SOME people living in a regional town would say that they have never met a gay or transsexual person.
But the Commissioner for Sexual and Gender Equality, Ro Allen, says that most people have met an LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Intersex) person; they just didn’t know it.
The State Government is running the LGBTI rural roadshow, providing a series of workshops, roundtable discussions and events around rural and regional Victoria.
As part of the roadshow, Ms Allen is working hard to break through the false perception that LGBTI issues are only an issue for city people.
The roadshow stopped at Wonthaggi on Thursday, March 23 and Friday, March 24, having toured through Morwell and Bairnsdale earlier in the week.
“Some people say to me that they’ve never met a gay or lesbian person. They absolutely have, you just didn’t know it,” Ms Allen said.
“My job is to make Victoria a safer place for LGBTI people. Today we’re doing that by getting out onto the road in the police commissioner’s bus, and visiting 20 rural towns across Victoria.
“This week is Gippsland’s week. Wonthaggi is particularly important, because we’ve brought a transgender woman, Sally, with us.
“She lives in Wonthaggi, and she wants to be a part of the roadshow, and to make Wonthaggi a bit more aware of the issues that she’s faced. It’s exciting and nervous for her to come back to Wonthaggi.”
Ms Allen said that there is a specific set of challenges and issues that affect the LGBTI community more than others, especially in rural settings.
Everything from a lack of education in the medical field about LGBTI issues, the absence of resources, to alienation and isolation from the rest of society affects LGBTI individuals on a daily basis.
“This is not an outside issue. This is absolutely here in Wonthaggi,” Ms Allen said.
“But I haven’t met a rural community yet that wants their young people to leave town. One of the reasons that they do leave, asides from career and job opportunities, is because they don’t feel safe.
“If we can make sure at least that they feel welcome, they can be supported enough to want to stay in town.
“There are just too many stories of young people who leave town because of their sexuality.”
The rural roadshow provides an opportunity for local people and community groups to come together and network, as well as attend workshops and events designed to raise awareness of LGBTI issues in rural remote communities.
Attending the workshops last Thursday and Friday were a vast array of local service providers, including police officers, youth officers from the YMCA, and other key organisations within Bass Coast and South Gippsland.
Ms Allen said that the roadshows were being rolled out across Victoria, and to rural communities in particular, to raise awareness and to educate people about LGBTI specific issues.
“I get asked a fair bit, is rural Victoria more homophobic and transphobic than other areas?” Ms Allen said.
“No, it’s just we don’t have the openness to have the conversations. This is about awareness. Rural towns aren’t homophobic at all, there’s just not the awareness or the spaces to have the conversations.
“One of the best things you can do to be more aware is to not always make assumptions about an individual’s sexuality. Use of language is also really important, like simple things such as not always assuming that a person is straight.”
The LGBTI rural roadshow will continue to tour Victoria in the coming weeks, in an effort to create a more inclusive environment for all people in all areas of Australia.
For more information, visit the website at www.engage.vic.gov.au/lgbti.
AS PART of the LGBTI rural roadshow, local transgender woman Sally Conning stepped up and offered to tell her story.
Having lived with a huge secret all her life, Sally came out as transgender at the age of 58, after years of living an isolated and lonely life.
She told her story to those attending last week’s rural roadshow workshops, in an effort to educate the community about the reality of living in a small town whilst grappling with one’s sexual and gender identity.
“I came to Wonthaggi 10 years ago, just as a person who had a huge secret,” Sally said.
“I started working and living in town, working in aged care across the shire.
“I always had this thing in me. I was sitting at home, lonely, drinking too much and thinking about suicide.”
Sally knew of a support group based in Melbourne, and so she made contact with them, seeking support and assistance.
“Unfortunately there aren’t any support groups for the LGBTI community down here,” Sally said.
“So I went to Melbourne. I’m nearly 66, and I came out in public for the first time ever at aged 58.”
The Melbourne-based support group gave Sally the support and confidence she needed to start living her authentic life.
“They held my hand, and gave me the confidence to express myself; the feminine side of myself,” Sally said.
“All of a sudden, I started feeling at ease, and relaxed. After a couple of years of this, I started feeling that this is who I really should be.
“Living down here, I was fearful, I guess. I was going to Melbourne a lot to socialise, still living in Wonthaggi in fear.
“One day I decided, I’ve got to find out for myself. I put my toe in the water, and I boldly walked into the bank. I was treated fairly well, as nervous as I was.”
Two years ago, Sally made the biggest decision of her life; to live authentically as Sally, all the time.
“I’ve been on hormone therapy for five years, and I’m happy where I am,” Sally said.
“When I retired, I legally changed my name to Sally.
“I’m now happy, and all the people I worked with now know, and they’re happy for me. People in town who knew me are happy for me.”
Sally said that she is not the only LGBTI person living with, and struggling with, their gender and sexual identity.
“I know of others,” Sally said.
“I’m here to make these people more aware of our issues and importantly our needs. I’ve got the perfect vehicle with this roadshow to do it.
“It’s been awesome and incredible.”