Coming to terms with questions of gender and sexuality is a daunting prospect for young people anywhere, but in regional areas, the challenges can be even greater.

Small population sizes and strong conservative values in the regions often mean queer people face more scrutiny than their metropolitan counterparts.

In the Great Southern region of Western Australia, queer advocacy groups have stressed the importance of providing services tailored toward LGBTQIA+ people.

Albany Pride spokesperson, Tiger Bird, said the fear of being judged often deterred people who would otherwise seek advice on issues related to queer health and wellbeing.

“It's not six degrees of separation here. It's like one degree of separation … and there is still a stigma,” Mx Bird said.

“That fear is real … you need to be around community, people who understand you, especially when it comes to your health.

“If you can't be open and honest about your health, then you're not doing a service to yourself.”

Mx Bird said there were still a lot of “antiquated views in medicine”.

“Just because someone is a health specialist, you don't necessarily [know] that they are going to be knowledgeable or even comfortable with your sexuality or gender identity,” they said.

Queer advocacy groups call for more LGBTQIA+ health and wellbeing services in regional areas

Mx Bird says a lack of data on LGBTQIA+ demographics means queer communities miss out on funding.(ABC Great Southern: Asha Couch)

No data means no funding

Mx Bird said they believed the omission of questions on gender and sexuality in the 2021 Census would have had a negative effect on the development of LGBTQIA+ services.

“The government at the time decided not to include it,” they said.

“There was a sense of, 'Well, if we don't give queer people a platform in the Census, then we don't have to arrange for funding and that kind of thing.'”

Mx Bird said they felt as though not having solid demographic data made it easier to downplay how many queer folk existed in Australia.

“We're not this tiny minority of loud voices … we're a sizeable chunk of the population,” they said.

“We exist in every town, in every city.

“… There is not one place where we don't exist because we are just normal human beings, part of the diversity that normal human beings have, and you can't hide away from that.”

For LGBTQIA+ youth seeking mental health support in the Great Southern region, Headspace is a popular choice.

Queer advocacy groups call for more LGBTQIA+ health and wellbeing services in regional areas

Dr Wenzel says more of the young people coming to Headspace identify as non-binary.(ABC Great Southern: Asha Couch)

Headspace Albany manager Andrew Wenzel said more than one third of the young people who came through the doors last financial year identified as LGBTQIA+.

“The statistic that's really surprised us is the increasing numbers of young people who identify as non-binary in their gender,” he said.

“Previously, we've been seeing maybe two or three per cent coming in, but in the last few months, that figure has risen up to six or seven per cent.”

DrWenzel said about 800 young people come to Headspace Albany each year, representing about one tenth of the coastal city's youth population.

But he said it was difficult to know how these figures translated to the wider population due to the lack of data.

“I can certainly understand why the LGBTQIA+ community feel that [omitting gender and sexuality questions from the Census] was a little bit of a slap in the face,” Dr Wenzel said.

“Data helps illuminate everything that we need to be doing in terms of looking at funding and support and infrastructure to support all communities.

“You really can't plan adequate support and services if you don't know the size of the population that you are trying to support.”

Stigma still exists

Dr Wenzel said while there was no government data available on queer populations in Australia, there was data that could suggest how different regions viewed LGBTQIA+ communities.

“The O'Connor electorate did have the lowest rate of support [in WA] for marriage equality when that referendum was held … 56 per cent of the O'Connor electorate were in support of marriage equality.

“Just over half … that is a very small margin.”

Dr Wenzel said deep-rooted societal bias could have a long-term impact on LGBTQIA+ individuals.

“[Queer youth] are more likely to have anxiety and depression. They are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and self-harm,” he said.

“They're more likely to have drug and alcohol problems, which is a way of, I guess, self-medicating to deal with some of the internal conflict and struggles that [they] go through in being themselves.”

Dr Wenzel said those who identified as straight did not have to go through describing their differences all the time.

“We don't have to feel like we're being excluded, or othered, or looked at across the street for being ourselves, or for holding the hand of the person we love,” he said.

“It all adds up to that picture of why supporting differences in our community … is so important in terms of mental health outcomes.”

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