GROWING up in regional Victoria, Merryn Tinkler found she didn’t always feel safe and often had to visit the city to explore her lesbian identity.

And while she was out and proud as a young woman in Ballarat, but there were few opportunities for her to celebrate it elsewhere in the region.

That’s why visiting ChillOut festival in Daylesford for the first time proved to be an affirming experience.

“I remember going to ChillOut for the first time and realising that ‘wow, this is happening in the country too’,” Tinkler recalled.

“It was like going back to my country roots but also being in a place where everyone can be really out and proud.

“That’s so important for our emotional wellbeing… to be accepted for who you are.”

ChillOut festival is now the biggest and longest-running country pride event in regional Australia, and Tinkler currently heads it up as Festival Director.

She believes the festival, now in its 19th year, has helped create greater diversity and inclusion in the communities around the area.

“I know my mates who have kids in schools and the schools are really accepting of kids that are different,” she said.

“They don’t have the same kind of stigma that LGBTI kids in other country towns would have, like a young gay or trans person.”

(image supplied)

(image supplied)

In 2013, the National LGBTI Health Alliance released a paper that found young LGBTI people living in regional areas were more likely to experience thoughts of suicide.

“Because ChillOut’s there and has developed a 20-year presence it makes for a much more accepting community,” Tinkler said.

While LGBTI pride events may be larger in capital cities around Australia, ChillOut has maintained a relaxed atmosphere and found a special place in the hearts of sexuality and gender diverse people around the country.

The first festival was staged in 1997 and has consistently been dedicated to celebrating the LGBTI community in rural and regional Victoria.

Rural Australian towns often have far less resources for LGBTI people than metropolitan cities, and Tinkler said this is why the promotion of acceptance and diversity was so critical.

“For all of us in the community it’s really important to know that we’re supported and that we’re allowed to be out and about and proud,” she said.

“In terms of ChillOut, it’s really a bonding thing that’s there for people to come together and experience something they can be really proud of.

“We can celebrate our diversity and the love of the town, but also be really true and strong to ourselves.”

One of the highlights of ChillOut is the Carnival and street parade.

Tinkler said both of these were what she remembered the most from her first time at the festival.

“It gives you such a great feeling when you’re there, it’s such a good time,” she said.

“A guy rang us recently and asked if ChillOut was just for gay people, and whether straight people could come too.

“I thought it was lovely — we’re family friendly and in- clusive and we’re not exclusive at all.”

(Image supplied)

(Image supplied)

One of the other highlights Tinkler was quick to point out was the annual ChillOut Bush Dance. She said it allowed the LGBTI community to have a great time while also celebrating regional Victoria.

“It lets everyone go back to their country roots, and it’s real bush dancing,” she said.

“People can put on their checked shirts and cowboy hats and have a good, country time.”

The festival also raises money annually for community organisations. For example, during the Worthy Cause Slowest Lunch event, patrons dine in the elegant Lake House that sits on the edge of Lake Daylesford and help raise funds for a chosen group.

“We kick off the festival with the Worthy Cause Slowest Lunch,” Tinkler said.

“Because we’re one of the biggest drivers of tourism in Daylesford, we always support particular charities in the area.”

This year’s charity is Riding for the Disabled Victoria, an organisation that enables people with disabilities and volunteers throughout Victoria to participate in equestrian activities to improve their quality of life.

“That’s our way to give back to the community which is really important,” Tinkler said.

ChillOut Festival takes place at Daylesford, Victoria on the Labour Day long weekend, between March 11 and 14. For details, visit: chilloutfestival.com.au

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**This article was first published in the March edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. Click here to find out where you can grab a copy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.

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