There is no place for discrimination and stigmatisation in Gippsland
From regarding people as criminals for their identity to legalising same-sex marriage and outlawing gay-conversion therapy, Victoria has come a long way since it decriminalised homosexuality in 1982.
Pride in our future: Victoria's LGBTIQ+ strategy 2022-2032 – the state's long-term plan to drive LGBTIQ+ equality and combat discrimination – was released in February this year, committing all parts of the Victorian Government to make laws, policies and services safer and more inclusive for LGBTIQ+ Victorians.
Whilst the state continues to take steps in the right direction, the prevalence of systemic discrimination and marginalisation of the LGBTIQ+ community remains, especially in regional Victoria.
Ash Goodsell is a queer man who grew up in Sale, Gippsland. He believes improved education from an early age is needed to combat stigma and systemic discrimination, which in turn will create a better, safer, more inclusive environment for the regional queer community, alleviating psychological distress and improving mental health and wellbeing.
"I think it comes down to education from a young age that love is love, and you can already see that in some schools or how parents talk with their kids," Ash said.
"There is so much deep-seated, inter-generational trauma in regional areas from people passing on these homophobic ideologies from generation to generation, without education to teach people that it is okay, it is just going to continue."
Ash endured years of bullying throughout high school and into adulthood. In 2018, Ash was at a local pub when a group of young men he had gone to school with began mocking him. The group's jeers quickly became threatening, as they yelled disrespectful obscenities, including calling Ash a fa***t.
"My experience makes me feel scared for the younger generations; it's still very much like if you don't fit into the mould the regional area wants you to be, then you're outcast, and so what do we do? Go to Melbourne to feel like we belong," he said.
"Having moved to Melbourne now and being in a semi-long-term relationship, I can walk down the street and hold my partner's hand and not have to worry about getting hate-crimed.
"If I were to do that here, I would be on edge 24/7, like 'what's that? Who's behind me, is someone going to throw something at me, am I about to get stabbed?'.
"Which is sad because I would love my kids to grow up here, but that's never going to happen because how is this area going to take a kid with two queer dads? What if things are still the same as when I was at school."
Minster for Equality Harriet Shing says equality in Victoria is non-negotiable.
"We are working every day to make sure LGBTIQ+ Victorians feel safe, welcome and celebrated in every town, every hospital and every classroom across Victoria," Ms Shing said.
"We have made the Safe Schools program available to every school in the state - equipping staff to support LGBTIQ+ students so they can be safe and welcome in and out of the classroom."
The Labor Government is delivering the Safe Schools program to all schools across Victoria with updated resources and materials, ensuring relationships, sexuality and consent education is LGBTIQ+ inclusive, including supporting resources.
Safe Schools is not a subject taught in the classroom, and it is not a part of the curriculum, but rather a program for principals, teachers and school communities.
As society began to change and LGBTIQ+ rights moved into the forefront of the media, Ash finished high school, and support services such as the Gippsland Pride Initiative were later launched in 2019.
The Wellington Shire Council and the state government have begun employing resources in regional LGBTIQ+ services, such as Gippsland Pride Initiative, a fundamental steppingstone on the path to a better Gippsland for the queer community.
But for Ash, accessing these services was out of the question, he still feared for his own safety.
"You now have groups like the Gippsland Pride Initiative, but I know for me you wouldn't join those groups because you didn't want to be found out as queer," Ash said.
"No matter how secretive they are, you are still not going to go because what if you get caught? And that just leads to a whole lot of pain from everywhere around the town."
Mayor of Wellington Shire, Councillor Ian Bye, contends that through the Council's Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing Plan - Healthy Wellington 2021–2025 – the local government has made improving equity in the region a priority.
"Through Healthy Wellington, Council strives to reduce barriers for people who are trying to access or feel included in community life and increase community activities that focus on celebrating diversity, including race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality," Councillor Bye said.
"Council will continue to create and maintain physical environments that are safe for the local community, achieved through the design of public spaces and measures such as CCTV (closed-circuit television) and adequate lighting.
While opportunities like the Gippsland Pride Initiative have been welcomed, less than five years ago, there were effectively no local LGBTIQ+ services available, and for many queer Gippslanders, the lack of support had a significant, adverse effect.
This couldn't be more accurate for another local queer who wishes to go by the name Eliza.
"[Growing up in Sale, I felt] pretty unsure and pretty isolated," Eliza said.
