AfterEllen.com Down Under: Small town Pride

Ruth Callander is a New Zealander living and writing in Melbourne. She hopes to cover stories from both sides of the ditch. Tweet tips about the things you want to hear about to @RuthCallander.

Hey homos! Hands up if you’re from a small town. Hands up if you ran screaming from said small town at the earliest opportunity, gunning it for the nearest city, draped in rainbow flags and with one thought and one thought only: GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! Yeah? Me too. It’s a long established fact that queers hate osmosis. We’ve always liked to buck the science by moving naturally from the areas of lowest concentration to the highest concentration of, well, us. Big cities have all the stuff that is gay: gay bars, gay parties, gay groups, gay shops, gay coffee. All gay all the time.

For some of us, the idea of living in the towns where we were born is to contemplate a life of total isolation, of being alienated, unsupported and probably closeted. Whether you’re a total scene queen or you just like the big city anonymity of blending in while holding hands with your lady-lover in the street, as urban queers we benefit from the gay culture and visibility that is always around us.

But what if you stayed? What if you moved back? What if you’re a queer teenager living in one of those towns right now? What would you find waiting for you?

Let me tell you about my small town. I was born and bred in Rotorua, New Zealand. With a population of 55,000 it’s not tiny, but it’s pretty damn small, and as a high school student, it felt even smaller. I came out to my friends at seventeen and luckily enough for me, they were supportive. Without them? Well, we’re talking 1997 here. There were no local support groups, I was too underage for any gay bar scene (which wouldn’t have mattered anyway — Rotorua doesn’t have a gay bar) and even the internet was still kind of a baby. I remember typing “gay support” into my search engine (before Google!) and finding only the most fledgling of websites, all of them based off-shore. As far as I knew I was the only lesbian in the whole damn country, let alone the only gay in the village.

Funnily enough, the moment I escaped to Wellington for university I bumped into loads of other queer people from Rotorua. There was the cute punk boy from down the road, the girl I’d sat next to in biology class, one of the way-cooler goth girls I’d hung out with for years and even my own little sister. Everyone was gay! We were gay in our small town, gay in the school corridors and gay in our homes, only we didn’t talk about it.  During all those scary, lonely, closeted years, we were constantly surrounded by other gay people, only none of us knew about it. As far as we knew, moving to a big city was the only way we could be ourselves and be safe.

Photo by Sarah Keogh

This year on December 10, gay Rotorua is throwing off its invisibility cloak and hosting Bay Pride, the town’s first ever gay pride event and the only one of its kind in New Zealand, outside of the major centres. As a long-term Melburnian these days, I have to confess I usually skip going to Pride; especially now that it’s become such a parade of businesses and advertising, it seems to have lost its original meaning as far as I’m concerned. However, to express gay pride in a small town takes guts; it’s a powerful, significant and revolutionary act, all the things gay pride has always been about.

Bay Pride committee chairman Martin Hampson describes the event as having come about as a direct response to concerns about the high rate of youth suicide within the queer community, and the desire to create a visible gay presence as a touchstone outside of the major centres. The proceeds of the event will go towards assisting the growth of local gay youth and community support ventures.  

The creators of the event are hoping for an accessible, fun and friendly event, attended by the local community and those from further afield, both queer and straight alike. “The more mainstream it is, the more comfortable it will be for those who do not have robust support,” he says.

The initial drive to create such an event came after identifiably out members of the small community, such as Graeme Cribb (who regularly performs as Ma Ma Laid) found they were being regularly approached with requests from both individuals and organisations to be put in contact with gay support services and resources, only to find there was very little available in the local area. The Bay Pride committee is made up of men and women from the local community willing to volunteer their time and energy, and simply to put up their hands and say they exist. “We hope those of us who have made Rotorua a comfortable place to live — where we can be openly gay and universally respected — can help those who are less fortunate,” says Hampson.

The group is affiliated with youth support groups in Taupo, Hamilton and Rotorua itself, and hopes to provide a safe way for queer and questioning youth to link in with their local community. Even just by letting all of us — the queer kids from small towns — know that they are not alone.

See www.pridefestival.co.nz or www.facebook.com/pridefestival for details.

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