.
Project worker Sarah Roberts explains there was nothing like it in Wodonga and Department of Health funding was available to help support the group’s creation.
Four young people share their thoughts on why Way Out is so important, then they share stories of the ongoing cases of homophobia.
Bridie, Steph, Meghan and Tyler have all been victims.
One had a gay brother beaten up after leaving a nightclub.
Another was forced out of a church youth group.
Yet another was bullied, by both their peers and adults.
There has been verbal abuse and name calling.
Giving an account of school yard bullying, Tyler Beck, 15, loses his train of thought.
“What was I saying again?” he asks the group.
“A sinner,” they respond, “They said you’re going to hell”.
“Oh yeah ....”
All four have their own stories of similar attacks; discrimination that they want to stop.
BRIDIE was shocked to learn there was no gay rights group at her university when she moved to the Border two years ago.
“I was expecting there to be a queer group and there wasn’t,” the 23-year-old said.
“It did surprise me a bit because every uni has it in Melbourne ... I went from being in four student groups to being in none.
“And I guess it made it a bit harder to make friends with similar interests.”
Way Out was launched last month; before then there was only one support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people in Albury-Wodonga — Hume Phoenix for those over the age of 18.
Sarah said having few interest groups on the Border meant there was less visibility, less awareness, and, in the end, less acceptance.
“That’s why they’ve put funding into this area,” she said.
“They’ve noticed there is a lot of awareness raising that needs to happen, there’s a lot of education that needs to happen in the community, especially in schools.”
It’s clear to Steph Meachen there needs to be greater awareness and acceptance of same-sex attracted, inter-sex and gender diverse people in Albury-Wodonga.
She knows of those who simply packed up and moved to Melbourne because they didn’t feel accepted on the Border.
“My friend Alex lived here and he moved,” she said.
“He just said he prefers the fact he has support in capital cities, he can be himself, he doesn’t have to hide who he is and act like someone he’s not.”
Steph knows the pain in hiding.
“I hid who I was for years,” the 18-year-old admits.
“I didn’t want to be open with who I was out of fear I wouldn’t be accepted.
“You’re drinking your sorrows away, you’re mixing with the wrong sorts of people because you don’t know what else to do.
“I want to stop youths from feeling worthless, who are hiding who they are and going drinking because they can’t be who they are.”
DISCRIMINATION and homophobia breed mental health problems among their victims.
There is no better acknowledgement of that link than the provision of money to establish the Way Out group.
“It’s funding on the back of suicide prevention,” Sarah said.
“There is a lot of research that shows the impact of discrimination and homophobia on your mental health.
“Obviously we’re not talking about LGBTIs being a mental health issue.
“It’s the impacts of the discrimination, the homophobia and the bullying on your mental health and well-being; feeling socially isolated, and the flow-on effects from that can be risk-taking behaviours.”
Way Out will run community projects, including sessions with school students on offensive language and personal development classes with teachers.
Sarah is organising two forums on transgender and gender diverse communities; one for service providers, teachers and community workers, the other for anyone.
Both will be held on October 30.
Today in QEII Square, Way Out will run a stall with information on the new group and Way Out co-ordinators from across Victoria will be available for a chat.
It’s a start but Sarah and the Way Out group members have plans for many more events in the future.
Ultimately, Sarah hopes Way Out won’t need to exist in years to come.
“The goal is for Way Out not to have to be here, that’s the whole goal, for there not to have to be a project like this,” she said.
Bridie, Steph, Meghan and Tyler also have hopes for the future and they’re pretty straightforward.
“Not to have to worry about your safety,” Meghan Hall said.
“Not to have to worry about holding your partner’s hand in public,” Bridie said.
“Not to have to come out,” Steph said.
“You should just be able to come home with a girlfriend or a boyfriend and say, hey, this is my partner.”
For more information on Way Out’s fortnightly group meetings or the forums on October 30, contact Way Out project worker Sarah Roberts at email@example.com.