Young, gay and local
IT WOULD be easy to describe Jack, Angela, Adam and Eva as typical young adults ? healthy, happy and full of hope for the future ? but that would only diminish their triumph over the unexpected and the awareness of themselves as unique individuals.
For while the four good friends are in so many ways 'ordinary' they are also different ? defined by their attraction to others of the same sex as gay, bisexual and lesbian.
All four regularly attend the Coffs Coast's only social group for same-sex youth ? BYP ? which is short for Be Young and Proud.
"Being a part of this group has really given me the confidence to be myself and to be proud of who I am," Adam, an 18-year-old shop assistant, said.
"I used to feel so isolated and alone but now I feel I belong and am appreciated for who I am, not what I am," Angela, 22, said.
For 21-year-old Jack the group has finally given him some security.
"It is great to have a safe place to meet others and have a good time," Jack said.
"We have all been through a common peril," Eva, 23, said, "but through this group we have become like comrades and great friends."
All four have high hopes for the future despite teen experiences which took them to the brink.
Jack said he suspected he was different when he was just a child, but with the onset of adolescence, he realised there was much more to his attraction to other boys.
"I always had a lot more girls than boys as friends, and when I was 15 I decided I had to find out if I was in fact gay," Jack said.
"I used to get picked on all the time by other boys at school simply because they thought I was gay, but I didn't know any other gay kids and so one night I went to a beat and had sex with a man for the first time."
"It was quite a scary experience because I put myself in a potentially dangerous situation, but I survived and knew then I was gay."
Jack said he came out not long after. "It was a really full-on time," he said. He recalled he lost most of his friends and felt so isolated he dropped out of school during year nine, became very anxious and sufferred bouts of depression.
"I felt like I was the only young poof in Coffs, I used to get hassled a lot and abused in the street."
Aged 17, Jack moved to Brisbane but returned a year later to be with his family, and he's now glad he did.
Aged 17, Jack moved to Brisbane but returned a year later to be with his family.
"I try not to be visibly gay when I'm out in public, but I now feel liberated for accepting my sexuality and getting on with my life."
Angela had her first relationship with another girl when she was 16 but when she came out she was ostracised by all but one of her friends from school.
Her parents thought she was just going through a phase and sent her away to sort herself out, but it was when her relationship ended that she hit rock bottom.
"I had no girlfriend, no friends and felt I just didn't belong.
Angela moved to Brisbane and even got married before returning to Coffs Harbour.
"I realised pretty quickly that I wasn't attracted to men at all," Angela laughed.
"I knew it wasn't right for me, but when one night I came to terms with the fact I was a lesbian it really hit me. I cried all night, but this time round my parents were more accepting, and when we finally sat down to talk about it all, I just felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders."
Adam also came out at school when he was 15, but said because he wasn't perceived as being effeminate he really didn't cop any flak.
When his parents separated he finally plucked up the courage to tell his mother.
"I was really nervous and she was a bit upset at first, but over time she accepted me and that helped me accept myself," Adam said.
Eva's late teenage years were blurred with drugs as she struggled to accept her sexuality.
"I had a relationship with a girl when I was 17 and because of that I lost all of my old friends," Eva said
"Then when the relationship ended I was all alone. I got depressed and started abusing drugs to try to cope with accepting I was gay."
"I actually went back into the closet for a couple of years but now I'm out and proud, thanks to this group we've now got in Coffs."
'Just normal stuff'
'BE Young and Proud' meets on the last Friday of every month. It started with just three people turning up, now regularly attracts up to 15 local youth.
"It's not a pick-up joint, far from it," Adam joked, rolling his eyes.
"We just do everyday normal stuff like have dances, discussions, movie nights, barbecues and play games," Jack said.
And there is a more serious agenda.
"We have social workers, sexual health nurses and relationship counsellors come along from time to time so we can find out stuff and get advice," Angela said.
"But mainly its just an informal social get-together," Jack was keen to add.
"Its a place where we can be ourselves, and along the way its helped us all like ourselves and become more confident," Adam said.
"Coffs might like to think it's becoming a big cosmopolitan city, but there are still a lot of scared and homophobic people out there, so its been great to have a safe place for us to get together," Jack said
All four said they had sufferred the slings and arrows of ignorance and homophobia.
"A lot of kids these days use words like 'poof' and 'dyke' and 'queer' to pick on each other, and it doesn't really have an affect if you are straight," said Angela.
"But if you think you might be gay, or are worried about your feelings, those words can really hurt, put you in a spin, and isolate you even more from your peers."
"Some kids who are unsure about their sexuality go the other way and get aggressive, and to try and prove they are straight then pick on other kids they think are gay," Eva added.
"We've all learnt now not to let it affect us, but we still get strange looks or get abused."
"It's groups of boys that are the worst. They get off on yelling out 'faggot' or 'leso' to us as they drive past in their cars, which I reckon is funny because I think gang mentali- ty is a bit gutless really," Eva said.
Despite the traumas of their youth, and the ongoing challenges of living in what, they said, can still be a small-minded country town, all are determined to stay in Coffs Harbour.
"This is my home," said Jack.
"I had a rough time for a while, but in a strange way that has made me a much stronger person, and I now want to make it easier for others like me to come out and be proud of who they are."
"I really want to see this city get to a point where we can openly advertise where our meetings are held, but for now there are too many homophobes out there to risk that."
Remarkably all seem to have a well-developed sense of who they are.
"We've had to deal with stuff that straight kids, and their parents, couldn't even dream about," Jack said.
"We just hope that other kids who are going through what we went through will now feel confident enough to come to the group, meet some new people, and see that they aren't the only gays in town," Adam said.
"We'd even like straight kids to come, or ones that are curious, as long as they are friendly and not aggressive. We can't turn anyone gay, but we can make everyone feel welcome."
"I didn't wake up one day and decide to be gay just to upset my parents," Jack said.
"I haven't chosen to be gay, but I have chosen to be out and proud of who I am, and now I wouldn't want to be any other way.
"We really aren't any different to anyone else," said Adam.
"And we don't want to be treated any differently. We just want to be treated the same and given the same chances and opportuni- ties." (Real names have not been used.)
n Be Young and Proud is open to youth aged 16 to 26. To find out more, call 1300 658878.