'It was probably the hardest thing to do'

 Making a point: Murray Riches, right, dances with  Sarah Anne Riches at an event supporting same-sex marriage at Hamilton’s Riff Raff statue.
Making a point: Murray Riches, right, dances with Sarah Anne Riches at an event supporting same-sex marriage at Hamilton’s Riff Raff statue.

It is hard growing up gay in Taumarunui, especially when both your parents preach from the pulpit of the Anglican Church.

Murray Riches struggled with his sexuality in silence, acutely aware that the conservative rural community was quick to judge people who were different.

"For the most part, I just buried it and tried very hard to be straight simply because there was so much silence surrounding sexuality."

Mr Riches also had an additional challenge - at school he struggled to read and write.

Now 24, he credits his fifth form English teacher, at Taumarunui High School, Damien Pullen, for inspiring an interest in language. While he has never been officially diagnosed as dyslexic, many of his symptoms show a similarity with the literacy disorder. Until fifth form, Mr Riches concentrated on science and maths, because rote learning made absorbing new knowledge much easier.

Mr Pullen pushed convention aside and encouraged Mr Riches to "just write", to forget about spelling, forget about sentence structure - "just write".

The absolute simplicity of his approach, together with the encouragement to put words to paper as they appeared, released Mr Riches' inhibitions and frustrations and the words started to flow. The freedom to play with and use words without censorship led to his own liberation.

He finished school more confident of his ability to continue with higher studies but took time out, driven by a need to get out of town "in order to be free to be himself".

After living and working in Pahiatua for two years, where he became friends with a gay man, he returned home to tell his parents he was gay. "That was really scary - it was probably the hardest thing to do, coming out in my own community and that of my parents.

"I worried about how Christian parents in a small community would handle the news but, actually, they have been definitely accepting."

To his relief, both Val and Lance Riches were accepting and supportive, and continue to be proud of his achievements. He is proud of the fact his parents, who now live in Waitara, encourage their flock to be supportive of difference. Mr Riches' mum is the vicar-general of the Waikato/Taranaki dioceses, second in rank only to the Anglican bishop while his dad is an ordained priest.

In less than five years Mr Riches has undergone a huge transformation - getting international recognition for his academic research, and bearing the rainbow flag of the gay and transgender community. Mr Riches said being "out" was a really important part of confronting the isolation so many young gays experienced, and providing them with a role model.

While he loves Taumarunui dearly, Mr Riches' own experiences of being gay in the rural town mean he is acutely aware of the isolation and anxiety people like him suffer. "The word gay was very much limited to a negative slang word used to describe things that were lame, stink or uncool. It was then incredibly challenging for me to own the word as part of my identity when I was coming out. Words are so powerful."

Mr Riches' newly found confidence resulted in him enrolling in a Bachelor of Communication (Honours) degree where in 2011 he did his first piece of research on better supporting gay youth in rural communities.

Working on the Green Party research opened Mr Riches' eyes to queer political advocacy, and the need to understand diversity as being much broader than just being gay or lesbian.

"Queer is almost like a world view to me - kind of like being feminist, I guess."

He was then approached by the Aids Foundation to carry out a study into the effectiveness of their February 2012 Big Gay Out event promoting safe sex in the gay and bisexual community.

Mr Riches' paper, co-authored with his university professor, was chosen as the 2013 educators academy top research paper prize from the Public Relations Society of America at an international conference in Philadelphia in October.

Now studying for his masters, Mr Riches is researching the impact of media coverage of crime and criminality on offender rehabilitation. He is currently working with a group of ex-inmates in Hamilton who have served lengthy sentences and are now readjusting to society.

"I have come to see they are not bad people - they are fun, caring, creative, inspirational people who have often faced challenges I could not even have begun to imagine, and have consequently made some bad choices.

"It's not about excusing their behaviour, but exploring the multiplicity of their identities - they have both dark and light sides, like all of us."

Mr Riches continues to fit this research in with his summer holiday job back home in Taumarunui, working at the Hikumutu Youth Camp.

He is not sure what the future holds after he completes his masters but, with the help of his computer spell check, he may continue with doctoral studies or work in political public relations.