‘I’ll keep fighting’: Wagga teen’s battle for equality

My life, my voice: Facing a world of inequality and prejudice, Wagga teen Zara van der Wijngaart's has penned an inspirational letter of hope to the world.
My life, my voice: Facing a world of inequality and prejudice, Wagga teen Zara van der Wijngaart's has penned an inspirational letter of hope to the world.

“I wish announcing I was gay had the same impact as announcing I enjoy performing arts”. 

But Wagga teen Zara van der Wijngaart lives a reality where this is not the case.

It is the same reality facing lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans teens across the region and their struggle is far from over.

The 15-year-old shared an account of her life as a young gay woman in a letter titled: Dear World.

Scroll down to read the letter in full. 

Her raw reveal comes as the country prepares to vote in the upcoming same-sex marriage debate, which received the High Court’s approval on Thursday. 

The teen is one of many impacted by the uncensored campaign materials, circulating the city.

“I wish people would be more open and supportive,” Zara said. 

“I will be directly affected by what is happening right now and I don’t even get to have a voice.”

When Zara “came out” she knew she would have to listen to the parliament members discuss marriage equality and the negative public debate. 

“I knew I was going to have to fight, just to marry someone,” Zara said. 

“So much for the land of the ‘fair go’.”

The Wagga High School student said it was hard to believe a country, that applauded itself on diversity and acceptance, was one of the few advanced and advantaged countries to not recognise gay marriage.

“Just this year, I had a teacher tell me that I shouldn’t be so ‘out and proud’ if I didn’t want to get bullied,” Zara said. 

“What kind of a world do we live in?”

She said it felt “pathetic” to watch advocates, who had no experience on the topic, fight and turn rights into a political campaign. 

“They make promises they can’t keep just to score points,” Zara said. 

“No one deserves this. It hurts. It hurts so much to be completely powerless.”

Despite the bullying, physical and verbal abuse, and ever-present anxiety, the 15-year-old said she would keep fighting. 

“I do know what I’m talking about,” she said. 

“I’m mature enough to hold these strong opinions and I deserve to have my say.” 

Zara said her letter contained everything she wanted had wanted someone to say, during the most challenging time of her life. She hoped her words could be someone’s inspiration. 

“There’s a misconception coming out in 2017 is easy,” Zara said. 

“It’s not.” 

She said if only one person found comfort from the letter, it would be worthwhile. 

If you or anyone you know is seeking crisis support, call the Suicide Prevention and Support Group on 1300 133 911, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 463.

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The following is Zara’s letter as it was received by The Daily Advertiser

My name is Zara van der Wijngaart. I’m a 15-year-old student at Wagga Wagga High School with a huge passion for the performing arts. I love to act and dance and sing. I’m unhealthily obsessed with Japanese anime, and like most teenage girls, I’m crazy about makeup. I’m in the accelerated learning program at my school and wish to be a forensic pathologist when I graduate.

And I am gay. I wish announcing I was gay had the same impact as announcing that I enjoyed the performing arts. But that’s not the way it is.

It took me a long time to be able to confidently say those words, I am gay, and I sometimes still really struggle with it. Even before I told anyone else, it was hard to admit to myself. I was so scared of what was to come, and rightfully so. It hasn’t exactly been all butterflies and rainbows.

When I was around 9, I got my first crush on a girl. She was gorgeous and we were close friends. Up until this point, I was more interested in school, science, and video games. I was aware homosexuality existed but I didn’t really know what it meant to be gay. I didn’t know it was illegal at one point, and I certainly didn’t know that it was still frowned upon by many. I never really acted on this crush and I never told anyone. Not even my parents. I don’t know what I thought it was, but it never crossed my mind that I may be gay.

Towards the end of my primary school years I discovered YouTube, and more specifically Troye Sivan. I started watching his videos mostly because they were entertaining. But the more I watched, the more I learned about him personally. It was around this time that Troye posted his coming out video. His material was largely comedic, so the first time I watched it, I didn’t grasp just how serious it was. After watching it a few times I started to understand how hard it was for him, how terrified he was about coming out to his family, and that maybe someday I might have to do this too.

