LGBTIQ community benefits from Annie's experience

Paying it forward: Annie Whitehead is a voice for LGBTIQ Tasmanians. Photo: Cordell Richardson
Paying it forward: Annie Whitehead is a voice for LGBTIQ Tasmanians. Photo: Cordell Richardson

Annie Whitehead is a storyteller, but not in the conventional sense.

Her narratives have reached deep within her being, explored unimaginable pain and documented the battle with her perceived demons.

Now on the cusp of her milestone 50th birthday, the north-west Tasmanian woman has spent much of her life tormented by mental health concerns, abuse and pretending to be someone she wasn’t.

But, far from being consumed by tales of despair and despondency, Annie is using her stories - her lived experiences - to bring strength, comfort and hope to the people of north-west Tasmania.

STORYTELLER: Annie Whitehead is a passionate social advocate who is driven to help the people of north-west Tasmania using her lived experiences. Photo: Supplied

STORYTELLER: Annie Whitehead is a passionate social advocate who is driven to help the people of north-west Tasmania using her lived experiences. Photo: Supplied

The ‘downward spiral’

Listening to Annie recount her story is often confronting and unsettling, but she tells it with a concise, matter-of-factness that belies the gravity of events, and immediately puts her audience at ease.

“I experienced trauma and abuse when I was young and consequently developed mental health issues,” she reveals.

And, she admits, she was also struggling with her sexuality and a condition which would later be identified as autism.

For a teenage Annie, trying to understand where she belonged in the world, it was the perfect storm: a chronic lack of self worth, grievous mental health issues and wrestling with her sexuality.

I felt I was a waste of space from a very young age and was constantly trying to prove to myself that I deserved to be here.

Annie Whitehead

It was also the time when she began to understand that being connected to those around her, to her community, could be a lifeline.

“The community has been a huge part of my life since I was young,” she said. “And it became apparent to me early on that I desperately needed that sense of community.”

As a teen Annie reached out to the church community to help anchor her, but the Tasmanian was “unfortunately excluded” from that group.

“And that exclusion started me on a downward spiral - it was a tipping point,” she said.

“I felt I was a waste of space from a very young age and was constantly trying to prove to myself that I deserved to be here.”

Annie acknowledges that suicidal thoughts were her constant companion for many years.

“I was suicidal from the age of 14 until my late 30s. I lived with that constantly,” she said.

From the darkness ...

Life begins at 40, or so the adage goes, and for Annie Whitehead that certainly appears to have been the case.

But, there was no miraculous cure for the matters that had haunted her during her first four decades, no dawning of a new day and no movie-like resolution where all the loose ends were tied up in a happy ever after.

Instead, it was a coming of age - and a coming out.

At 40, after almost two-and-a half-decades, Annie told the world she was gay.

“The reason I held off so long [in coming out] was because I was a single parent who needed my family’s support,” she said.

“But when I reached 40,” she pauses, “I just didn’t give a f____ anymore.

Being true to myself has always been really important to me, so the inner turmoil of hiding a huge part of who I was, was extremely painful. I felt the weight fall off my shoulders and I sobbed.

Annie Whitehead

“I had finally developed enough self confidence to deal with the fallout. To accept the ‘would or wouldn’t walk aways’ and know that I would be OK.”

(The “walk aways” were people in Annie’s life who she lost contact with once they knew of her sexual orientation.)

“And, god yes, there was an enormous sense of relief,” she said.

“Being true to myself has always been really important to me, so the inner turmoil of hiding a huge part of who I was, was extremely painful. I felt the weight fall off my shoulders and I sobbed.”

“I didn’t have the language for this [being gay] as a teen. I was fairly sheltered. At that time I just didn’t know what it was about.

“Because of the situation I was in, contending with mental health issues and five kids (three under three at one point in time), I had internalised my own homophobia.

“While I didn’t have a problem with others being gay, there was no way in hell I was going to be.”

The storyteller pays it forward

For Annie, the freedom of coming out - after three decades of living a life not truly her own - also came with an urgent drive to help others who were struggling.

The help and support she received throughout her journey with mental health and sexuality issues quite simply, she admits, got her through.

What I do is bring my experiences to life, whether it’s regarding suicide, mental health issues, parenting etc.

Annie Whitehead

“From my own personal perspective, the support of my family and the love of my five children has definitely saved my life. Connections I have made within the community and the support that was offered to me when I came out and getting involved in community group social events and the friendships I made definitely helped me heal,” she said.

“Because of that, I realised that talking and helping others was important and it was needed. There is a strong need in me to give back.

“And, I was sick of losing friends to suicide.”

Describing herself as a natural storyteller, Annie understood the impact stories can have on people and so, sharing her lived experiences was to become one of the most significant ways she would reach out and help others.

Initially, Annie’s speaking platform was at TAFE while she was completing community service training, then came her chance to be a lived experience speaker for CORES (Community Response to Eliminating Suicide) and the North West Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer Working Group (Tasmania).

