Isolated identities – growing up same-sex attracted in rural Australia

By Chris Williams, updated 1 year ago in Health / Mental wellbeing


Being same-sex attracted might mean you identify as gay or bisexual, but doesn’t necessarily have to. And if you happened to grow up in a rural area, you might be familiar with the challenge of isolation. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Australia and rates are three times higher for men than women. When combined with increased likelihood in same-sex attracted people, life in the country can be tough. Nevertheless, new innovative ways to provide support are at hand.

Now showing on the SBS Viceland channelThe Feed showcases a combination of news, topical commentary, pop culture and in-depth features.

One such feature focuses on Ivan. Ivan hasn’t returned to his rural hometown of Tumut, New South Wales since leaving 21 years ago. Equipped with a camera and the emotional sensibilities of adulthood, he’s going back to meet one of his childhood tormenters.

“Growing up gay in the country”, The Feed

Damaging opinions

If playground taunts weren’t troubling enough for someone like Ivan, perhaps the opinions of local leaders or political role models are sufficient for any young person to be affected by the words of an authority figure:

“A week never goes by anymore where homosexuals and their sordid behaviour don’t become further entrenched in society,” said Michael McCormack, 1993 – editor of The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga.

After an out of court settlement with the Riverina Media Group over a case of unfair dismissal in 2003, McCormack has turned to a career in national politics as federal Minister for Small Business. His ongoing opposition to marriage equality is perhaps no surprise, although he allegedly made a ‘vague apology’ for his previous comments according to an article on SBS.

“We found that as many as 20% of, or 1 in 5, LGB adults have attempted suicide during their lifetimes”

The reality of suicide

The mental health repercussions of loose-lipped politicians, social peers or anyone of influence are apparent in Ivan’s story. Thoughts about taking one’s own life aren’t uncommon for men in rural areas, especially for guys who are same-sex attracted. According to a medical publication from May 2016 which consolidated analysis from various international studies, lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people are more likely than heterosexual people to attempt suicide. In fact, a summary of the study states: “We found that as many as 20% of, or 1 in 5, LGB adults have attempted suicide during their lifetimes”.

For Wagga Wagga resident Naylan McDonell, this is something he’s all too familiar with after his first boyfriend Cameron Vella took his own life in November 2012. McDonell recalls Vella’s experience of coming out describing family reactions as mortified and disgusted. “Even to this day there are still people in this community who will stand up and say homophobic discriminative things and feel they have a right to, but no-one’s going to stop them.” Reflecting upon past events he goes on to say: “Cameron’s death symbolises the tragedy of growing up gay in a country area, and it also symbolises that change is needed on a national scale.”

“Cameron’s death symbolises the tragedy of growing up gay in a country area, and it also symbolises that change is needed on a national scale.”

A new approach to intervention

For some men, the challenges of identity, same-sex attraction and isolation are more complex than for others. Support organisation Beyondblue is exploring innovative ways of using online platforms to reduce stigma around anxiety and depression, and to prevent the premature death of men in Australia.

One such initiative led by Thorne Harbour Health goes by the name of Dale. Dale is hoping to find out if an online resource is effective at giving men the tools they need to tackle stigma. By providing peer-based and facilitator led discussions for men in heterosexual (straight) relationships who are also attracted to other guys, the project aims to support men experiencing anxiety, depression or the stigma that can be associated with same-sex attraction.

Without means of a release valve, the pressure can be crippling for men living in this reality. Believing heterosexual support services may not understand, while also declining to seek out LGBTI oriented services can prevent someone from seeking help. Carrying the stress of being a minority, yet having restricted access to support risks exacerbating the problem. Innovative suicide prevention initiatives like Dale are essential for the quietest and most unseen of us all to feel connected.

Reducing harm

For some people, self-harm might manifest itself in atypical behaviours: increased use of alcohol or other drugs; changes to diet; changes in attitude towards sex and safety practices.

When already faced with anxiety or depression, what might seem like obvious consideration for personal safety can sometimes be overlooked. Even the choice to use a condom might not be considered. Choosing a strategy such as PrEP, which doesn’t require on the spot decision making, can work as a useful approach to harm reduction. Information on accessing PrEP anywhere in Australia can be found through community support groups like PrEP’D For Change or PAN (PrEPaccessNOW).

For anyone seeking help, MensLine Australia is a professional telephone and online support and information service. With experience in providing assistance for same-sex attracted men regardless of circumstances, professional counsellors can help provide:

  • A safe and private place to talk about concerns;
  • Confidential, anonymous and non-judgmental support;
  • Coaching and practical strategies for managing personal relationship concerns;
  • Relevant information and linkage to other appropriate services and programs as required

Are they OK?

Every year the second Thursday in September is dedicated to remind people to ask family, friends and colleagues the question, “R U OK?“, in a meaningful way, because connecting regularly and meaningfully is one thing everyone can do to make a difference to anyone who might be struggling.

If you know people in rural or remote areas who might be depressed, anxious or isolated, you don’t have to wait until September. Reaching out could make a huge difference to someone’s life, and you might never truly realise how valuable the power of a simple act of connection can be.