The Voice finalist Sheldon Riley has overcome bullying to become an out and proud singer. Matthew Wade caught up with him to chat about performing at this year’s Midwinta Gala.

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Singer and The Voice finalist Sheldon Riley came out as gay at a young age, but was forced to change schools 14 times after being mercilessly bullied by his classmates.

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He was living on the Gold Coast at the time, with little exposure to the LGBTI community and no role models to look up to — he says he didn’t even know what a drag queen was.

“No-one got me, I didn’t fit in anywhere,” he says.

“When you’re going to school and asking teachers why boys can’t wear skirts, you know you’re different.

“At one stage I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I thought, if this is what being gay is, I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

Riley says his sense of pride and empowerment ultimately came from the most unlikely of places: one of his most vicious high-school tormentors, who reached out to him to both apologise and come out as gay.

“This was the worst bully I had had, and he was messaging me to let me know that he was gay,” he says.

“He apologised and said he had super religious parents. It made me realise that everyone’s going through their own battles.

“We’re all people that want to fit in and be like everybody else.”

Now, after competing on this year’s season of The Voice, the 19-year-old is more proud of his sexuality than ever, and will be performing at the upcoming Midwinta Gala, an annual fundraiser for Midsumma Festival in Melbourne.

He says he hopes he can be the role model he never had growing up.

“All the performances I’ve been doing, they’re not about the money,” he says.

“They’re about the little kid that looks up at me and is in complete awe.

“I want to let young LGBTI people know that it’s okay to be yourself — everyone thinks that being gay is accepted these days, but I still get messages from young people asking me for advice.”

Riley believes it’s important for young LGBTI people struggling with their sexual or gender identity to understand that life gets better.

He adds that when he began to love who he was it made things much easier.

“I refuse to stay in the dark any longer,” he says.

“People are learning and society is changing, but keep loving yourself, and find people you can trust to support you, whether that’s a friend, parent, or teacher.”

While he’s still learning a lot about Australia’s LGBTI history and culture, Riley says the importance of the country’s Pride festivals should never be underestimated, and that he’s honoured to help Midsumma for their fundraising event.

“When I went to my first Mardi Gras my eyes opened to how necessary it is to celebrate being you,” he says.

“They bring the community together to celebrate love. I’m excited to meet people and perform at [Midwinta Gala].”

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