“I fell into sharing my lived experiences,” she said. “I used them in a way which will benefit the audience I’m talking to. It’s not about the crappy times that have occurred, it’s about recovery and the journey, working through people’s issues,” she said.

“What I do is bring my experiences to life, whether it’s regarding suicide, mental health issues, parenting etc.

“Because often, when you are talking to clinicians, it is all very factual. But when you are talking to someone who has lived it, done it and it has worked - or not worked - it is much more personable. Particularly for people who are going through similar situations themselves, it creates a sense of ‘well, I’m not alone’”.

A wealth of support

The passionate social advocate was driven to help as many people as possible, so, as well as sharing her lived experiences she also:

  • Is an integral part of community groups, helping to organise a plethora of social inclusion activities, including TasPride events in Ulverstone.
  • Was instrumental in developing community action plans for the North West LGBTIQ Community Group as a part of an overall suicide prevention strategy.
  • Is a vital support for the LGBTIQ community, providing on-call support for community members and their families.
  • Helps to empower LGBTIQ people using leadership training with NICHE (National Institute for Challenging Homophobia Education).
  • Is a voice for LGBTIQ Tasmanians.

Much of this work stemmed from her involvement with Connect4Life North West LGBTIQ Community Group, who are dedicated to increasing the social opportunities for LGBTIQ people, and was the basis on which she was recently awarded the Tasmanian Human Rights Awards 2017 - LGBTI Award.

Humbled: Annie Whitehead (right) was humbled and very grateful to receive the Tasmanian Human Rights' LGBTIQ Award last December from Her Excellency Professor the Honourable Kate Warner AC. Photo: Pen Taylor

Humbled: Annie Whitehead (right) was humbled and very grateful to receive the Tasmanian Human Rights' LGBTIQ Award last December from Her Excellency Professor the Honourable Kate Warner AC. Photo: Pen Taylor

Donald Macdonald, acting chairperson Rainbow Communities Tas Inc explained, in his nomination of Annie for the Tasmanian Human Rights Award, the extent to which her efforts have benefited others.

Her range of work, he said, was “pivotal in challenging stigma and human rights towards and within the LGBTIQ community, and breaking down barriers across experiences, orientations and identities”. And she had, undoubtedly, helped “to foster relationships and friendships within the community as well as a sense of inclusion”.  

Officially receiving the gong for “her advocacy and support of LGBTIQ individuals and groups, building community resilience, and encouraging greater acceptance and inclusion in Tasmania’s North West”, Annie was taken aback by the award.

“My initial response was ‘Really? Why me?” she said, believing she was just one cog in a very large wheel.

“It is a combined effort,” she said of the work she does. “And I struggled to understand why I was singled out [for praise].

“But I am very humbled and very grateful. It’s nice to be appreciated for what you are doing.”

And what of the future?

“Wow,” Annie said. “Where do you start?

“The biggest concern and the biggest area I see which needs addressing relates to ongoing community education - from grassroots right up.

The more people know and understand what’s going on and know how to support the people they are close to, the better equipped we will be as a community to support each other and move forward.

Annie Whitehead

“Whether we’re talking about mental health or suicide prevention or community inclusion or anything - the more people know and understand what’s going on and know how to support the people they are close to, the better equipped we will be as a community to support each other and move forward.

“So much of what I have seen is fear and not knowing how to deal with a situation. That is what keeps people isolated.”

Annie acknowledges “we still have a long way to go” to achieve complete social inclusion, understanding and respect for all people, but there are, she believes, more and more glimpses of hope.

“There is a greater awareness developing of the need for ‘community’,” she said.

“In some ways we are kind of taking a step back - because I think we lost that sense of community for a long time.

“We used to have very tight knit communities. For example, when my parents were young, the kids knew the neighbors, you knew the guy down at the shop and everyone kind of kept an eye on each other. I’m seeing a move back to that, a desire to see communities again.”

And the result of last year’s historic postal survey on marriage equality gave her heart.

“Look, the process was really traumatic,” she said. “It opened up a can of worms. People were suddenly discussing our lives and making judgements on whether we deserved a human right. It was extraordinarily hard.

LOVE WINS!: The Australian House of Representatives as it voted for same-sex marriage on December 7, 2017. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

LOVE WINS!: The Australian House of Representatives as it voted for same-sex marriage on December 7, 2017. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

“So, I’m glad it’s over. The day it went through, I was listening to the ABC and when they [the Australian House of Representatives] passed it, I just started sobbing.

“There have been positives that have come out of it. We’ve had local businesses that have really gone all out to show support for the community. Even in the face of arson threats they have stood strong and shown our community that they are not alone, there are people who support you. That was a really amazing experience.

“But there is still a lot to do, a lot to go. It is just one step up the rung of the ladder,” Annie said.

Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or QLife on 1800 184 527.