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Here's What It's Like To Grow Up Gay And Indigenous In Australia

Indigenous people who identify as LGBT are more likely to suffer from some form of mental illness.

“At 16 the boys would call me abo, faggot, poofter. That was really detrimental to my psychological health and really played a huge role in my depression", says Matthew Shields, 30.

Matthew Shields (Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed)

Shields, a successful actor, dancer and registered nurse has suffered from chronic depression for years.

"When I was 14, the gay thing was kept a secret in me. I didn’t tell anyone. It was absolutely terrifying. I mean it was [the NSW country town of] Walgett 15 or 16 years ago, when homosexuality wasn’t even accepted in mainstream culture, imagine being in a small country town in western NSW," he says.

Shields says homophobia and racism crippled him emotionally, and he often turned to self-harm.

"I felt extremely isolated. I used to self-harm a bit, just placing the pain somewhere else. I didn’t cut myself. I would, for example, walk along the wall and scrape my hand on the wall or punch the wall to place the pain somewhere else".

Shields credits finding a supportive group of friends with helping him to overcome depression, but says he still has dark days.

"For me living with depression is an exhausting journey that feels like you’re in a dark place, and it’s really exhausting and constant sadness."

Indigenous people coming to terms with their sexuality are often told that being gay is not a part of traditional culture, a notion that experts say is incredibly dangerous.

Gregory Phillips (Photo by John Couch)

"When I was coming out and trying to reconcile being gay with my Aboriginal culture I was told by an elder very close to me that being gay didn’t exist traditionally. He told me it’s bad and all these awful things would happen to me," Gregory Phillips tells Buzzfeed News.

Phillips is the author of Addictions and Healing in Aboriginal Country and an academic specialising in Indigenous health. He says it's dangerous for the mental health of young people to hear that homosexuality has no place in their culture.

"Homophobia and stigma within our community are the biggest problem and the myth that homosexuality is a white man's thing, well actually, homosexuality is a part of every culture and homosexuality appeared here before colonisation”.

Homophobic attitudes within the Indigenous community can be largely attributed to Christian missionaries who forbade Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living under the church's care, under government orders, from practicing traditional culture. It was from this period that the idea of homosexuality being sinful became a common view within the Indigenous community - one that still prevails today.

In 2013, boxer Anthony Mundine created controversy when he expressed disgust about the plot of ABC drama Redfern Now, which featured a homosexual Aboriginal relationship.

"Watching Redfern Now and they [sic] promoting homosexuality! (Like it's ok in our culture) that ain't in our culture and our ancestors would have their head for it! Like my dad told me God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve," he wrote on Facebook.

"Mundine's comments are completely ill-informed and he’s confused about his own identity and religion. Mundine is quoting the bible while he is a Muslim all while presenting as a traditional Aboriginal, so I don’t know what he's doing, it's rubbish and damaging,” Phillips says.

As a young Aboriginal boy growing up in the small town of Deniliquin in regional New South Wales, Steven Ross always knew he was different.

Steven Ross (Stelios Papadakis)

"On this particular summer day, after my father had been looking after me (I sat in the corner of the local TAB while he bets on the horses), we arrived back home to discover he'd left the house keys inside. He ordered me to climb through the window to open the door, but I refused," Ross wrote in a personal essay for Archer Magazine last year.

"His response was to verbally abuse me. For the first time in my life I was called a 'poofter'. I didn't know what this word meant, but considering the tone of its delivery, I knew it couldn't be a good thing,"

"When I came out to my father, he told me he used to bash people like me. Whenever we fought, homophobic insults were not off limits".

It was Ross's mother who allowed him to be proud of his sexuality.

"I really think racism and homophobia are just colonial processes, to be honest. They are social diseases and I felt like I had people around me immune to that," Ross tells BuzzFeed News.

Ross hopes his writing will inspire other young gay Aboriginal people and believes it's essential to raise awareness of the damage homophobia can cause.

"Like most cultures we [Indigenous people] are able to change and recognise difference, and I believe that gay identity has always been part of Aboriginal culture," Ross says.

"It defies logic that there were no gay Aboriginal people before 1788. It might not look like what the LGBT community looks like now. The stigma can be devastating and lead to high suicide rates and depression".

Steven's sister Laura Ross is a mental health worker in regional NSW, she says the health system is ill-equipped to deal with the Aboriginal LGBT community in remote and regional areas.

Laura Ross (Supplied)

They grim reality is suicide, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and risky sexual behaviours are much higher amongst the Indigenous LGBT community experts say.

"You never really know what the response is going to be from your treating team. There are still old-fashioned views out there and if you couple that with being Indigenous and from the country and gay or transgender you are really on the back foot," Laura tells BuzzFeed News.

Laura, who is also gay, says that in some cases people seeking help in the bush are slipping through the cracks.

"If a client was to disclose that they were transgendered or gay the resources we have in the community are just never going to meet the needs of these clients," Laura says.

Casey Conway, 30, is the first Aboriginal male model to lead a campaign for swimwear label Sluggers. He's now proudly, openly gay, but as a teenager all he wanted to do was suppress his sexuality.

Casey Conway in the Sluggers campaign (Sluggers Swimwear)

"I was probably in my late teens and finishing up high school and I was with a really nice girl for a couple of years and I felt something wasn’t quite right," Conway tells BuzzFeed News.

"When I started to realise that I was sexually attracted to guys it really did freak me out and I went through a phase where it was going to be my big dark secret forever".

Conway would go on to become a successful rugby league player, but was plagued with worry about the potential backlash he would receive if he came out as gay.

Today Conway is a not only a model but also a youth worker advocating for open and honest discussion around mental health issues within the Indigenous community. He says that encouraging young people to be proud of their identity and sexuality is imperative.

"Working in the youth sector I see a lot of kids, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous trying to come to terms with it and I always say to them, "there is always someone to help you if you reach out and there have been people who have walked this path before you, you’re not alone."

To learn more about depression, check out the resources at BeyondBlue Australia or ReachOut. If you are dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can speak to someone immediately at Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

If you are based in the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800 273 TALK (8255).

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