This Is What LGBT Teens Want You To Know About Growing Up In A Regional Town
BuzzFeed News interviewed a group of queer teens in Mackay about the daily struggle of being yourself in a town where authorities don’t want you to be yourself.
“I went out to the clubs and I was with this chick and some dude thought it was OK to just stand behind us, filming us on his phone,” said Imogen.
She is 18 years old and bisexual, and looks like any other teenager who has just left school. She lives in the Queensland town of Mackay.
“I told him to fuck off and he was like, ‘What would you say that for?’ I gave him the finger and told him to fuck off again. He got really offended.’”
Brendan, who is 21 and gay, rolled his eyes at her story: “It’s so intimidating all the time. Would you go film a straight couple making out?”
Sitting next to both of them was another young woman, Tahlia, 17, a lesbian.
She chimed in with another story: “I had a really close friend of mine and she’s quite...you know...well, it’s best described as 'butchy'. She was completely beat up outside one of Mackay’s nightclubs. She was just standing there and someone yelled out to her, ‘Fucking lesbian!’ She ended up in hospital.”
The small group are sitting around a picnic table sharing harrowing stories of what it’s like growing up queer in Mackay. They came forward to BuzzFeed News after seeing we were in town to interview the controversial federal MP George Christensen.
Mackay is a town of 120,000 people in northern Queensland. As in many regional towns right around the country, jobs are tied to nearby mining operations, extreme weather events can wipe out local agricultural industries in just a few hours, and people are fleeing to live in the cities. There are also high rates of mental illness and alarming instances of suicide among young people.
According to the group of queer kids who want to be heard, it’s made worse by the local MP.
“When you read in a national newspaper, ‘George Christensen, member for Dawson,’ you go, 'That’s where I live!'” said Imogen.
“[In Mackay] you learn not to be open about your identity. It’s constantly drilled into us. Even my own parents will be like, 'You can be gay or whatever, just don’t act gay.' What does that even mean?”
Christensen is a young Liberal National MP who has forged a national profile as the standard bearer for right-wing causes in Australia. He has lobbied to have his electorate exempt from taking Syrian refugees, he has tried to criminalise burning the Australian flag, and he’s hosted a far-right Reclaim Australia rally in the middle of town.
But for the kids around the table, his campaigning against the anti-bullying program known as Safe Schools has topped the lot.
“No one talks about [being gay] out here,” said Ashleigh, 18, who is bisexual. "It’s still taboo. That’s why the Safe Schools program is so important. It’s so the next generation doesn't have those taboos."
Christensen has been whipping up opposition to Safe Schools among his parliamentary colleagues and the media for the past six months. In parliament he compared the school curriculum to “child grooming” and successfully lobbied to have the program reviewed and then changed.
According to Tahlia, Christensen is encouraging more young LGBT kids to feel like they don’t belong at home.
“Many kids do flee Mackay straight after high school,” she said.
“I am sure this has something to do with it. People do not feel welcome here. You get shunned. So people leave and go to places where it is acceptable.”
BuzzFeed News asked Christensen what he thought about LGBT teenagers in the area feeling as though a program like Safe Schools is needed.
He likened it to children wanting to eat ice cream.
“Kids love everything. Kids would love free ice cream at school," the MP said. "Is that good for them? Y’know. Of course they are going to defend something they are being told is good.
“But is it good? Is it social engineering? I think it is clearly social engineering.”
According to the local newspaper, The Daily Mercury, 33 people killed themselves in Mackay last year. The newspaper described it as a “suicide crisis”.
Tom is 16 and gay and attends a local high school. He said it’s starting to become numbing at school when an announcement of another suicide is made to the class.
“Sometimes we’ll go to school and we’ll be told, 'Last night someone has taken their own life.' Sometimes it doesn’t even faze you.”
Imogen said Christensen has his head in the sand when it comes to the mental health problems of the young LGBT community.
“We are real people. That exist. Hello! We are killing ourselves,” she said.
Ashleigh agreed: “To say that you’re representing the majority when you have a suicide rate that is so high, like, maybe you aren’t listening to them because they’re dead.”
It’s appears likely Christensen will retake Dawson at July’s election. For the LGBT people sitting around the picnic table, the prospect of another three years of him campaigning against their rights on the national stage is almost too much to bear.
“You have to wonder if the majority of the people in our electorate agree with what he is saying,” said Ashleigh.
“If they do, is it even safe for us to be here?”