At 11, it was my first year of high school. I never really fit in very well. I dressed very conservatively and tried to make school my first priority. No matter how hard I tried to blend in, I always stood out. Around second term is where all the bullying started.

I never really fit in.

I met a girl. She was super alternative, listening to punk bands and had an epic emo fringe. She brought me out of my shell a bit more. I fell in love with her confidence to just be her true self. It was towards the end of Year 7 when I developed feelings for this girl. Being in a public high school, I was exposed to a whole spectrum of opinions about the LGBTQI+ community. This girl was openly bisexual and I witnessed all the different comments she received. Just as people had made fun of my conservative appearance and love for science, she was made fun of for cutting her hair and liking girls. Many suggestive statements were made to her in terms of ‘extra-curricular’ activities. I was raised to stand up for others and this was someone I cared for, so I fought back. Before I knew it, rumours were spreading that I was into her. It was not the rumour itself that caused me grief, but the bullying that followed on from it. I started getting called disgusting names like ‘faggot’ and ‘lesbo’ and having food thrown at me. That was just the start.

It was not the rumour itself that caused me grief, but the bullying.

The worst case was with the boy who had a locker next to mine. He didn’t have an inch of respect for anyone and he was quite the troublemaker. When the rumours about me surfaced, I became his target. Every day, whenever he got the opportunity, I was his verbal punching bag. I would be shouted at and called horrible names, most of which were based around my apparent homosexuality. Eventually this verbal abuse turned into physical abuse and he began to add slamming my fingers with his locker door to his daily routine. Standing up for myself only made it worse. I may have been shy and weak, but I was stubborn and proud. I wouldn’t let bullies see me hurt. I saw teacher after teacher and the school councillors but no one helped.

I saw teacher after teacher and the school councillors but no one helped.

This continued until late first term of Year 8 when I finally snapped. I fought back. I punched him. I had never been one to act aggressively in any way, so this attack was a shock to all. It gained a lot of attention from staff and my parents; he was moved away from my locker and we were kept seperated. The rumours had hurt me. A lot. The slightest hint that I was into another female had been so damaging. I had lashed out. I had hurt another human being, something I am very against.

In the second term of Year 8 is where things became the most complicated. I finally admitted to myself that I liked this girl, but that didn’t mean I was okay with it. I was too afraid. Every day I tried denying to myself that I was gay. I knew I was, but I thought that if I convinced myself being gay was wrong, then I could just be straight. This sent me into a depression. I stopped paying attention in school. I completely went back into my shell. I didn’t express myself in the way I once did. I hardly spoke at all. I hardly smiled. I stopped hanging around the girl I had fallen for. I was so caught up with this fear, this paranoia, that it began to affect my mental health. It was around this time that I had my first panic attack.

Withdrawing into myself and staying away from this girl didn’t have the desired effect. The bullying didn’t stop, and neither did the rumours about me. I eventually accepted that this was how my life was going to be. Slowly I eased back out of my shell and reconnected with the girl I once had a crush on. As far as my parents knew, we were just hanging out as friends but it was actually more than that.

The 24th of June 2015 is the night it was announced to my friends and family that was I was gay. After accepting what I thought was a friends request on Facebook, I refreshed my feed to see that this girl and I were ‘in a relationship’, and in that moment, my world came crashing down. I wasn’t ready for this, at all. I had no idea how anyone would react, which is why I was still yet to come out myself. At the time I was in the other side of the house to my parents, for which I was grateful. I thought as soon as they saw the status, there would be many questions. I completely freaked out. I don’t remember much from that night, but I just sat down on the floor and rocked back and forth. I couldn’t physically do anything else. The rumours on their own had completely shattered my mental state, and social life. I had lost friends. I had suffered from so much bullying, just because they assumed I was gay. But now it was confirmed. It was out for the public to see. I was out for the public to see. And judge.

My world at this moment was so dark, but the one ray of light that broke through was the reaction of my parents. Or more to the point, the lack of reaction. While I had built up such a negative expectation, they just accepted it. There was no interrogation. No tears. No disappointment. Just simple acceptance. But more than that, they made me feel for the first time since this all began, that being gay did not change anything. I was still their little girl who was loved and supported, no matter what.

Zara van der Wijngaart, 15, with her mother, Kat.