"Especially growing up with people using gay as a derogatory term definitely didn't help people. It would make you think, push that down, don't think about it because it's not a good environment to explore it or even think about it.
"I think I would have known a lot sooner [that I was queer] if I lived in Melbourne or had been around other people; it took me a long time to be like, 'oh hey, that's what it is'.
"The resources have been pretty scarce, and there hasn't really been an opportunity to build a community. I have been involved with the theatre, which helped, queer people tend to flock to the arts, but there really hasn't been much of a support network at all."
Currently, Gippsland's LGBTIQ+ have access to support and services such as The Queers Are Here, Qspace, Gippsland Pride Initiative, Rural Rainbows, QLife, Rainbow Network and Youth Space.
The number of LGBTIQ+ services available today is exponentially higher than ever before; however, for Gippsland's queer community east of Traralgon, support and services are seemingly entirely online.
"I know there are satellite hubs of the mental health services that do their best to be inclusive, but there is nothing that is really dedicated [to supporting the LGBTIQ+ community]," Eliza said.
"It seems like all of the resources for queer wellbeing are through mental health services, which is sort of good, but it would be nice to have a physical community hub that wasn't specifically for mental health; a place that was more for like events and networking.
"Whilst it doesn't affect me directly, there are people I really care about who are trans, and the only gender clinic around here is in Melbourne, so if they want to get any help in that regard, they have to go to Melbourne for regular appointments, so it would be nice to see more services like that available regionally."
In 2017, Thorne Harbour Health, a Victorian LGBTI health organisation, updated medical guidelines for trans health, endorsing a model known as "informed consent"; a decision to start gender-affirming hormones can be made between a general practitioner and a client.
In 2019, the first state government-funded clinics outside the hospital system opened, centred on the new model to increase access to trans health care in Victoria and have since begun extending to regional communities with a clinic at Ballarat Community Health.
"Something like that would be lovely to see," Eliza said.
"There are so many facets to what is needed; everyone needs different things.
"Having something like a pride/resource centre that encompasses all those different facets, whether it's sexual and reproductive health, mental health support, community support and networking, would be fantastic for the local queer community."
According to Minister for Equality Harriet Shing, Victoria's health system is receiving unprecedented funding to ensure equal, quality care.
"We are investing record levels of funding into the health system to ensure all Victorians have access to inclusive and LGBTIQ+ tailored health care – including through the new 223- bed hospital we will build in West Gippsland," Ms Shing said.
Whilst there have been no discussions to date about building a pride centre within the Wellington Shire region, Councillor Bye says they'd be willing to consider a similar initiative.
"Over the past five years, Council has trialled a number of different initiatives to support LGBTIQ+ people in the community," Councillor Bye said.
"Council is currently running Axios - an LGBTIQ+ social support group for youth aged 12-18 years. Wellington Shire Youth Councillors have also worked in collaboration with East Gippsland Shire Council's Youth Ambassadors to run the Rainbow Ball, supporting local LGBTIQ+ youth."
"The Wellington Shire Council works closely with and supports a number of different agencies and groups to collect information relating to the strengths and weaknesses of the support mechanisms available to the LGBTIQ+ community across Gippsland".
Councillor Bye says the Council welcomes anyone to contact him with suggestions or ideas.
Increasing LGBTIQ+ representation is another crucial element in developing a better Gippsland for our queer community.
Ash and Eliza are among those in the queer community that feel LGBTIQ+ representation is lacking in the region, and Council agrees there should be more LGBTIQ+ representation in the Wellington Shire.
"One of Council's strategic directions is for Wellington to be a liveable, engaged, and supported community," Councillor Bye said.
"To achieve this, Council has committed to develop and implement a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and to achieve the Rainbow Tick accreditation for Council services. Both of these actions are to be delivered within the current Council term."
Kal, a young transgender man from the Wellington Shire, says having a community, a place to go and meet like-minded people, is crucial for LGBTIQ+ people.
"A lot of the time, it's hard to find other people, especially in a smaller town that is so conservative where many people fear judgement," Kal said.
"There is not enough support; it is really terrible."
The State Government is committing $15 million to strengthen the health, wellbeing, and social and economic outcomes of LGBTIQ+ Victorians in the 2022/23 Budget, and the Wellington Shire is continuing to strive toward a more inclusive LGBTIQ+ community, so why is Gippsland's queer community still facing adversities and marginalisation?
Gippsland's LGBTIQ+ community have the solutions; is it time for the rest of society to listen?