When 81-year-old Lillian Lee and her partner Gail (72) went along to the inaugural Coming Back Out Ball in Melbourne last year, younger members of the LGBTI community walked up and thanked them for “paving the way”.

The night was founded to empower members of the community over 65 to feel recognised and proud, and was a major success, spawning a documentary and a second Ball earlier this week.

Both years the Ball featured performances and dance, and helped to highlight the growing number of LGBTI elders whose significance in the community is too infrequently recognised.

Lillian said the night made both her and Gail feel completely accepted as a couple and as lesbians.

“I was 60 before I came out of the closet, because before that I felt like I couldn’t,” she told the Star Observer.

“I didn’t stand up and say ‘yippee’ until then because I was was wary of it.

“But about 20 years ago I remember being at a street party and having young people come up to me and say that they didn’t know we stayed dykes when we got older.

“[Nights like the Ball] help show that we’re still here, and we’re staying here. They show that there aren’t just young gay guys in the community, there are older people as well, and a lot of us.”

Hailing from a small country town, Gail said she hopes the couple can be frontrunners for young people struggling to come out.

“In a small country town it’s much harder for young people to come out,” she said.

“One woman even brought her granddaughter to meet us because the granddaughter was questioning her sexuality. She came to our house and we had a cup of tea and cake.

“Afterwards, the grandmother told us ‘gee, you’re just like ordinary people aren’t you?'”

Artistic Director of the Coming Back Out Ball, Tristan Meecham, said the night has been vital for many elders in the community who often feel social isolation.

Ahead of the inaugural Ball, he said the team fielded roughly 60 calls from older community members who were nervous to attend.

“We were on the phone the entire week with people saying ‘trust us, give it a go’, and when they finally arrived it was incredible – so many people burst into tears,” he told the Star Observer.

“I don’t think we could’ve anticipated how the Balls helped build people’s sense of self and worth in the community, and that’s been a really lovely surprise.

“I think we need to continue to have conversations around what we need to do in terms of social, physical, and mental equality for LGBTI elders, and to not get fatigued from those conversations.

“The real reason the Ball has succeeded is because we’ve really listened to them about what they want, and it’s always been about making it for them.”

The Coming Back Out Ball recently won the Connecting our Community award at the 2018 GLOBE Community Awards.

You can check out our photo gallery from this year’s Ball on the Star Observer.

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