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Pride and place in regional towns

Regional approaches to celebrating Pride.

“Bendigo tries to pretend it’s normal and it isn’t, which I really like about it,” John Richards, director of the Bendigo Pride Festival, tells upstart.

To describe the uniqueness of the central Victorian town, which has a population of around 100,000, Richards cites Bendigo as having the largest Buddhist temple in the western hemisphere and still having trams because, as Richards put it, locals engaged in “weird guerrilla warfare” in 1972 to save them.

But not only is the city now starting to pay attention to its diversity, but it is celebrating it. While the Bendigo Pride Festival might be relatively new, Pride in the town takes many forms. There are pride flags in windows and one large flag painted on the road by the historic town hall. LGBTQIA+ elders are publicly celebrated, such as Edward De Lacy Evans’ mural. And events such as the Trans & Gender Diverse Clothing Swap offer people the opportunity to be themselves. It’s a town beginning to accept the LGBTQIA+ community alongside its vibrant history.

Pride is celebrated regionally on the pillars of community and place.  In regional areas, it takes the form of tightly connected communities celebrating the LGBTQIA+ people that have always been there.

Em Ireland, director of Daylesford’s Chillout Festival, the largest Queer Country Pride festival,  believes Pride is uniquely celebrated because of the tight knit nature of regional communities.

“You’ve got the whole community that’s very proud with how they celebrate Pride,” she says.

Ireland says she has seen a shift from people moving away from small towns to staying, or even returning like herself. Conversations among young people have reflected these changing attitudes. She partly attributes this to what the country can uniquely offer, “that country feel”.

“We’ll offer you a lift to where you’re asking or walk the country mile with you rather than just send you on a wild goose chase. It’s a beautiful space. It’s a beautiful people.”

While Chillout has grown a lot since 1997, it wouldn’t be here if not for the town’s community. In 2007, the event had to be cancelled due to a lack of volunteers. In an interview by Chillout, Natalie Moynihan, who was on the organising committee in 2007, remembers the struggle.

“We had, I think, five of us committee members including myself that year and we had less than ten volunteers register, and we just decided that it was impossible to put on such a huge event and to do it justice,” she said.

Moynihan remembers the committee being criticised for “deciding to lay down and not let it happen”.

In the end, it was the support from the wider community that led to the festival to start planning for its long-term sustainability. This included a few paid positions being added to lessen the pressure on volunteers and the secretary at the time, Jim Culbertson, securing a $75,000 grant from Regional Development Victoria and Hepburn Shire Council for the 2008 festival.

Both Chillout Festival and the Bendigo Pride Festival reflect their towns and country communities in their own ways. Richards says he wanted the experience of the Bendigo Pride Festival to use all the quintessential elements of Bendigo.

“It’s not just we’re great, as a community, but we like living here. We’re proud of us, and we’re proud of Bendigo,” he says. “And also, it’s ours, I want us to be able to claim it and go we deserve to be here.”

Daylesford is considered the gay capital of Victoria. Ireland says she feels like Chillout Festival not only provides a safe space for everyone but also acts as the educator for other regional pride festivals.

“We do a lot of travel between communities in regional areas to support one another to make what we do be seen and heard at a greater distance than just our own backyards,” she says.

“It is possible in regional and rural and country towns to fly rainbow flags in schools and be yourself.”

Both festivals however must always consider funding.

The Bendigo Pride Festival began in 2019 following a state government grant that left them with a seven-week deadline and the longstanding Bendigo Queer Film Festival to build around. When Richards started, his plan was to create a demonstration year in 2020. A three-week festival, held over three weekends, was put together to show what the Bendigo Pride Festival could look like, so some ongoing funding could then be found. But four days before the festival began, it had to be cancelled due to COVID.

“It took a surprising amount of time to cancel everything,” he says.

The Bendigo Pride Festival still starts from scratch every year, in terms of accessing funds. Funding may come from state government or the local council, for example.  Richards told the Bendigo Times it often feels “hand-to-mouth” when organising festivals.

Chillout also heavily relies on sponsors, but they are trying to avoid commercialising.

“If we had Chillout Festival brought to you by anything but the community, it wouldn’t be owned by the community,” Ireland says.

However, this means there is less capacity for the festival to grow, with limited funding.

“We can’t grow any more financially,” she tells upstart. “We’re still in this small funding bracket. We need to be in the next funding bracket. Like we’re not in the same funding bracket as Midsumma or any of the other kind of city events even though we’re larger because we’re in regional areas.”

Irrespective of funding, Richards views Pride as bringing attention to a community that has more records of their history from the 1800s in Bendigo than it has from the 1960s and 70s.

“I think there’s something really powerful about saying to people actually you’ve always been here, the queer community has always been here.”

Article | Sam McNeill is a second-year journalism student in Media and Communications at La Trobe University. You can find him on Twitter @samsheretoo

Photo: Pride stripes by Victoria Pickering available HERE and used under a Creative Commons License. This photo has not been modified.

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