The Equal Love rally on Saturday was the largest public gay event in Albury-Wodonga’s history – and aside from the politics, it’s set the wheels in motion for real change in the local GLBTI community.
Listen to the Triple J Hack story about the rally, or for a shorter version, download the documentary on AM, ABC’s national current affairs program.
Nancy Rooke gave a Welcome to Country on behalf of the local Wiradjuri. ‘We are all one,' she said. 'Our people knew about oppression and dispossession but we are still here...and so are you!’
Organiser Rhiannon Konigston was surprised that nobody had lobbied against the rally, although anecdotes from the ground suggest that not everyone in town was supportive of the cause. One teenager said, ‘I did get bagged out on the street earlier...this one lady walked past us and said, ‘You guys are disgusting’. I was shattered! It was so negative and we were putting out such a positive vibe.’
Another young participant told me that her parents had threatened to attend the rally and protest against it. ‘I got a bit fired up about that,’ she said. They didn’t turn up. ‘They’re a really strong Christian family and I was like yeah well, whatever. In the Bible, Jesus also said to love everyone so that’s what I’m doing, I’m loving my friends!’ She sees the issue as one of basic equality. ‘Personally, I’m straight. I can marry the man of my dreams and why are my friends not allowed to do that? Just because I have a different sexuality to them, it doesn’t make me any better of a person.’
I was struck by how many young people attended the rally and how much it clearly meant to them to be there.
Ali Hogg is the convenor of Equal Love, Victoria. She’s observed that these rallies can be life-changing experiences for young same sex attracted people. ‘Being amongst hundreds or [in the case of the city-based rallies] thousands of other people who are LGBTI, they feel less isolated and it often gives them the confidence to go back to their schools and start queer/straight alliances and organise community events in their own areas’.
And that is exactly what’s happening in Albury-Wodonga.
Today I asked the organisers of the rally what happens next and I was astounded at the changes already underway. Hume Phoenix, a social support group for GLBTI people over 18, has received a heartening spike in membership since Saturday, which means more people are going to be connecting through social events and online communities. Kelly Dwyer from Phoenix is now in the process of organising the region’s first forum on sexuality and faith. She plans to work with a local minister and two of the guest speakers from the rally, Carl Katter and Rodney Croome.
A local parent who came along has been inspired to start up an Albury-Wodonga chapter of PFLAG to support families and friends of lesbians and gays. And the rally organisers are already busy planning the next one, for early 2013.
There are also changes ahead to provide better support to young people in the local community. The jubilant mood at Saturday’s rally belied the reality that for many same sex attracted young people growing up in regional Australia, life is much tougher than for their city counterparts. A 2010 Latrobe university study found young GLBTI people in regional areas were at an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Some reasons given included isolation, discrimination and lack of appropriate services and support in those communities.
During the rally, local young lady Erin Valkenburg collected contact details from other young people who attended, with plans to kick-start a queer social and support group for Under 18s in the area. One of the rally organisers, Evan McHugh, is in the process of helping local students to start up Gay Straight Alliances in their schools. He told me today that he's received countless phone calls from young people since the rally. ‘I feel like I’ve become a counsellor to lots of people who came along, took down my contact details and who wanted to talk to somebody about what they were going through.’
That a single event can create so many sparks is exciting. It reveals a lot about the need for building stronger relationships and greater community understanding.
I look forward to working with many of the young participants I met on Saturday, who are keen to share their stories through ABC Open next year. If you’d like to get involved with ABC Open media workshops, feel free to give me a call on drop me a line and I'll let you know about upcoming workshops on film-making, radio-making, writing and photography.