In Our Great Red Backyard: Queer Rights in Rural Australia

In 2015 I moved to ANU from a town in North Queensland called Mackay. You may recognise Mackay as the town that continues to elect George Christensen – the Nationals MP who likens Safe Schools to paedophilia – to Parliament every election cycle. Whilst I had a beautiful childhood, surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef, I was also cornered by a deeply rooted conservatism that is embraced by the majority of Mackay’s population.

From the progressive landscape at ANU in which inclusiveness is a given and self-expression is encouraged, it seems impossible that George Christensen could exist, let alone a voter population large enough to repeatedly elect him to Federal Parliament. However, looking outside of the ANU community this seems far more realistic. There is a large number of Australians living in communities that are isolated from progressive ideology. Whilst the conservatism of these people is proving to be detrimental to the furthering of queer rights, it would be ignorant of us to ignore that our own progressiveness is in part due to social and financial privileges that are not afforded to many in Australia. It may be optimistic and even naïve of me, but I want to believe that non-university educated working class people living in regional and remote Australia have legitimate foundations for their opposition to queer rights. I think it is unreasonable of us to assume support from people who have not been offered the education or experiences we have had when forming their beliefs.

At ANU we have the opportunity to be surrounded by queer identifying people in a community that freely allows and encourages the expression of identity. But such freedoms are not extended to all Australians. A large portion of the population in Mackay opposes queer rights, and whilst some of this may come from legitimate hatred, it also needs to be considered that the queer population of Mackay and towns like it is very small. Many people may never have met a queer person. The only foundation for their political stance on queer people may be the teachings of Christianity or coverage on Weekend Sunrise.

In my year at high school there were 250 students. Not one of those students openly identified as queer until after we had graduated. I do not know if for some it was out of fear of the reaction of the deeply rooted conservatism in the community, but for me, it was because I had such limited awareness of the queer community that I was not able to identify my own sexuality. The suggestion that a feminine woman who valued the maintenance of her ponytail above all else could be sexually attracted to men and women had never been presented to me, so I never considered it. Any reference to bisexuality in Mackay had been to girls who had died their hair purple and liked video games. I did not fit this description as a woman so I did not even consider that I might be bisexual.

Realising my own sexuality was impossible for me because of my lack of exposure to a queer community or any meaningful conversation about queer people. I have always considered myself to be a tolerant and liberal thinker. Yet, the geographical isolation of Mackay and the limited resources there prevented me from understanding or even being aware of the queer community enough to identify my own sexuality – let alone have a proper understanding of the political issues that faced that community. Given this, I think more tolerance needs to be shown towards people living in communities like Mackay who lack opportunities of experience or education to fully inform their views.

I don’t intend to suggest that every person in Mackay is uneducated and conservative, they most certainly are not – there is considerable population of people in Rural Australia who cannot stand George Christensen. I also do not mean to suggest that all conservative people are uneducated, and I certainly don’t dismiss the cruelty from those who have had the opportunity to support queer people but have chosen not to.

To live in a progressive community like ANU is a privilege. If we want to create change, we should use that privilege to interact with and educate those who have not been afforded the same opportunity. The development of the internet has provided the chance for communication and political discussion to transcend geographical boundaries, leaving the perfect opening for educated people to engage in dialogue with more isolated populations. When we are using the internet as a resource to convey our political opinions, whether it be through a Facebook post, a blog post, or a meme, we should make the expression of our beliefs and political stances accessible to those who do not share our beliefs or who have not had the same life experiences as we have.

If we want to gain support for queer rights, we need to reach out to people living in rural and regional communities. I believe that we can find allies in these areas if we are willing to bring the discussion to them. Trying to combat Pauline Hanson supporters on Q&A is a wasted exercise because the people whose beliefs align with Pauline Hanson are not watching the ABC on a Monday night. We need create more collaborative environments where we may engage with broader society, outside our own political bubbles. In turn, we need to make an effort to understand the roots of the beliefs of others. As students graduating from ANU we are likely to find career paths that provide us with a level of social influence through which we may have the opportunity to influence the public perception of queer people in our society. Whether this be through news-making, policy-making, law-making, or just by engaging with conflicting perspectives in our daily lives. We should use this influence to ensure that truthful depictions of queer people are reaching broader audiences in Australia.

I believe that as ANU students we have the power to make change and the power to influence the rights of queer people in this country. Doing this, though, requires the support of a majority – which requires the support of rural and regional people. So, unless we are willing to contribute more effort to communicating with the people of Mackay and the rest of rural Australia, we cannot expect change.