Zara van der Wijngaart, 15, with her mother, Kat.

Fast forward to the next day at school. I didn’t sleep at all the previous night for fear of what was to come. I was a wreck. It was just before recess that I got my first comment. I was walking down the halls with my girlfriend, when someone shouted out ‘faggot’. I stopped walking, and I just stood there. I knew this would happen. I tried to push on and act like everything was okay, but as the day progressed, and many more comments were made, it finally hit me. This was going to be the rest of my life. I was going to have to continue to exist, as a gay member of society, and I was going to have to hear to all of the hurtful comments. I was going to have to listen to the parliament members discuss marriage equality and all the negative public debate. I was going to have to fight, just to marry someone. I began to question my own gender. And I still do. To this day, I wonder whether I’d be better off as a boy. I wouldn’t have to put up with the prejudice. I’d be seen as heterosexual, and it would make my life so much easier.

For our first official date we went to a book signing by Rodney Croome, who wrote about his experiences as a homosexual. For the first time in a while, I didn’t feel stress. I held her hand as we walked through the city streets and didn’t care for how anyone else would react. I was so happy.

When I first started hearing about the marriage equality debate, it didn’t phase me that much because I was still in a state of denial. I lacked confidence in my sexuality, and was focusing on school. But I’ve matured, and I’m keeping up to date. Now, more than ever, this debate effects me personally. This is my future. I will be directly affected by what is happening right now. And I don’t even get to have a voice. I don’t want to have to leave my country just to marry. I’m not proud of how the government are treating this issue. Ours is one of the last advanced and advantaged countries who haven’t legalised marriage equality, yet we applaud ourselves on our diversity and acceptance? So much for the land of the ‘fair go’.

Now, as a 15 year old, I often look back on how hard it was to get to this point. I sit at home, and watch the news, see the stories and read the articles. I have to sit back and watch as those who have the power to effect change do nothing to make people like me equal.

I have to sit back and watch as those who have the power to effect change do nothing to make people like me equal.

I can’t be offended for being called a faggot at school because ‘I’m over sensitive’. I can’t write stories, or do speeches about being gay because ‘I’m rubbing it in everyone’s faces’. Just this year, I had a teacher tell me that I shouldn’t be so ‘out and proud’ if I didn’t want to get bullied. What kind of a world do we live in, where people genuinely think that’s the solution to homophobia? Should we hide away from society because we are the ones who are in the wrong? How dare we fall in love and want to get married like heterosexuals can!

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Having to hide from society, and being treated like we are a burden by feeling a simple emotion. It feels so pathetic, watching people who have no experience on the topic fight and fight, and turn our rights into a political campaign. They make promises they can’t keep just to score points. No one deserves this. It hurts. It hurts so much to be completely powerless. After all, who would listen to a teenager? I watch the world around me, I sit and observe, because I have no other choice. I want to get up and stand for what I believe in, but I can’t. And I hate it. Everyone is wrong, I do know what I’m talking about, and no, I’m not confused and this is not just a phase. This is me, and this is how it is. I’m mature enough to hold these strong opinions and I deserve to have my say. After all, it’s me you are all making the decision for.

I am gay. I wish announcing I was gay, had the same impact as announcing that I enjoyed the performing arts. But that’s not the way it is. It took me a long time to be able to confidently say those words, and I sometimes still really struggle with it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud. It doesn’t mean I’m ashamed. I’m incredibly happy to be gay, and I couldn’t imagine living any other way. Even through all of the bullying and anxiety, and watching as grown adults debate whether my sexuality is equal, I have tried my best to stay strong. I have fought hard, and I am not backing down until I get what I deserve. I am human. I still go to school, and I still make mistakes. I hang out with my friends and argue with my parents, yet my sexuality makes me ‘less than’. One day I will find the perfect woman for me, and one day I will marry her.

So to anyone reading this letter that is feeling confused about their sexuality or terrified about coming out, I say this: You are not alone. You are loved. You are supported. And you are perfect EXACTLY how you are. Just like I drew strength from the stories of those who have come before me, I hope that you can find some comfort knowing that there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel. There is a great big community that is waiting to accept you and support you. There is always hope at the end of the rainbow.