Skip to main content

SSM: Aboriginal drag queen celebrates pride in Dubbo after same-sex marriage survey

Drag queen John Ridgeway puts on make-up.
John Ridgeway gets into character. He came back to Dubbo for the local pride march.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

It's 7:00am and John Ridgeway is painting his face with thick foundation in various shades of beige and brown.

The thick lines exaggerate his jaw and cheekbones, and make his nose look long and thin.

He was up until 3:00am the previous night making the costume for his drag queen alter ego.

"Jojo comes out halfway through putting my face on," he said.

"For me something just switches halfway through a face and I'll just be like 'hey, she's here now'."

John Ridgeway's make-up kit which he uses to transform into his drag queen alter ego.
Mr Ridgeway spends hours applying make-up to transform into a drag queen.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

The jacket that John Ridgeway wears for his drag queen alter ego.
He also stayed awake for many hours putting the finishing touch on his costume.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

Drag queen John Ridgeway applies foundation make-up to his forehead.
He wants to give "Indigenous gay representation" to young people in Dubbo.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

Mr Ridgeway's interest in drag took hold when he was living in Dubbo, a regional city 400km north-west of Sydney.

"The main reason my drag did kick off with the Dubbo Pride March was in reaction to a council member saying that homosexuality is not part of the Indigenous culture," Mr Ridgeway recalled.

"I was taken aback by that … in retaliation, I was like 'well, I'm going to rock up to the pride march in full drag in a black, yellow red dress with a pride flag at the end of it'.

"Homosexuality is part of the Indigenous culture, we exist."

Drag queens Shalita Buffett and Jojo and the gay pride march in Dubbo.
Rain did not dampen the spirits of drag queens Shalita Buffett and Jojo.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

Mr Ridgeway lives in Newcastle now, but comes back to Dubbo every year to march with his family and friends.

He wants to set an example for young Aboriginal people who may be struggling with their sexuality.

"They can see me walking down the main street of Dubbo in full drag, not really caring what anyone thinks and loving the moment, he said.

Taking pride in a small town

Over the decades, events like the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras have become embedded in the culture of Australian capital cities.

But pride marches are relatively new in rural towns like Dubbo.

The Central West Pride March was started in 2015 by youth mental health organisation Headspace Dubbo, with the aim of making young LGBTI people feel more accepted and supported.

"So many people go off to major cities and Sydney in particular where you have Oxford St and Newtown where you know you're going to get that acceptance," Nicholas Steepe, one of the march organisers, said.

"We were like 'no, that's not OK' because we lose so many young people, their talents, their knowledge, their experiences, to the metropolitan areas."

March organiser Nicholas Steepe in costume for the Central West Pride March.
Nicholas Steepe, who is one of the march organisers, in costume for the Central West Pride March.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

Mr Steepe said his own experience of coming out in Dubbo was "negative, to say the least".

"I didn't particularly have that much family support and there was quite a lot of social isolation and verbal bullying at school," he said.

"I developed mental health issues as a result of that and as a coping mechanism I self-harmed for a round two to three years."

Now a social worker, Mr Steepe said it was vital that LGBTI people have a culture of acceptance within their communities.

"Through the support of friends and eventually the majority of my family I became very comfortable with who I was and that it was OK to be gay," he said.

Same-sex marriage welcomed

This year's Central West Pride March was delayed to follow the result of Australia's same-sex marriage postal survey.

Mr Steepe said there were many LGBTI people under the age of 18 were negatively affected by the No campaign and frustrated that they couldn't directly participate.

"There was a whole conversation going on about their life and their future and their identities and they couldn't be a part of that," he said.

Revellers fly the rainbow flag at the pride march in Dubbo.
Revellers fly the rainbow flag at the pride march in Dubbo.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

The march was also a chance for same-sex marriage supporters to celebrate.

The survey results showed 62 per cent of Australians favour allowing same-sex couples to wed.

The Parkes electorate — which includes Dubbo — recorded a Yes vote of 52 per cent.

Many revellers came from other towns to take part, like Peter Ferguson, who travelled more than 40 kilometres from Comobella.

"I think it was easier for me to celebrate here today in the knowledge that the majority of people who voted in this area were in support and the majority throughout Australia as well," he said.

'We can all love each other'

On the sidelines, one young LGBTI couple related very different coming out experiences.

Jordan Davis and Lucas Morrish have been dating for a little over a year.

Mr Davis, who is pansexual, said coming out was a relief and that his worries were unfounded.

But Mr Morrish, who is a transgender man and bisexual, struggled and had to change schools.

Jordan Davis and Lucas Morrish, an LGBTI coupe, in Dubbo.
Jordan Davis and Lucas Morrish said people in Dubbo generally have supportive attitudes.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

"It was really difficult because my family is really religious so they don't really know what anything means and they're really confused by it," he said.

"My mum's been really helpful and we wrote a letter last year to the family. It was received pretty well.

They have encountered some negative attitudes — Mr Morrish said they often get stopped in the street by people asking about his gender — but generally people are supportive and accepting.

They plan to move to Melbourne in a couple of years, but not because they don't feel accepted, they just want to spread their wings.

A rainbow sign for the gay pride march in Dubbo.
The event was designed to make LGBTI people in Dubbo feel accepted.

ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood

On Saturday, the pair marched for the first time, hand-in-hand, holding signs supporting same-sex marriage and transgender people.

"It makes me really happy to see the community of Dubbo accepting us," Mr Morrish said.

"I think it's encouraging people to embrace what they feel and not hide it."

"It's just so that we can all love each other and be a good community together, it's pretty awesome," Mr Davis added.

Watch the story tonight on Lateline at 9.30pm (AEDT) on ABC News or 10.20pm on ABC TV.