There aren’t all that many doors open to gay guys under 18. The community’s pubs, big dance parties and other events are out of reach because of their age. For them, gay sex is illegal. At a time in their lives when they have many issues to face, ACON is bringing these young guys together to share their experiences, learn, and make some friends.

John Tsioulos runs the Thursday Afternoon Group (TAG) at ACON for school-aged gay or bisexual guys, and believes there needs to be a greater effort to assist and support this part of the community.

Our community doesn’t start at 18, it starts lower, he says. It’s okay to be gay if you’re 18 or 19, but if you’re still in school a lot of teachers don’t want to know you, students don’t want to know you, and sometimes organisations don’t want to know about you either.

TAG is a drop-in group for gay or bisexual guys, and is an offshoot from the popular Fun and Esteem workshops that ACON has run for about 15 years. TAG was developed to cater for school-aged guys who found it difficult to make it to the night-time Fun and Esteem workshops. With people coming out at a younger age, the group was formed because of demand.

Society has kind of changed, and as we’ve gone along, guys have been coming out younger and younger and younger, Tsioulos said.

In turn, services and support for school-aged guys needed to be made available, Tsioulos said.

They’re actually at a much higher risk of bullying and suicide and depression and isolation, he said.

After a 10-week trial in 2001, TAG became a regular fixture, providing young guys with a safe place to meet people and talk about issues such as coming out, safe sex, relationships and homophobic bullying.

Jeff, 17, started going to TAG when he was 15. He said the best thing about the group was meeting other young guys in similar situations.

It has helped me to build up my confidence in who I am. I came here, met new people and realised that it was okay to be gay, he said. I probably wouldn’t have the courage that I have now if I hadn’t started coming here.

Jeff came out at school when he was 15, and said TAG has helped him, and other people at his school, deal with homophobia.

When I came out I only told a couple of people and word got around, as things do, and I didn’t really -˜flaunt’ myself, he said. The attitude is you can be out just as long as you don’t flaunt it.

The group has planned a newsletter about bullying, with tactics to deal with homophobia. Jeff said these issues were important for young gay and bisexual guys.

I just want people to be aware that it [homophobia] is an issue in society. Even though it exists, people aren’t aware of it, he said.

A popular topic for discussion at TAG has been the current age of consent legislation, which prohibits homosexual sex for guys under 18, two years above the legal age for heterosexual and lesbian sex. Along with being discriminatory, Tsioulos believes the law has had other effects.

It’s a valid enough reason to say it’s discriminatory, but we think there’s more to it than that, he said. Young guys who are 16 or 17 are not going to access health services about being gay or get a sexual health check-up because they’re supposedly doing the wrong thing by having sex.

Tsioulos said TAG was a great place for young gay or bisexual guys to meet new people and talk about issues affecting them.

It has empowered people to make their own decisions, he said. I think the fact that it’s been going for so long and we’re still getting new guys coming along, means that we’ve been relatively successful.

TAG meets at 4pm every Thursday afternoon at the ACON office, 9 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills. Contact John Tsioulos on 9206 2077 or email youth@acon.org.au for more information.

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