Eliott had heard too many horror stories about trans kids coming out in small country towns. But when he did, he was surprised by what happened.

He was only 12 when a powerful, terrifying moment of clarity hit him.

The words in his head rang: “I was supposed to be born a boy.”

What happened next was a storm of emotions, as he ran from the shed on the family farm and threw up on the ground.

He couldn’t hear his father calling him or feel his loving hand on his back as he vomited.

“My dad said he had always wanted a son, and so there I was.” 

The support he received was overwhelming and now he wants others to know that small towns can be supportive places to come out.

While about 75 per cent of LGBTQIA+ youth in Australia have experienced homophobic abuse, these experiences have been significantly worse for young people in regional and rural areas, according to a study conducted by La Trobe University.

Living in regional or rural communities brings additional challenges because there are limited support systems or peers for LGBTQIA+ youth.

That hasn’t stopped Eliott, Adam and Rowen from finding connection and community, whether that be in the form of clubs, events or theatre. All three are winners of ABC’s Heywire story-telling competition.

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The Riverland pride march takes place every year and is hoped to lead to lasting change for LGBTQIA+ youth.(ABC Riverland – Sam Bradbrook )

‘Small towns can be very accepting’

When Eliott, from Birchip, a country town in northern Victoria, first came out as transgender, he remembers being terrified and feeling like he couldn’t tell anyone he was really a boy.

“I expected that when I was going to come out, I was going to face a lot of backlash and a lot of hate from the community, because I live in a town of 800 people.”

Coming out in a small town can be a very isolating experience, Eliott says.

“Here in Birchip, or even in the whole shire, there is zero support for LGBTQ people. It’s not like there’s a local pride centre or even any other gay or transgender people in your school.”

But his community surprised him. “Most people have really made the effort to try and understand, despite not really getting it. They’ve made the effort to say that they support me and they’re proud of me,” he says.

Eliott describes locals coming up to him and congratulating him on his coming out as he was walking down the street, distant connections sending him messages on Facebook and people congratulating his parents at work.

“There were a lot of supportive messages congratulating me on how brave and courageous I was for sharing my story. Some were about how much I opened their eyes to transgender struggles, especially in a small town,” he says.

“The reaction that you get, is not always what you expect. Every town is going to be different … but small towns can be very accepting and supportive places to come out.”

Elliot’s community surprised him as he says many have made the effort to say that they support him.(Supplied)

‘This issue was bigger than me’

Adam, from Ulladulla in New South Wales, describes being queer in high school as a minefield.

They were bullied for being different and was purposefully misgendered and deadnamed, which is deliberately using a transgender person’s old name. 

“I’ve always felt out of place as a girl, since I was about four years old,” Adam says.

When Adam came out to their parents, their father said he had known since they were a young kid. Their mother went through a bit of a grieving process, until she realised she hadn’t lost her child, because Adam was still here.

“She came around really quick because she was doing a lot of reading and talking to a lot of different people. And so my mum has become one of the biggest advocates over the years.”

When Adam first set up the A-Z Club, they were worried people would be too scared to show up.

In their school Adam set up the A-Z Club, a place for anyone under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, or anyone looking for a safe space.

“I was worried people would be too scared to show up,” they say. “But soon the classroom was full and students were spilling outside.”

Adam lost count of how many people came, worrying they may have bitten off more than they could chew.

“I quickly became aware that this issue was bigger than me. This group was needed — a place where we could feel safe and supported.”

The challenge of coming out in a regional town is something that Adam recognises and they stress the importance of feeling safe.

“Your safety is top priority. So, if you think you’re not going to be safe and particularly if you’re really young and not in a position to be able to live on your own, I would say don’t tell [your parents] and start with some school friends if you think they are going to be supportive,” they say.

‘Everyone is welcome’

Rowen is from Renmark in South Australia and had a different experience coming out as non-binary.

“I’d say it was quite difficult. Especially to start with, before I found my people. A couple of close family friends were great about it, a couple of them were also outwardly queer, which definitely helped, but a lot of people were just not thrilled about it.”

Some friends got really distant, Rowen says, while others would deliberately deadname and misgender them.

They explain how some family members would make excuses as to why they couldn’t support them. “[They] became very snappy and agitated whenever I corrected them on anything.” 

Rowen found a home at the Riverland Youth Theatre. “[It’s] a space where you can be yourself without judgement. It’s safe and queer and neurodivergent. Everyone is welcome.”

Rowen describes the Riverland Youth Theatre as a safe space where they can be themselves.(Supplied)

Rowen says that wherever you go, it’s likely you are going to face some forms of transphobia, so it’s important to make sure that you’re safe.

“Go at your own pace, there’s no rush to come out. If that’s what you want to do, by all means, but make sure you are safe. You don’t owe it to anybody to come out,” they say.

“The people that matter, will accept you.”

Ulladulla turns blue

To celebrate Pride Month, Adam and their fellow A-Z’ers spent hours setting up posters and streamers at the school and getting stalls prepped for cupcakes and merchandise.

The next day all the streamers and posters had been ripped, with not a single one intact.

Despite feeling disheartened, Adam decided to take their cause to the community.

“I didn’t want younger students to experience the same bullying I had.” 

And so MUCK Up came into existence. 

Milton-Ulladulla Community Kindness organised its very first event not long after, called Do It For Dolly Day.

Do It For Dolly Day was inspired by 14-year-old Dolly Everett, who took her own life in 2018 after alleged bullying. 

The day’s mission? To turn Milton-Ulladulla completely blue for the month of May to celebrate kindness and take a stand against bullying.

Milton Ulladulla Community Kindness’s first event saw the main street turn into a sea of blue.(Supplied)

“Walking down the main street, all I saw was a sea of blue,” Adam says. “A local business owner even painted his office walls blue.

“It reminded me that kindness is about connection, bringing people together on common ground. The world needs more kindness. I am starting with Ulladulla.”

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