When Hay teenager Kiana Shortt came out to her mother Katherine as bisexual, it didn’t go according to plan.
While she knew her mother loved her, they both struggled to make the adjustment.
“I had a bit of trouble accepting it at first,” Mrs Katherine Shortt said.
Kiana described coming out in Hay – a town in the Riverina’s west with a population of just 2500 – as more than a little challenging .
“It’s pretty hard sometimes. You get picked on. I’ve been told to kill myself before,” Kiana said.
“Coming here and getting involved, I started to see things differently,” Mrs Shortt said.
“At the end of the day, people are people. They love who they love. Who am I to judge?”
The mother-daughter duo were just two of over a hundred marchers in Saturday's Hay Mardi Gras parade. The parade formed part of the weekend-long Rainbow on the Plains Festival.
Both women admit the experience has changed their relationship.
“We used to hardly get along, but now we’re so close,” Kiana said.
“We’re buddies again.”
According to Australian Human Rights Commission, members of the LGBT+ community are three times more likely to experience depression than their straight counterparts.
Even so, it's a battle Kiana is determined to get through.
“I’d say it’s pretty hard – but I have a pretty good support right now so I’m getting through it.”
Putting the gay in Hay
What was initially supposed to be a small group of friends hosting a party, soon grew into a weekend of celebration.
Event organiser Krista Schade said the idea came about when they realised the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Mardi Gras was fast approaching.
“It has been incredible. This is not at all what we first expected. We thought we’d have 80 people gathering to watch the 40th Sydney parade – but it grew in leaps and bounds.”
Saturday saw a parade through the main street at midday, followed by a huge party that evening. A “recovery brunch” was even offered for those who had celebrated a little too hard.
While some locals were initially a little skeptical, Ms Schade said many businesses in town had come on board.
“The main street is decorated in rainbows. Shops are decorated. We have local businesses sponsoring. It has just been amazing.”
The planning committee say the event has been in the works since September. All proceeds raised will go to benefit CanAssist and ACON – a NSW-based group specialising in LGBTQ+ health.
Main street draped in a rainbow
Until recently, the sleepy town of Hay and its population had very little to do with Australia’s largest LGBT+ parade.
Even so, the main parade on Saturday, March 3 saw Hay's main drag come alive. Businesses and cafes came on board, decking their storefronts out in bright colours.
Timothy Robertson and his wife had been getting compliments on their decorating all afternoon.
The bakery’s tables, chairs and outdoor umbrellas were brightly decorated with multi-coloured streamers.
Mr Robertson said he was only too happy to support the festival, which he views as a way of acknowledging the town’s LGBTQ+ community.
“We saw a beautifully colourful parade and everyone has been a lot more open about everything,” he said.
“It’s been really, really good. It’s something we should have done years ago. What starts in one community can spread to others. It’s definitely a start.”
Motels and hotels across town had been booked out with people coming from out of town to celebrate Mardi Gras “in the bush”.
Breaking down barriers in rural and regional Australia
While many viewed the parade as a positive for Hay, others stressed the importance of ongoing support for LGBTQ+ people in regional towns after the end of festivities.
Teddy Cook has made regional LGBT+ outreach into a career. He and the team at ACON have been involved in the Rainbow on the Plains festival since the beginning.
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed. To see this come to fruition with such a community spirit from both those participating in the parade and those watching it has been incredible,” he said.
Mr Cook also stressed the important role regional communities have to play in making LGBTQ+ people feel welcome in their home towns.
“It is so important for regional communities to show they are inclusive, safe and welcoming of LGBT+ people,” he said.
“If communities are clear about this sort of thing, we see improved health and mental health outcomes – especially in young people.”
In his eyes, the Rainbow on the Plains festival is also about breaking down stereotypes about regional towns.
“There is this stereotype that regional communities are backward, that they’re not okay for you to be different and today demonstrates this is not the case,” he said.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but to be celebrated walking down Lachlan Street like that was amazing.”
While many see a long road ahead in terms of full LGBT+ acceptance in regional and rural Australia, at least two people feel Hay’s first Mardi Gras has provided a good starting point.
“I didn’t know people around here were so accepting. It’s been awesome to experience this. I’ve never done it before,” Kiana said.
When asked what advice Mrs Shortt had for young LGBTQ+ people in regional Australia, a proud mother’s advice was simple.
“Be who you are and just go for it.”