I want to share with you some of the ways in which Pinnacle has empowered me to achieve things that never would have been possible without the support I’ve received. To highlight just how important an organisation like Pinnacle is, I want to take you back to the start of my journey and show you how I got to where I am today.
I grew up in Richmond, at the foot of the Blue Mountains. I experienced almost daily bullying throughout my primary and early high school years, compounded by living difficulties at home. I was always seen as different, and as a bit of a nerd. When I discovered my attraction to men around the age of 12 or 13, it just reinforced the message that I was somehow broken, or wrong.
These experiences culminated in severe anxiety, especially social anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. After eventually coming out at school (to a handful of people initially, but the rumours spread like wildfire), ironically, the bullying actually stopped – some even came up to me to apologise. Coming out had freed me to be open about who I was at school, and I found a group of friends who accepted me the way I was.
These experiences encouraged me to become fiercely independent. Whenever I got home, I locked myself in my room and studied hard. I aspired to study Law at university – I was a big history, literature and theatre nerd – and it just seemed to capture all of those interests while giving me the knowledge and skills to help people in situations like the ones I was in. After completing Year 12, I applied to live at UNSW before I was even accepted as a student there. I moved in with no job, little financial support and less than $1500 in savings. I remain incredibly grateful that I found an accommodation provider who was willing to be lenient with my rental payments as I struggled through that time – my situation could have turned out a lot worse if I hadn’t.
Fast-forward to O-Week, and while perusing the stalls I noticed one flying the rainbow flag and the words “Queer Collective”. I was shocked! There were not only other people like me, but so many that could form their own stall? Still, I refused to approach them. I was determined not to become the token queer on campus and have my sexuality define me, like I felt it did in high school. But, reading the student newspaper that night, I discovered that this Collective had their very own room on campus, a “Queer Space”. And (even better) that they were having a Pokemon dress-up party that week. Queer nerds, with their very own private lounge on campus. I summoned up the courage, despite my heart thumping wildly in my chest and begging me to just go home, and stepped inside.
What I found that night was a new kind of family. A group of people who, even though they barely knew me, immediately accepted me for who I was. People I didn’t have to explain myself to upon introduction. People I didn’t have to be fearful around. And in that space over the next year, I was able to learn for the first time about the history of LGBTIQ+ people. Histories, stories, struggles, achievements that I had never known a thing about before. I learned that there were LGBTIQ+ people, proudly open and achieving success in virtually every profession. I learned about Michael Kirby, Patron of the Pinnacle Foundation, who was not only openly gay in the legal profession, but who had reached its peak as a Justice of the High Court of Australia. And all of this changed my worldview radically. Importantly, the Queer Collective also introduced me to The Pinnacle Foundation.
Pinnacle has become an extension of the family I found on campus. My Pinnacle family includes the other incredible scholars, each of whom inspire me with their work, achievements and support for me and each other, the staff who offer both proactive support and the knowledge that I’ve always got someone who has my back and of course the mentors. My mentor, Aaron, has provided me with insight, experience and advice, ranging from the professional to the academic and even the personal. It is been profoundly inspiring to see somebody like Aaron thriving in their profession and living an incredible life. He, as well as the other mentors, are wonderful role models and something I wish every LGBTIQ+ student had access to.
Of course, the other amazing aspect of Pinnacle is the scholarship funding. Before I became a Pinnacle Scholar, I had to work up to three jobs during Uni breaks and long hours in semester to remain afloat and cope with the costs of study. I was unable to afford a laptop, so used an old second-hand one that didn’t work unless it was plugged in at the wall (a struggle in many lecture halls!). Pinnacle also helped me save up for things like a suit; for much of my time at university I stood out at legal networking events doing my best to look the part but always falling short of the expectations. Importantly, I’m now able to strike much more of a balance between work, volunteering and study. I’m also proud to say that since becoming a Pinnacle Scholar, my grades for each semester have never dropped below a Distinction average.
Because of the support and empowerment I’ve received, I was encouraged to delve into projects that were supporting my community both on and off-campus, including getting involved with the campaign for marriage equality and scholarships for LGBTIQ+ students on campus. I was elected Queer Officer at the end of my first year (so my plan to avoid being the token queer on campus failed pretty drastically), and from there I’ve also had the opportunity to represent LGBTIQ+ students as the State Queer Officer for the National Union of Students and Convener of the Australian Queer Student Network. It was in that first on-campus role, though, that my co-Queer Officer and I discovered students living in the Queer Space on campus. We also discovered that this was a perennial issue every year. Some had been kicked out of home for simply being themselves, but I later found others who had been made homeless because of domestic violence, dodgy landlords or other situations, often attached to their sexuality and/or gender identity. These students didn’t know where to turn to for help. They didn’t even trust the Queer Collective or the University to support them, because of the stigma associated with homelessness and their experiences of homophobia and transphobia.
This experience inspired me to turn to the university and our student organisation at UNSW and put forward a solution. Within a few months, I successfully negotiated the establishment of two crisis accommodation rooms on campus. This would involve not only a place to stay, but also fast-tracked counselling and psychological support, welfare and employment advice and assistance to find somewhere permanent to stay.
I didn’t stop at UNSW, though. It was obvious to me that this issue wasn’t something that was confined to one campus. I reached out to other institutions across Australia and organised a workshop attended by hundreds of LGBTIQ+ students from across Australia in 2014. The outcome of this workshop was the launch of the Ending Queer Youth Homeless Project, a project I’ve led every year since then. Through this project, we’ve designed flyers and posters for every campus in Australia, launched a national portal to show what LGBTIQ+-friendly resources are available on each university campus and at a state and national level, and we’ve met with MPs to raise the profile of this issue. We even co-wrote a cross-party Senate motion in 2017 to call for state and national research and funding. Still waiting on a bit more action, but it’s in the works!
In addition to my LGBTIQ+ work, I’ve also had the opportunity to represent students for two years on the UNSW Academic Board and on the SRC. In those roles, I achieved University-wide policy reforms and successfully overhauled and strengthened the student representation on the Board into the future.
I am so incredibly proud of the work that I’ve been able to do in my years as a student. But I am also so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to achieve these things in the first place, thanks to the LGBTIQ+ family who embraced me, supported me and empowered me to get there. I never thought any of this was possible when I was in school, struggling with violence, bullying, depression and anxiety. There are, unfortunately, so many other young people who are unable to realise their potential and achieve what they’re capable of because of circumstances associated with their sexuality and gender. The incredible work Pinnacle does means that those people have a chance to chase their dreams and fulfil their potential in a way they couldn’t have before.
I’ll be sad to leave university at the end of this year, with so much of my growth and development associated with it.