In a community filled with larger-than-life personalities, it can be pretty hard to stand out; sometimes the spotlight sweeps over the true superstars.  Hospitality group and ally to the LGBTQI+ community, Merivale, knows there are unsung heroes out there who deserve a little acknowledgement, and that’s what their We Are All Heroes campaign seeks to do. 

As part of their Mardi Gras celebration, Merivale is paying homage to ten heroes nominated by the community for being role models or making exceptional contributions in the queer space. 

Our cover features indigenous drag queen Tyra Bankstown, one of the heroes profiled by Merivale. Tyra is popular as a hostess, performer, and commentator, but perhaps lesser known is the amazing work she does with queer youth. As a House Mother to a group of young, emerging drag queens, Tyra is an inspirer. 

Having had to flee Darwin and the hostile, sometimes violent response from male family members to her queer identity, Tyra knows what it is to feel abandoned and shunned. She never compromised, never considered changing, and eventually, all her family came around. 

“Years later, and what brings me to tears thinking of, is the same uncles that were violent against me have really tried to make up for it,” says Tyra, who is now philosophical. “The thing is, back then, they didn’t know better. They were taught to hate.” 

‘Having Someone that Believes in You is Fucking Vital’

In Sydney, Tyra found her tribe, as she puts it; people who understood her. 

“Having someone that believes in you is fucking vital.”

It was when she watched the film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that she discovered drag and realised if the size 10, red patent leather shoe fits then she should wear it. 

For Tyra, drag is not a concealment of her true self, but an extension. 

“I’m the same person. I don’t put on a facade, I am me but I’m just times a thousand.”

From Drag Star to Mild-Mannered Beauty Therapist

By day, Tyra drops the drag and becomes a mild-mannered beauty therapist, where her aesthetic skills are focused outward, on others. It keeps her grounded. 

“During the day I’m scrubbing feet, waxing arseholes, making people look beautiful and it keeps me humble,” she laughs. 

But it’s her role as a House Mother and mentor that really makes her feel like a hero. That’s where she truly brings out the beauty in others. 

“I love to find and identify my children’s flame, and I like to come over with a big lot of firewood and put it in there,” says Tyra. 

“What fills my heart the most is when my drag family are performing with me, or we create an opportunity for someone else to perform their dream.”

She describes her house as “a space where all my drag family are free to have their stupid ideas…and maybe 90% of them are stupid but 10% are the nuggets of gold…and if you can’t create that space that’s free for them to have their stupid ideas, you’re not gonna get the nuggets of gold.”

Zac Pittas’s Exuberance Shimmers Through Every Word

Zac Pittas is the public relations manager for Merivale and has himself been nominated as a hero. 

“The support from the company is genuine, and it’s year-round…It’s not like ‘rainbow washing’…the people that I work with here are genuine allies,” says Zac about working at the queer-positive organisation. 

“The opportunities are exciting. I’ve gotten a real thrill out of doing this campaign – it makes me want to just do more! It makes me want to keep pushing for change, pushing for positivity within the community. I want somebody who was me at 16 to see this campaign and go: ‘Wow! There’s someone who is so out and proud – that can be me one day’.”

Zac’s exuberance shimmers through every word. He is very pro-active and believes that being out and proud, being his true self, is the best form of advocacy.  

Tyra Bankstown and Zac Pittas. Image: Robert Knapman

“To be honest, having been out in the community for so long, it’s just a part of who I am. The concept of ‘being out’ is quite foreign to me because it’s been so long it’s just part of my everyday life. I don’t feel I have anything…there’s nothing to hide, there’s nothing I’m ashamed of, there’s no one in my life who’s not very aware of my lifestyle and sexual orientation. So it is by definition, me.”

His own level of self-acceptance is unfortunately not something Zac sees mirrored in the community, especially among young gay men. He blames social media for a disturbing degree of body dysmorphia and image anxiety leading to poor mental health. It’s something he attempts to address at a micro level, in his own circles, giving out the same affirming vibe that he had received growing up. 

“I had role models within my life that had qualities I wanted to have in me when I grew up. My parents are two of the most incredible people that I will ever meet, and they have always been the most supportive of me, and they love hard, love unconditionally.”

It would be fair to assume Zac speaks for all the Merivale heroes when he says: 

“I’m proud to be part of this campaign; it’s an incredible opportunity.  And Happy Mardi Gras!”

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