NOT LONG AGO I lived in a country town where there was only one gay man (openly, at least). He grew up in the district, but moved to Sydney after school where he came out of the closet. When he returned to the town in his 40s, everyone seemed pretty cool with him being gay. It was an established fact.
Another friend in the village would have watched this homecoming with interest. He too was gay, but hadn’t told anyone because he thought he’d lose everything — his friends, his place on the family farm, his country life. He just couldn’t imagine the community accepting him. And since there’d been no other gay people around to prove otherwise, who could have blamed him for being so worried?
But the day came, as American writer Anaïs Nin wrote, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. As the second person to come out in the community, he was not shunned. He was not kicked off the farm. If anything, he said he felt closer to his parents.
We are, thankfully, a long way from the homophobic small town days of the 1980s and 1990s. And as I look around my home of Tenterfield, a place where gay people can now marry thanks to the recent change to the nation’s Marriage Act, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like in the 1950s, when a young Peter Allen would have come over from Armidale to visit his grandfather of the Tenterfield Saddler fame. When lots of people would not have known what being gay was. Even Peter didn’t seem to know he was gay.
Today Tenterfield is a town of about 4000 with a median age of 53 (15 years above the national average). You’d say it was more conservative than progressive. But this September, Tenterfield will hold the inaugural Peter Allen Festival, celebrating the musician and his life, in all his sequined glory.
While Tenterfield is not the first rural town to celebrate a musician via a festival — Parkes has held an annual Elvis festival since 1993 — it might be the first Aussie country town to celebrate a musical icon who is synonymous with being gay. Peter Allen was a pioneer for the camp, Aussie man; he showed us that success could come with maracas, swivelling hips, leopard-print shirts and show entrances on camel-back.
And on the same weekend as the Peter Allen Festival, a group of Tenterfield business people will hold a pop-up same-sex wedding event to celebrate the town’s first gay wedding ceremonies. Amanda Rudge, who owns Tenterfield’s Our Place Wine and Espresso Bar, is one of the instigators of the event. “We want to hold this event to showcase the town and the quality of services we can provide here, but also we want to say same-sex marriages are accepted here.”
Not everyone will agree. This is serious National Party territory after all and the federal National Party did not support gay marriage before the plebiscite. However, from what I can see on the ground, this community is holding its arms wide open to same-sex couples. And if Peter Allen is looking down on this little town where he was born, I think he’d feel pretty proud. He had to go to Rio de Janeiro, as he sang, “to be free at last — what a blast”. But hopefully the gay kids of today can stay right where they are.
The Peter Allen Festival, September 6–9, thepeterallenfestival.com.au . For inquiries about the ‘Say Yes I Do in Tenterfield’ pop-up event on September 8, telephone 0422 295 776. ■