As the Gays And Lesbians At Hornsby youth network celebrates its 10th birthday, members past and present unite to reflect on how the group changed their lives…
If, like most of us, you’re amazed and impressed by the number of young people who are now brave enough to come out at high school, spare a thought for Riley.
The 15-year-old lives in Hornsby, in Sydney’s northern outer suburbs, and makes no secret of being male-to-female transgender, even with all the challenges that brings.
“You’re not alone and there is a bigger community out there.”
“Trans is still different, it’s not out there yet,” she says, somehow keeping her bright smile. “[School] for me personally is not great. It’s not fun, it’s not anything. Before I knew I was trans I thought I was gay, then my parents got called into school because I was being too flamboyant or something. They asked, ‘So what’s the support for the gay students?’ The two teachers looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t have any gay people at our school.’ Out of 600 kids.”
Yet there is support for young gay people in the local area, as well as lesbians, transgender, intersex and all the other shades of colour on the rainbow flag. Riley is speaking at a party to mark the 10th anniversary of GAL@H, which stands for Gays and Lesbians at Hornsby and is sponsored by the local council.
“It’s a group that allows young people to come along and hang out, to meet other people who are in similar situations and feel comfortable making connections with each other,” Hornsby Shire Council’s community development officer Sue Downing (pictured below) says. “It’s all about realising they’re not alone, which is so important for this group.”
The current members of the group give it a ringing endorsement, including 19-year-old Jordan. “My parents have always been really understanding – of anything, thankfully – but sometimes you just need people who know what’s going on, someone you can speak to and engage with. For me that was the best part, still is the best part of coming down here.”
However, to really get a sense of GAL@H’s contribution you need to speak to the not-so-young-anymore people who were here when the group began, several of who have returned for the party. They’re now beginning the climb towards middle age and are mostly professionals like Tom, an urban designer. “One of the important things about groups like this is … just to go somewhere and know there are other people like you,” he says. “You’re not a freak, you’re not alone and there is a bigger community out there.
“One of the most claustrophobic things about living in outer Sydney is the fact everyone is fairly heterogeneous, everyone’s from the same kind of mould. To have a program that shows people are going to like you for you inspires confidence, which has definitely stayed with me and helped me achieve the things I have.”
Amanda Watkins, who was in charge of GAL@H when it first formed, shares an even more impressive tale of transformation: “[Elisha] was a bit rebellious – terribly rebellious – and very disruptive, but he always came to GAL@H because I think it gave him a sense of connection and belonging with people. He asked if I could help him get back into his college but the principal said, ‘If we let Elisha back in the school I’ll lose 10 teachers, so the answer is no.’ Elisha is now Jack and is a teacher up in the Northern Territory working with Aboriginal children and high-risk kids, so there you go.”
The event is largely a celebration of 10 years working together to help each other out, but it quickly becomes one of their most successful sessions as the younger members speak to those who have passed through GAL@H before them. Riley seems to take their message particularly to heart: “I used to hate when people said, ‘It gets better’ and ‘Your time will come.’ I don’t want to hear that! Can’t it happen now? But when I really think about it, as I’m starting to grow up and am starting to be more mature, it does get so much better and that helps me a lot.
“You just have to be patient and you’ll eventually find your freedom, you’ll eventually find something that will make you happy.”