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I always felt like I was different from the other kids. I didn’t quite fit in with the other boys and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It wasn’t until early secondary school when I realised that I was gay – a realisation which filled me with terror. At that point in my life, I had no young role models to look up to, and I had no idea how I was supposed to navigate this world as a LGBTQ+ person.

Back when I was at school, in Australia, there was little LGBTQ+ representation. Same-sex marriage was illegal, and many politicians spoke out vehemently against it. In this environment, it was difficult to believe that living authentically as an LGBTQ+ person was even an option, let alone something which could actually lead to me living a happy life.

As a result, I tried to hide who I was for as long as possible, fearing the judgement and ridicule which might come my way if anyone found out. I became incredibly self-conscious, always watching what I said and did, afraid of being seen as too feminine or too flamboyant. I thought that if I could just blend in and not give people any reason to question my sexuality, I could avoid any unwanted attention.

But that strategy took a toll on me. Living a lie was exhausting, and I was constantly afraid of being found out. I felt isolated and misunderstood, always searching for something or someone to help me make sense of my identity.

It wasn’t until I started to meet more LGBTQ+ people, as I grew older, that things began to change. Even though I only met a small number of LGBTQ+ people during the last few years of secondary school, I was able to meet some who were living their authentic lives, and this gave me hope for the future. Looking back now at this time in my life, I can see that it was their personal stories which had the biggest impact on me.

Personal stories matter because they show us that we are not alone. When we share our experiences, we create a sense of connection and community by allowing others a window into our own lives and the chance to see fragments of themselves within our stories. This is particularly important for members of the LGBTQ+ community who have historically been marginalised and underrepresented, making the journey towards self-acceptance and authenticity a difficult and lonely one for many.

Yet, when we share our personal stories, we can inspire others to live their lives authentically by reminding us that LGBTQ+ people have always existed. This is why organisations like Just Like Us are so important. They give young people the chance to hear personal stories from LGBTQ+ ambassadors and learn that it is possible to be themselves while also living happy lives. When we see people like us living their lives authentically and with pride, it can be a complete reset. It gives us hope and helps us find the courage to be true to ourselves, even if we grow up in a society which doesn’t always accept or understand us.

Today, as an adult, I am proud to be an LGBTQ+ person. I no longer feel ashamed of who I am, and I am determined to use my voice and my experiences to help other young people. As an ambassador for Just Like Us, I get to share my personal story with school pupils and help create a more accepting and inclusive culture for them.

Along with other ambassadors, I share my story to challenge preconceived notions and help people understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I share my story to create a more empathetic and compassionate world. Most importantly though, I share my story to inspire others to do the same.

Rich is a volunteer with Just Like Us, the LGBTQ+ young people’s charity. They need LGBTQ+ volunteers aged 18-25 to speak in schools – sign up now.