Although LGBTI people in Shepparton still faced significant exclusion and homophobia, the festival has become a symbol of attitudes in the area changing for the better, with arts and culture events alongside public forums on issues facing the community.
Festival organiser Damien Stevens told the Star Observer Out in the Open came from conversations with members of a support group for same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse (SSAIGD) young people.
“They said they would like to have a festival, a space to celebrate themselves and their identity… but at the same time they said they didn’t necessarily want it to be about screaming rainbow flags and pride in that respect, but more a safe, inclusive environment where they could be themselves,” he said.
Stevens compared the festival to events like Chillout in Daylesford, arguing you can’t put all rural communities in the same category when it comes to working to change attitudes to LGBTI people.
“Daylesford is gay central… whereas historically Shepparton has been a lot more about, more recently about refugees, but medium-to-longer term about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and farming and homophobia,” he said.
“It’s been hard to get the right balance of visibility and not apologising for who we are, but also engaging the broader community in conversations that need to happen.”
Stevens’ partner Cris Todd ran local LGBTI social group Goulburn Valley Pride until recently, and told the Star Observer that increased visibility was key to changing community attitudes.
“When I took over as president one of my aims was to make it a lot more inclusive and not hide away, to go out and be public and start booking everything under GV Pride and not under someone’s name. I think the more people see something the more it’s normalised,” he argued.
Todd said it was hard to compare the LGBTI communities in the city to Shepparton’s community, where people of all ages, genders and backgrounds were all thrown in together.
Out in the Open affirmed the potential for Shepparton to be a place where people of all sexualities and genders could feel welcome, and Stevens said that was borne out by feedback after the events.
“People said they have never been able to feel so safe and relaxed and comfortable and to be able to smile so much in a space that feels so welcoming for everybody,” he said.
“That’s exactly what we wanted to create.”