If you had told Rowena Allen 10 years ago she would be in Wodonga as Victoria’s first gender and sexuality commissioner, launching the first gender clinic in regional Australia, she would have said “you are crazy”.
But that’s what happened on Thursday, as Gateway Health officially launched its gender service.
Ms Allen is in Wodonga as part of the state government’s LGBTI Equality Roadshow and congratulated the team who have been working to develop the gender service over the past four years.
“I love this ‘build it and they will fund it’ model … you see a need, and you don’t take no for an answer – you just do it,” she said.
“Mark my words, you’ll see around Victoria all these regional towns following in your footsteps and you can say it all started in Wodonga.”
Gateway Health chief executive Leonard Peady said like the organisation's sexual health and refugee clinics, the gender service for young people aged under 18 has started without external funding.
“We do have some funding from the Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate the service, so we’re hoping the evidence we collect with that, we’ll have something to go lobby with,” he said.
The need for the service couldn’t be articulated better than through the story of Wodonga mum and son Kerri and Riley Briese.
Ms Briese spoke at the launch of regular trips to the Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service, “exactly three hours and five turns” from their home on the Border.
“At the age of around 13, Riley worked out he wasn’t quite the same as everyone else at school,” she said.
“He came to us and told us he thought he was transgender, and we thought, ‘What does that mean?’.
“We searched for local support and there were just no answers.”
Mr Briese, now 20, was able to access support in Melbourne but said a big turning point was meeting other transgender people and WayOut Wodonga project worker Sarah Roberts.
“Meeting other people at a gender forum was one of the biggest days in my life, as I realised I wasn’t alone in my local community,” he said.
There has been similar experiences for the six young people who have so far visited Gateway’s gender service, said lead nurse Ange Davidson.
“Some young people have already tried to gather information, but sometimes it’s just coming in and telling their story,” she said.
“It’s a place where people are listened to – it’s not someone saying, ‘You’ll grow out of that’.
“It’s someone validating who they are and their experience.”