A new support group for young people questioning their sexual identity is being piloted in Whangarei.
The I'm Local project is being steered by the RainbowYOUTH charity and aims to get support for gay, bisexual and transgender people in smaller cities and rural areas.
It wants to work with schools, community centres, hospitals, doctors, libraries and marae and is launching alongside a social group called "WhangaReinbow".
Kamo High School student Leon Kingsley is a facilitator and knows all too well why the group is needed here.
He says he was once chased with with friends down Bank St by a group of boys yelling "we want to beat up you fags".
Less dramatic but equally damaging can be the sense of isolation.
"I've always been the odd child out," he says.
"I had a head start because I have an uncle who is gay. But there's never been a group and no way to find anyone else. You feel ignored."
I'm Local is the brainchild of Toni Duder, who grew up in Dargaville and now works for RainbowYOUTH in Auckland.
"Before I moved to Auckland I had no idea what a lesbian was," she says.
"Growing up in Dargaville I had no idea that being queer could actually be a positive and fulfilling identity. I had no idea that it wouldn't always be something I was ashamed of or had to keep secret.
"While working at RainbowYOUTH, I couldn't help thinking of my younger self - scared confused and lonely - and how much I wish I could have helped her and people feeling the same way as her."
RainbowYOUTH general manager Duncan Matthews says close-mindedness is not exclusive to smaller cities and rural areas but can be more severe due to the fact queer and trans youth tend to move to Auckland or Wellington when they are old enough to make the choice.
That can mean a lack of role models in the communities they leave behind.
Matthews says a study of 8000 school students over 10 years shows that "upwards of 10 per cent are questioning their identity and thinking differently".
"People tend to talk about either living a double life or being quite open about who they are and then getting bullied and teased for it," he says.
Duder says I'm Local hopes to open up discussion around sexuality and gender, wherever people are in the country.
"Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender - or however you want to identify - it's OK," she says.
"It can be scary and confusing and lonely but I'm living proof that working through it and learning to love yourself for all the things that make you is entirely possible."
Visit imlocal.co.nz for resources or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in joining the WhangaReinbow group, to be held at the new Youth Space.
- Whangarei Leader
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